Author Archives: sfboswell

Dear America and The Royal Diaries as “Settling Narratives” (Primary Post)

In Bradford’s gloss of Lynne Cheney and Robin Priess Glasser’s America: A Patriotic Primer, Bradford explains that Cheney and Glasser’s examples of Native Americans – Pocahontas, Sequoyah, Tecumseh and Sacajawea – cast Indigenous people in the United States as “friends and helpers to the colonists” and as an “assimilated, docile presence within the nation” (2). What A Patriotic Primer doesn’t provide is the reality of “colonized people displaced by waves of settlers” (1). 

Bradford looks primarily at texts where the reality of colonization is displaced through the use of the “romanticization” of native people, and through transforming native people into the aforementioned friendly, docile, assimilated presence. In this post on primary texts, I wanted to draw our attention to a corpus of texts that I think does similar work – it emphasizes USian exceptionalism and uses strategies of forgetting – while at the same time providing the reality – or at least, a pseudo-reality – of “colonized people displaced by waves of settlers.” I speak, of course, of my childhood companions: the Dear America series and the Royal Diaries.

The Dear America series and the Royal Diaries were both put out by Scholastic Press in the late 1990s. Each of the Dear America books is written as a diary from the perspective of a young woman living through a significant period of US history (the revolution, the civil war, the sinking of the titanic etc.). Each of the Royal Diaries is written as a diary from the perspective of a known “princess” during her teenage years (the future queen Elizabeth, Marie Antoinette, Nzingha, Mary, Queen of Scots etc.)

There are thirty six books in the original Dear America series (it was relaunched in 2010), and twenty in the Royal Diaries series. The books that include Native American protagonists are:

  1. My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, a Sioux Girl, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880, by Anne Rinaldi
  2. The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Diary of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, New Mexico, 1864, by Ann Turner
  3. Kaiulani: The People’s Princess, Hawaii, 1889 by Ellen Emerson White
  4. Weetamoo: Heart of the Pocassets, Massachusetts-Rhode Island, 1653 by Patricia Clark Smith
  5. Lady of Palenque: Flower of Bacal, Mesoamerica, A.D. 749 by Anna Kirwan
  6. Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 by Edwidge Danticat

Of these six books, only one – Lady Of Palenque – does not center around colonial violence and the colonial displacement of indigenous people. My Heart is on the Ground takes place at the Carlisle Indian School, founded by Richard Henry Pratt, whose motto for the school was “Kill the Indian, Save the Child”; the protagonist of The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow is one of the people forcibly removed by federal forces onto a reservation through the trail of tears. Kaiulani, Weetamoo and Anacaona are all indigenous leaders who (unsuccessfully) fought colonial expansion in the Americas.


Nor are these books that shy away from portraying colonial violence. Kaiulani: The People’s Princess portrays both Kaiulani’s attempts to stop the USA from annexing Hawaii and the injustice of the colonial state’s refusal to negotiate with her. Anacaona depicts the brutality of the european invaders of Haiti: readers see the invaders murdering children, shooting civilians and cutting off indigenous peoples’ hands. In My Heart is on the Ground, several of Nannie’s friends die at the Carlisle Indian School, while others run due to the violence of the teaching techniques. And obviously, The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow centers around one of the most infamous examples of colonial violence in USian history – the trail of tears. One could argue, thus, that these books are exceptions to the trend Bradford identities – that they are trying to remember the colonial violence that shaped the United States, rather than trying to repress this history in order to build a narrative of american exceptionalism.

