Home  »  Volume XVI: American EARLY NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART I  »  § 4. Mrs. Child; The Youth’s Companion; Goodrich; Jacob Abbott

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

VII. Books for Children

§ 4. Mrs. Child; The Youth’s Companion; Goodrich; Jacob Abbott

The early writers of Sunday School literature, who alone were doing native work, are nameless now; but the decade 1830–40 brought forward our first group of juvenile authors, who, though they all assisted in supplying the Sunday School trade, wrote also for children much that was not intended to meet it specifically. Five were women, who wrote for girls; and two were men, who wrote for both sexes but rather for boys. Unlike the men, the women had already attained much contemporary fame. Mrs. Sara Hale and Miss Eliza Leslie were popular magazinists and editors; Mrs. Sigourney was called the American Mrs. Hemans and read in every home; critics disputed whether our most important woman writer was Mrs. Child or Miss Sedgwick. The children’s stories and verse of Mrs. Sigourney have disappeared, as have Mrs. Hale’s with the exception of one nursery rhyme. The merit in the others’ popular work failed to compensate for their old-fashioned style in a later day. Miss Leslie brightly narrated simple incidents unusually free from sanctimoniousness. Miss Sedgwick was less direct and simple, but her books are still extant. Their ample preaching never loses sight of the story; and as this is a good one, she headed the list of favourites in the annual report of the New York City library in 1847, with Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast second. But as Miss Sedgwick herself preferred Hume and Shakespeare at the age of eight, it is not surprising that her children’s stories have a somewhat adult tone. So do those of Mrs. Child, who was devouring Milton and Homer at fifteen. Her magazine, Juvenile Miscellany, established in 1827, continued for eight years, and was snuffed out at the height of its popularity by Boston’s disapproval of her conversion to Anti-Slavery. It is a landmark in the history of juvenile writing. Even more important is The Youth’s Companion, established the same year by Nathaniel Willis, father of N. P. Willis. The Companion may perhaps serve to illustrate the changing view. Taking a hint from the perseverance with which death had been dangled before the eyes of Puritan children, it exiled the world from its pages, which distribute lively and wholesome entertainment to the present day. However stilted the work of these decades may now appear, it had unprecedented humanity and naturalness; and the children of Miss Leslie, Miss Sedgwick, and Mrs. Child at their worst were never the puppets of the sensible Miss Edgeworth, and at their best had charm. Lucy Larcom’s tribute to Mrs. Child in her New England Girlhood may be bestowed upon all these writers: “I have always been glad that I could tell her how happy she had helped to make my girlhood.”

A far more powerful influence, however, came from the two men. These were Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860) and Jacob Abbott (1803–79). The son of a clergyman, Goodrich set out with a theory and an admiration for the method of Miss Hannah More. “Could not history, natural history, geography, biography, become the elements of juvenile works in place of fairies and giants and mere monsters of the imagination?” The hero of his first book accompanies an informed adult through America, meets with adventures, sees historical places. His books soon succumbed to their purpose and lost fictional interest, but seven millions of them were sold before detailed description palled. He wrote or edited one hundred and twenty books; and his pseudonym Peter Parley was stolen by many imitators, especially in England. He did a very important work in simplifying information books for children; and Parley’s Magazine, which he conducted for nine years, and also the chief juvenile annual, which he edited, contributed to create opportunity for and to popularize children’s writing. Jacob Abbott kept his heroes in their New England home, busying them only with rambles and picnics in woods and fields. A professor of mathematics, he had an appreciation of fact even more imperious than his rival’s, and almost equalled him in fecundity. From 1832 until his death in 1879 he was exhaustless in quantity if not in invention. The Rollo, Lucy, Jonas, and Franconia books provide simple pictures of cheerful children, but place main emphasis upon dispensing information on all subjects about which curious youngsters may pester their parents. Beech-nut, the village encyclopedia in the Franconia books, is an original creation, life-like if omniscient; but although Abbott in his other series has similar vehicular youthful prodigies, they are wooden. The voluminous information of the Rollo books and the rest made convenient burlesque in later generations, but Abbott’s work had conspicuous common sense; and in pre-homeopathic days his sugar-coated pills were extraordinarily popular. Both of these men naïvely indicated that their purpose was not primarily fictional. About their work, Gulian Verplanck, editing The Fairy Book, was as testy as Charles Lamb with Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Trimmer. “Dismal trash all of them!” he cried. “Something half-way between stupid story-books and bad school-books; being so ingeniously written as to be unfit for any useful purpose in the school and too dull for any entertainment out of it.” But Peter Parley had much naturalness of style in contrast with earlier stiffness, and Abbott showed genuine lightness of touch. Their enormous sales prove their attractiveness; and Noah Brooks, himself an important juvenile writer, has recorded that, however tame they seemed later, they were thrilling in interest compared with all previous juveniles.