This section contains 2,897 words
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Critical Essay by Paula Fox
SOURCE: "Some Thoughts on Imagination in Children's Literature," in Celebrating Children's Books: Essay on Children's Literature in Honor of Zena Sutherland, edited by Betsy Hearne and Marilyn Kaye, Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books, 1981, pp. 24-34.
In the following essay, Fox reflects on the ability of books to fuel the imagination, especially of children.
Literature is the province of imagination, and stories, in whatever guise, are meditations on life.
Goethe wrote that supreme imagining is the effort to grasp truth through imagination. It does not consist in making things different but in trying to discover them as they are.
Imagination is random and elusive. We deduce its presence by its effects, just as we deduce that a breeze has sprung up, a breeze we can't see, because we hear and see the rustling of leaves in a tree. It is the guardian spirit that we sense in great stories; we feel its rustling.
Imagination can be stillborn; it can be stifled. But it can be awakened. When you read to a child, when you put a book in a child's hands, you are bringing that child news of the infinitely varied nature of life. You are an awakener.
Few have attested so passionately to the power of books as the Russian writer Maxim Gorki. As a child, he lived in a remote nineteenth-century village, Nizhni. When he was ten, he was farmed out as a servant to a provincial family. Here is how he describes it in Childhood, the first volume of his autobiographical trilogy:
Those winter evenings in that little cramped room with my master and mistress were quite unbearable. Outside there was nothing but deathly night. Sometimes I could hear the frost crackling. People sat at the table, as silent as frozen fish. Sometimes a blizzard would buffet the window and the walls, roar down the chimneys and make a banging noise in the dampers. The babies would start crying in the nursery and one felt like sitting down in some dark corner, hunching oneself up and howling like a wolf.
But Gorki didn't howl like a wolf. Instead, he learned to read. And although there were very few books in that woebegone village, he managed to get hold of most of them. But he was punished for reading, and so he read secretly at night. The books, he writes,
… made the world a larger place, beautifying it with fabulous towns, showing the high mountains and wonderful seashores. Life blossomed miraculously, the earth became more attractive, richer in people and towns and many different things. And now as I looked at those distant fields beyond the Volga, I knew very well they were not just a desert…. The earth had seemed empty and lonely. And as a result my heart became empty…. All desire would disappear and there would be simply nothing to think about…. As I read. I began to feel healthier and stronger, and I worked rapidly and skilfully, as I now had a purpose, the sooner I finished my chores, the more time would be left over for reading. When they took books away from me, I became listless and lazy, and a morbid forgetfulness which I had not known before would take hold of me.
Gorki soon tired of stories in which there was a simple-minded, shadowless confrontation between pure good and pure evil, with evil inevitably routed and good inevitably triumphant. At ten, he knew better. He knew that good and evil were often inextricably tangled in the same person, the same event. But what had originally excited his imagination in those early fables he read was a sense of a world utterly unlike Nizhni.
Although those fantasies had begun by leading him away, out of his own life, they also had the extraordinary effect of helping him to discover his own life, as though up until then it, too, had been an unknown country beyond the Volga.
Books awakened Gorki's imagination, not only about different people and places, but about himself. And instead of "morbid forgetfulness," instead of brutish resignation, Gorki began to perceive with imaginative vision that there was more to his grandfather than his cruelty, more to his grandmother than her lunacy, and that the people of his village were not merely fools, or dangerous beasts, or drunken sots, but were, as he was, baffled and fearful and struggling to endure.
Gorki discovered another marvel about stories—their power to bring comfort to people, to divert them and make them merry, to enchant them. He found that he, himself, could invent such stories, and he told them even to those people who had jeered at him for reading. He saw that he could make them laugh, make them forget, for a little while, the meagerness of their daily lives and bring them into the realm that William Wordsworth described as: "That twilight when we first begin to see this dawning earth …"
The first intimations of "this dawning earth"! I do not have to make an effort to recollect how the beginning of certain books affected me when I first read them, because they still do. Such beginnings as: "Call me Ishmael." Or, "An angry man—there is my story: the bitter rancour of Achilles, Prince of the House of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host." Or, "Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do…." Or, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years with very little to distress or vex her." Or, "Happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." Or, "Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood."
But along with the literature of imagination, there has always been tract literature. Stories that once strained to instruct young readers in how to attain virtue and the happiness of virtue have been replaced now by stories that strain to teach children how to manage life by merely naming such "problems" as disease, physical anomalies, and even death, and assuring them there is nothing to be afraid of, nothing to suffer about, nothing complex.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge attacked the old didactic literature for its debasement of human pity and passion 190 years ago when he heard from a friend a description of a children's book typical of that period. He writes: "A child is to come home and tell its mother, 'The sixpence you gave me I gave to a beggar. Did I do right, Mamma?'—'O! yes my dear,' cries the mother, kissing him, 'you did,'—thus blending one of the first virtues, charity, with one of the basest passions of the human heart, the love of hearing oneself praised."
