Graves: To whom are we giving our literary history?
Because I work closely with the five-plus school libraries within the Mitchell School District and because I am an unrepentant bibliophile, I spend a significant amount of time at work and at leisure thinking about children’s literature. As part of that and as part of my ongoing search for “something to read,” I was considering recently just what important children’s literature I was aware of but had never read for myself.
At this point, you are free to make the accusation that what I’ve just written is a rationale, subterfuge really, for reading kids’ books. A bit like taking your children to a Disney movie as a cover for seeing it yourself. (I can tell you this works very well, though the ruse gets a bit thin once your youngest turns 22 as mine recently did.)
In any case, what I came up with most recently was Robin Hood, that 700-plus-year-old figure from Sherwood Forest in jolly olde England. The forest by the real, is very real, now encompassing a bit over 1,000 acres. This bests Winnie-the-Pooh’s neighborhood which was only 100 acres (a parcel of woods the size of which I have longed to own my whole life, though I’ll probably only achieve it if I am buried in an unusually large and unusually wooded cemetery.)
Whether Sherwood’s most famous resident was real, however, is less certain. Probably, there was some minor personage that gave rise to an anecdote which gained momentum and became he who took from the rich to give to the poor. And, though I enjoy history, Robin’s existence or lack thereof is beside the point for me here as I am interested in the literary character not the supposed minor nobleman. I'm interested in the book, specifically the children’s book.
While many writers took on the legend of Robin Hood as a subject for their quilled and penned and typewritten and word processed toils, the major author who took him on for a children’s book was Howard Pyle, who found enormous success in doing so back in 1883. And what struck me, was that this was a 19th century children’s book. It would not be considered such today. The dialect, the vocabulary, the sheer girth of the thing would prevent its publication today were it presented to a children’s publishing house. It is, to be brief, simply too difficult.
In this, it is not alone. The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” Kipling’s “the Jungle Book,” and any of Baums visits to Oz, “Treasure Island,” and a seemingly endless list up through as recently as the 19502 all were written originally for children but are rea, today, almost exclusively by adults.
So what happened? Did the vast expansion of literacy in the last century and a half produce people who can read but largely don’t. Is Dr. Seuss somehow to blame? Dick and Jane?
To find out, I gathered together as large a collection of accounts of the man in tights as I could find, which actually proved to be quite large. I started with the popularizer Pyle and his 240-page tome of what is now considered densely packed font. But then came something odd, popularizers of the popularizer, authors who simplified and abbreviated the language, even updating, bowdlerizing to Pyle’s lovely and evocative illustrations. Next came the heirs to the heirs of Pyle, though they come to look less like heirs and more like vandals. Finally came the graphic novelists, the storytellers who use as much illustration and as little narrative as possible, the literary homeopaths who have so filtered the solution that, in the end, no appreciable content is left.
Why do we do this? Why do we take a story of such immense worth that is still told 700 years later and systematically drain it of its worth?
Literary entropy, perhaps. Or some difficult to understand natural arc of the universe which causes us to seek out the easy rather than the enriching, the edifying. Whatever its cause, it leaves us having stolen from the truly rich of past generations and giving to, arguably, no one at all.