Yet although these books certainly do not romanticize colonial violence, if we look below the surface, they also seem to be working towards a project of indigenous assimilation. On an editorial level, all of the Royal Diaries (with the exception of Lady Of Palenque) portray native civilizations that are on the verge of being destroyed, conquered or displaced. Even if some of the books, like Weetamoo and Kaiulani, do not show the death of their heroine in the narrative, the reader needs only flip a few pages to the historical note to discover how the protagonist died, and to learn about the conquest and displacement of the protagonists’ people by the colonial state. On one level, these texts create sympathy for these indigenous heroes, and turning to the historical note may lead readers to question the colonial apparatus that led to their death. By sympathizing (through fiction) with an indigenous hero, a reader may be more likely to question ideologies like american exceptionalism and manifest destiny. On another level, however, these historical notes create a sense of the inevitability of colonialism. No matter how intelligent, how brave, how resourceful and strategic these leaders are, they all fail. And since three of the four indigenous leaders in the Royal Diaries *do* fail (and the last one lives too early to ever encounter the colonial apparatus), the meta-narrative these diaries construct is one where colonialism is a historical certainty, and anyone who opposes it is doomed to tragic failure. They can be sympathetic, yes – but they cannot stop the march of “manifest destiny.” So while individually, each of these texts may post a challenge to the colonial apparatus, taken together, they simply reinforce the power of the colonial state, and the inevitability of the conquest of indigenous people.

Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart Is on the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose takes the “inevitability” of manifest destiny to the extreme.



Throughout the entire book, both in terms of plot and on the meta level of Ann Rinaldi and Scholastic’s editorial decisions, what comes through is the inevitability of whiteness and white assimilation. While the Carlisle Indian School’s methods are depicted as brutal, the school is, in the end, portrayed as the only good option for native children. Children who refuse to assimilate either die, or inevitably change their minds. When Nannie Little Rose’s brother runs away from Carlisle, he eventually comes back, having realized that Carlisle is the best option for him (a completely unrealistic scenario, given that nearly 2,000 of the school’s 10,000 students ran away, never to return). The character with the closest connection to her native heritage, Lucy Pretty Eagle, has an epileptic fit while she is attempting to go into a spirit trance; the teachers mistake her epilepsy for death and bury her while she is still alive. The message is clear: white culture will destroy any attempts to remain close to one’s native heritage. The school is portrayed as a positive experience for most children. The book’s proofreader, Genevieve Bell, even remarked on this tendency when she finished proofreading, telling the editor:

At some points the diary reads almost as an apology for assimilation, as though being at Carlisle, while painful and unpleasant,was ultimately a good thing. I am not sure that this is the tone that Ann Rinaldi wants to strike, nor am I certain it is the experience of most Carlisle students (…) This was a project and an agenda that many Native Americans actively resisted at the time and remain highly critical of today. I think perhaps your author’s note needs to acknowledge that Ann Rinaldi is not Native American, and that there were many different ways to be at Carlisle of which Nannie’s is just one. Many students did not want to be school teachers, they did not want to be pilgrims, they did not want to be in school. They wanted to be in their homes, in their communities, with their families. And many of their descendants are very angry about the ways that parents and grandparents were denied their own culture. Most Native Americans would not like to see their ancestors’ experiences written about this way (…) the consensus is that this was not a good place and that the best we can do about it now is celebrate the students who survived with their cultural identity intact and mourn those who did not. I am not sure that this diary does either of those things. ( )

Ann Rinaldi’s author note is takes the inevitability of whiteness to the extreme. She visited the Carlisle Indian School, including the school’s cemetery and saw:

“dozens of white headstones bearing the names of Native-American children from all tribes who had died while at the school. The names, with the tribes inscribed underneath, were so lyrical that they leapt out at me and took on instant personalities. Although many of these children attended Carlisle at dates later than that of my story, I used some of their names for classmates of Nannie Little Rose. … I am sure that in whatever Happy Hunting Ground they now reside, they will forgive this artistic license, and even smile upon it.” (my emphasis)

As many, many commenters have pointed out, Ann Rinaldi’s act of appropriation in choosing to use the names of real children who died at Carlisle without the permission of their descendants or their tribes is deeply offensive. To retroactively give herself permission by creating a racist fantasy in which these children give consent from the “Happy Hunting Ground” – a symbol, as Bradford would point out, not of actual native culture, but of a white fantasy and appropriation of native culture – serves as a further act of appropriation. Here, the role of Native people – of real, native children – is to become part of a white fantasy, to help play a role in ultimately celebrating the school that cost them their lives. In the most vivid example of the tendency I’ve been chronicling, colonial violence against native people helps enact a form of colonial apologia, by showing the inevitability of the colonial expansion. The dead children are mourned in the text, yes, but the creation of America – and of Nannie Little Rose’s assimilation – is celebrated.

Together, all of these texts, while acknowledging the atrocity of colonial violence, also enact a form of colonial apologia and reinforce the “myth of the (USA’s) own foundation” – manifest destiny (Bradford 5).

Sources for the controversy around My Heart Is On The Ground:

  1. Blog post from Genevieve Bell, Ann Rinaldi’s fact-checker, who encouraged her not to use the dead children’s names.
  2. A Critical Review of Ann Rinaldi’s My Heart is On The Ground. 
  3. Goals for Writing and Reviewing Books With Native American Themes 

Method: “Between Boys: Edward Stevenson’s Left to Themselves (1891) and the Birth of Gay Children’s Literature”

In “Between Boys: Edward Stevenson’s Left to Themselves and the Birth of Gay Children’s Literature,” Eric Tribunella wants to prove that Left to Themselves is fundamentally different from other homoerotic, homosocial boy’s fiction from the same period (including Stevenson’s own White Cockades), and that the text in fact may constitute the first children’s book with a “openly-gay” storyline. 

As Tribunella points out, there is a long tradition of homoeroticism and homosociality in boy’s fiction in the 19th century, specifically of boys caring emotionally and physically for a younger boy (375). So what distinguishes Left to Themselves, which portrays an older Philip caring for a younger Gerald, from more traditional boy’s fiction?

Tribunella argues that Philip and Gerald’s sexuality is coded into the text’s themes of openness and blackmail. The 19th century long associated blackmail with homosexuality: since homosexuality was stigmatized and homosexual actions were often illegal, gay people were particularly vulnerable to blackmail. While the villain Jennison attempts to blackmail Philip over his father’s crimes (and thus implicate Philip’s own “nature” – another possible link to homosexuality, since 19th century studies of homosexuality saw it as a problem of “human nature” (376)), and over his relationship with Gerald refuses to submit. He instead embraces a sort of radical openness: “When Jennison threatens Philip the second time, the youth ultimately replies, “And you believe you can fight the plain story that Gerald and I can tell? Do your worst! I’m not afraid to face it.” (112)” (Tribunella 383). By engaging in the homosexuality-coded trope of blackmail, while embracing an ethic of openness, Left to Themselves follows “traditional” queer concerns of mystery, fear of disclosure and hiding, while also endorsing a non-traditional path out of “closet” of blackmail. This new path is made more obvious by the novel’s unusual ending. In most boy’s fiction that depicts passionate male attachments, the boys are separated at the end by death or relocation or marriage: the pre-eminence of the homosocial bond always comes to an end, superseded by more adult concerns. In Left To Themselves, however, the boys remain together: “ His ‘old head on young shoulders’ for one moment pictured in flashing succession years to come at Gerald’s side, himself his best friend ever, to companion and care for him” (215).

Part of what fascinates me about Left to Themselves is how easily it passed for regular boy’s fiction. It was reprinted multiple times, and the queer subtext remained subtext until Stevenson, writing under another name, essentially outed his own work, saying his children’s books were “ “homosexual in essence” and Left to Themselves was a depiction of “Uranian adolescence” (375). All of this, I think, points to the vexed relationship between homosociality and homosexuality. The heavy amount of homosociality and homoeroticism in boy’s fiction allowed Left to Themselves to slip under the radar, to achieve mainstream success and to get into the hands of child readers, but it also made the entire storyline so ambiguous that the love story between Philip and Gerald could disappear for readers entirely. Moreover, the homosociality in boy’s fiction prior to Left to Themselves seems predicated on a lack of homosexuality. The boys in those books can only be close because they won’t end up together – a heterosexual relationship (or death, or a job) will eventually supersede the male friendship. So books like Left to Themselves seem to have a deeply complicated relationship with their homosocial predecessors: they rely on those texts to “pass,” to create a context in which the relationships they portray are acceptable, but those same “boy’s fiction” texts rely on pushing away the possibility of homosexuality. Left to Themselves ultimately compromises with boy’s fiction: while it portrays a more openly homosexual relationship than most, it is not as open as Stevenson’s Imre, and it ultimately relies on Stevenson himself to anonymously give away the “secret” of the book.

I see a similar trend in the way Stevenson uses Philip’s devotion to Gerald in order to build up Philip’s masculinity. Tribunella argues that the way Philip cares for Gerald makes him into more of a man: “looking at the vulnerable boy with love matures and masculinizes Philip, and […] desire for and care of a beloved can betoken mature manhood for male youths” (377). Again, Stevenson uses one of the most prominent tropes of boy’s fiction – the growth into manhood – for his own purposes. On one level, this technique is deeply subversive, since it argues that manhood and masculinity are compatible with homosexuality. On another level, however, the fact that Stevenson contrasts the masculine, honest Gerald and Philip with the low-dealing and sexually perverse Jennison, who is also coded gay, indicates that only certain forms of homosexuality are acceptable – the kinds that conform to traditional masculinity (open, honest, direct, adventurous – not blackmailing, lying, sexually perverse). If Left to Themselves previews queer children’s literature trends, is this trend – the division into good and bad gay (or “respectable” and “non-respectable”) something we see happening in more contemporary novels? 

Finally, Tribunella does a good job of arguing that Stevenson’s novel may be the first english-language young adult, openly gay novel. I wonder, though, what the equivalent is for lesbian fiction? To me, the importance of Tribunella’s project isn’t that it finds the “first” gay children’s novel, but that it shows that a queer (gay) children’s text existed in the 19th century. Does the same exist for lesbians? The “traditional” first lesbian novel is Radclyff Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), which is not at all a children or young adult novel (although it does depict Stephen Gordon as a child). Some quick searching indicates that the consensus states that the first young adult lesbian novels seem to emerge in the 1970s. Could there be predecessors in the 19th century? As a non-19th century specialist, I honestly don’t know, but I’m curious. There are certainly novels that portray same-gender love and desire – I’m thinking particularly of Lefanu’s Carmilla (1871). Carmilla certainly portrays young women desiring one another, but, of course, one of them is a vampire trying to drain the other one’s blood – perhaps not the best lesbian predecessor!  Nevertheless, it indicates that lesbian themes did exist in 19th century novels (I’m not sure I would argue that Carmilla is young adult, though). Are there other novels that might serve as young adult lesbian predecessors in the 19th century? Or earlier? And if not, what does that indicate about the genre of queer YA?

Freud in Oz – Method

Since Chelsie gave us a great summary of Freud in Oz’s major highlights, I’m going to avoid repeating those points, and instead focus on some of the questions Kidd’s text raises for me. I’m especially interested in how we can read Freud in Oz alongside our last two texts: Bernstein’s Racial Innocence and Gubar’s Artful Dodgers.

One of the most interesting trends McKidd documents is the movement from psychoanalysis – the classical tradition, with its commitment to Freud – towards a more American style psychology, which McKidd defines as a combination of psychoanalysis with “pragmatism and homegrown psychology [that] prefer[s] the perfectible ego to the intractable unconscious” (xxi). McKidd shows how various forms of children’s literature (or, in the case of fairy tales, narratives that were appropriated *into* children’s literature) fit into a pattern of the perfectibility of the ego, often through trauma. The fairy tale is a particularly telling case, since it was initially seen as appropriate for children because it reflected the child’s unconscious (which was merged with the “primitive man’s” ego) – a more psychoanalytical, Freudian frame – and it was later seen as good for children because fairytales were “proto-therapeutic” (12). In this latter view, fairy tales help children negotiate the experience of trauma and eventually meet psychological challenges( (11): they do not just reflect the child’s unconscious, but they help the child progress to a healthy adult selfhood (32). While the fairy tale was refashioned as children’s literature because it was proto-therapeutic, other forms of children’s writing was, for McKidd, therapeutic from the start. Picture books like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are put a distinctly American twist on psychoanalysis: the child has a safe place to play out his anger (represented by the Wild Things) and returns home, having learned a lesson. As McKidd points out “lovers of Where the Wild Things Are probably do see it not as a child’s version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but, rather, as a self-help book for children and their parents. It is, in other words, part of the culture of self-help” (130). Young Adult novels, meanwhile, often perform psychological work in which the protagonists experience, witness, or recall some form of trauma, and this trauma is eventually rendered therapeutic (168, 172). Sometimes the trauma is nothing more than the stereotypical “adolescent crisis”; nevertheless, the narrative usually portrays the protagonist “working through” the problem and emerging with a stronger selfhood at the end. 

While I find McKidd’s reading of many of these picturebooks and YA novels persuasive, I wonder how we can apply Marah Gubar’s idea of the “artful dodger” to these psychological novels. In other words, if these texts have a psychological aim – the improvement of selfhood through a form of trauma and proto-therapy – do children (and adolescents) always go along with it? Do we see, as in Robin Bernstein’s reading of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test, a possible resistance to these psychological aims? Therapy (usually) involves a relationship between two people, the therapist and the patient – and as anyone who has read Freud knows, the patient often resists the  therapists’ treatment. Here, I’m thinking specifically of the case of Dora, Freud’s fourteen year-old patient who eventually refused psychological treatment when Freud kept insisting that Dora’s trauma came from the fact that she enjoyed the sexual advances of her father’s friend (I find this case particularly striking to think about in relation to Freud in Oz, since Dora is an adolescent). Dora’s case led Freud to consider issues of transference and countertransference (pardon my massive oversimplification of the history of psychoanalysis), and I wonder to what extent YA authors who practice a kind of therapeutic writing are also aware of possible resistance from their patient-readers, and weave that awareness into their texts. Gubar argues that 19th century children’s authors are ambivalent about their subjects, and about their own ability to influence their subjects, and that they incorporate possibilities for resistance into their own narratives; I wonder to what extent that might also be true for the psychological YA and children’s text.

Another trend Kidd identifies is the extent to which the construction of adolescence, especially in the 20th century, is racialized. G.K. Stanley Hall, who theorized the psychology of adolescence and influenced its subsequent 20th century construction, “drew upon racial and racist developmental logic,” particularly the notion of recapitulation, whereupon white children and POC were at the same developmental level (142). White children needed to move beyond the “primitive” development of POC and towards the “civilized” selfhood of whiteness through their adolescence and eventual adulthood; the white child thus “repeats or re-enacts the developmental history of the species” (143). That this theory explicitly excludes adolescents of color from “growth” towards “civilized” adulthood is an unspoken, if obvious, consequence of this construction of adolescence. Moreover, early psychoanalysis draws upon similar racial logic: psychoanalysts saw the fairy tale as revealing the unconscious of both the child and the “primitive” man; the two were made equivalent. Psychoanalysis is racialized in other ways not mentioned by Kidd: for example, Freud and his contemporaries practiced primarily on white patients (and their analysis and theories arose primarily from that work with white patients).

Given Kidd’s contention that YA practices a kind of adolescent psychology, and Kidd’s observation that both psychoanalysis and the construction of adolescence are fundamentally racialized, what does this mean for young adult readers of color, and for children and young adult novels that are aimed towards audiences of color? It seems to me that YA writers of color might have a very different relationship to the idea of YA novels as therapy-through-trauma, or to the idea of adolescence as a growth period, than white writers. Do they write in the same mode as the YA psychological novel? Do young readers of color tend to receive canonical texts in the same way white readers do? After reading Bernstein, these questions loom particularly large in my mind. It’s striking to me that most of Bernstein’s examples of children’s literature with a psychoanalytic bent are by white writers, and have white protagonists (Where the Wild Things Are, Winnie the Pooh, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Judy Bloom, Speak).

I think these questions are why I fixated so much on Kidd’s (very brief) mention of Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred. Kindred is one of the only examples Kidd supplies of a novel that deals with race. Kidd brings it up in the context of YA books that have their protagonists “experience first hand the horrors of history” (191). Kidd is primarily interested in holocaust narratives, but he also mentions time-travel and trading-places narratives like Kindred that deal with American slavery.

For me, Kindred was a strange text for Kidd to bring up as an illustration of the phenomenon of protagonists witnessing the horrors of history, in part because it seems like an exception to the rule Kidd identifies – the trend where time travel narratives allow the protagonist to *experience* the horrors of historical trauma, but as a relatively safe witness who can eventually escape. In Kindred, the protagonist Dana is no mere witness. She finds herself on the plantation inhabited by her ancestors – including her enslaved many-times great-grandmother, and her great-grandmother’s owner, Dana’s many-times-great-grandfather Rufus. In order to survive – to literally continue existing – Dana must not just “witness” the horrors of slavery but actively enable and participate in them. She must make sure that her slave-owning ancestor rapes her enslaved ancestor (or she will not come into existence). It would be as though one of the protagonists of a holocaust time-travel novel had to actively participate in the holocaust (rather than just witness it) in order to survive. Part of Kindred‘s project, I would argue, is to show the extent to which contemporary americans are indebted to, and continue to re-perpetuate, race-based slavery and violence. And Dana emerges from the novel more traumatized than when she began.

Kindred, a novel written by a black woman, also serves as an example of my earlier point – that YA novels that deal with race, that are written by or for people of color, may have a very different relationship to the therapy-through-trauma mode of writing than the conventional YA novel. Although here, my argument is rather shaky, since Kindred was not written as a YA novel (and I find it rather bizarre that Kidd includes it, even as an aside). Kidd is correct that high schoolers often read Kindred (it has been incorporated into many curriculums), but I’ve never seen anyone else argue that Butler wrote it with young readers in mind (and Butler did write young adult novels later in her career). In fact, most of the main characters are adults in their mid-to-late twenties, not adolescents or children. Despite the generic strangeness of Kindred, I do think it brings up interesting questions about the ways in which authors and readers may resist the therapy-through-trauma mode of writing and reading.


Artful Dodgers – Method

In keeping with our seminar’s theme of movements in criticism as swings of a pendulum, we see Marah Gubar framing her project in Artful Dodgers as a counter to the popular critical idea that the victorian period – and victorian children’s literature in particular – created a complete separation between adults and children. The child, in this critical conception, was the primitive, Otherized “emblem of innocence,” and childhood was portrayed as a refuge from the “painful complexities of modern life” (Gubar 4). Gubar does not deny that such a cult of the child, or even of child innocence, existed; rather, she argues that victorian children’s fiction is characterized not by a total allegiance to childhood purity, but by competing – and sometimes clashing – visions of childhood, including the child as innocent, the child as a small adult, the child as a collaborator, the child as a highly literate interlocutor, and the child as an uneasy partner. In fact, for Gubar, children’s literature is the space that offers the “most serious and sustained resistance to the cult of childhood” (9). When authors like Dickens, who write children as victims in most of their adult novels, turn to children’s literature, suddenly their child protagonists turn into clever heroes, challenging the adult world (52).

According to Gubar, many victorian children’s literature authors did not portray children as untouched by adult influence:

they generally conceive of child characters and child readers as socially saturated beings, profoundly shaped by the culture, manners, and morals of their time, precisely in order to explore the vexed issue of the child’s agency: given their status as dependent, acculturated beings, how much power and autonomy can young people actually have? In addressing this question, Golden Age authors often take a strikingly nuanced position, acknowledging the pervasive and potentially coercive power of adult influence while nevertheless entertaining the possibility that children can be enabled and inspired by their inevitable inheritance” (5).

Indeed, many of the authors Gubar reads, including Frances Burnett, E. Nesbitt, Lewis Caroll and Robert Louis Stevenson, invite their readers to be suspicious of the act of storytelling, to participate in, appropriate, steal and rework stories into creative works of their own, and to distrust adults telling stories to children. These authors’ view of culture, Gubar argues, is not that culture is inherently corrupting towards childhood innocence – she does not see them as advocating a Rousseau-style, book-free education – but that children may be capable of “reshaping” those same stories and cultural values into something of value to them – that they are not doomed to be passive receivers of the text. Nor was this view simply unbridled optimism: Lewis Caroll, in Alice in Wonderland, proved aware that asking children to participate in the endeavor of story-creation could itself be as oppressive and punitive as didactic storytelling.

One of the great strengths of Gubar’s argument is the breadth of her primary materials – both literary and historical. She uses both canonical and noncanonical children’s literature to advance her case about the complexity of victorian children’s literature. The noncanonical texts she reads, many of which were written by women like Hesba Stratton, Juliana Ewing and Dinah Craik, serve to counter popular critical narratives about the development of children’s literature in the victorian period. Gubar does not just rely on these lesser-known authors: she also reads canonical texts alongside their works, rereading Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland and The Little Princess (among others) in order to find their disruptive, subversive potential. By reading these many texts alongside one another, Gubar persuaded me that she had found an actual trend in victorian fiction – not just that she had found a few striking instances in canonical texts. Gubar’s second major strength in pushing back against the idea that victorian children’s fiction was obsessed with childhood innocence is her use of historical material – specifically of the original reception of the children’s literature she reads. As Gubar points out, many works by authors critics now identify as part of the “cult of the child” were received by critics as being too difficult for children to read, too erotic, too literate, and too allusive: these were not texts, in other words, that the authors’ contemporaries necessarily saw as upholding a division between children and adults, or as reifying childhood innocence (22). Gubar’s use of original reception is one possible answer to our question last class about how critics can responsible portray and understand the way literature was understood in the past (although original reception is probably easier to come by for the victorian period than for the medieval period!)

Since Gubar argues that victorian children’s authors encourage their readers to appropriate parts of their work, I’m going to do the same to Gubar and latch onto one specific moment in her argument. I was struck by Gubar’s fleeting reference to Felicia Hemans’ poem “Casabianca,” given our last few readings’ discussions of pedagological texts (137). In “Casabianca,” a young boy is trapped on a burning ship and will not leave until he receives his father’s permission; unknown to him, his father is already dead and the boy perishes. “Casabianca” is a highly appropriate intertext for Gubar’s work, because it’s traditionally been read by critics as a conservative, patriotic poem that celebrates a child’s innocent devotion. In recent years, however, scholars have started to read the piece as a critique of parental and national authority (most of my understanding of “Casabianca” comes from Catherine Robson’s article “Standing on the Burning Deck,” which I will upload to the dropbox in case anyone is interested). So in theory, “Casabianca” seems like a poetic version of the texts Gubar discusses – one that may teach children to question adult and parental authority. However, what complicates this reception of “Casabianca” is the fact that it was used as a recitation text – a text young victorian schoolchildren were meant to memorize and recite. They were meant to “parrot” the text. I bring the history of “Casabianca” up because I wonder how the existence of recitation texts and the victorian school system in general impacts Gubar’s argument. Recitation texts like “Casabianca”, to me, seem like a double-edged sword: on the one hand, they create the highly-literate child (including the E. Nesbit character who referenced Hemans) who can then shape and appropriate cultural texts to their own ends, but on the other hand, they also suggest that the texts Gubar examines can be appropriated by the education system and turned into works that children are just meant to parrot (and indeed, we know that some of them, like Peter Pan and Treasure Island, were turned into educational texts). Moreover, is the victorian school system necessary to creating the “highly literate child” who can enjoy some of these more allusive works? What kinds of children are then excluded from participation in these subversive texts? Since Gubar doesn’t touch on victorian education often, I’m wondering if a consideration of education would extend and build on her argument?