And Coleridge goes on to say, "[I] sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men, because I first learnt the powers of my nature, and to reverence that nature—for who can feel and reverence the nature of man and not feel deeply for the afflictions of others possessing like powers and like nature?"
Recently, I saw a letter an acquaintance received from a television producer of programs for children that suggests the fashion of the new didacticism. In turning down my acquaintance's book for television adaptation, the producer wrote that it was a "superior" work, but that it did not "fall into the rigid guidelines set forth by our network personnel," who, said the producer, are now "tending toward crisis stories … concerning diabetics, suicides, teenage pregnancies, etc."
The "etc." speaks powerfully of the way in which the most profound and painful difficulties of living have become trivialized.
A choice of subject matter has never made writing. And it has not been the function of literature to show people of any age how to deal with problems or how to solve social and sexual dilemmas. The implicit instructions of contemporary "realistic" books may vary from those of 1810, but they have the same sequel: they smother speculation, they stifle uncertainty, they strangle imagination.
It is difficult to believe the authors of such books, of any era, believe that children possess "like powers and like nature," to be reverenced, to be respected. They are rather like W. H. Auden's social worker: "Writers can be guilty of every kind of human conceit but one, the conceit of the social worker," he writes, then goes on to characterize his social worker's view of life: "We are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don't know."
I suggest that if, in literature, we are given nothing to think about, to imagine, outside the external trappings of our own lives, we are likely to remain motionless and ignorant. And the earth will, indeed, seem empty and lonely as it was to Gorki when he was deprived of books.
We are all born provincials, but there is in us that push against the constraint of circumstances, of the given, that we show in our first efforts to stand up on legs that are not quite ready to support us, in that struggle toward a larger life we make in our first attempts at human speech.
If we make the effort, the imaginative effort, we can sometimes see the inherent imaginative energy in a child's astonishment at fire, at thunder, at birds and cats and wheels, at colors and shapes and the texture and taste of things—at all, in fact, which is always in peril of becoming commonplace to us because we are "grown-ups" and because we have ceased to venerate life, and have "solved" its puzzles.
Any passing observations of infancy and growth can tell us about the discomfort and joy of being alive, sorrow and joy, bound together from the beginning.
But often we want to forget, to swathe our seminal awareness in comfort. And we present children with cozy books about divorce and desertion and death and sex, promising them that, in the end, everything can be made all right. Thus we drown eternal human questions with contemporary bromides, all mechanics and sanctimony, filled with a ruinous complacency.
Just as junk food can dull pangs of hunger, so can junk books dull the hunger of a child's mind, stuff it with unearned certainties, those straws, Henry James wrote, that "we chew to cheat our appetites."
A characteristic of such literature is that it tends to promote and vindicate adult predispositions toward children and childhood. Another is that these books deliver us from the responsibility, the effort of self-knowledge without which we cannot really think about and understand children, who are not a race apart but ourselves when new.
But the truths we sense in great imaginative literature send us back to the earliest, most essential memories of our own lives, and, at the same time, direct our vision outward toward other lives, toward life itself.
I was taught to read when I was five. The old house where I lived in those days was filled with books and not much else. The roof leaked, the well was always going dry, the wallpaper peeled, the furniture was patched and mended, the driveway up the long hill to the house was impassable in heavy rain or snow, and there was never enough money for repairs.
But the books! They lined the walls of the rooms; they stood in columns on the floor; they were piled up in the attic on top of a river of National Geographics that cascaded down the crowded attic stairs.
In bad weather, when I couldn't go outside, I used to sit on those stairs and extract a Geographic as carefully as if I were playing pick-up-sticks, so I wouldn't bring the whole attic down on myself. Among the glossy pages of the magazines, I met up with pygmies and Balinese dancers, cities built on water, mountain peaks yet unscaled, desert people and people who lived amid eternal snow, dragonflies and anacondas. On those attic stairs in an old house that seemed always on the verge of collapse, I began to sense huge possibilities.
Some years later, I went to live on a sugar plantation in the middle of Cuba—a far distance from an old Victorian wreck on the Hudson River! I had no books there except for one or two ragged textbooks passed among the students, of which I was one, whose school was one room attached to the rear of a small church. Still, there was a man who came to our village once a month from the city of Cienfuegos. He came on one of the dusty roads that led to the plantation, pushing a handcart in front of him. In it were piles of two-sheet "books" that reproduced songs that were current and popular in Havana. The paper, I recall, was a harsh and acid pink. The sheets were so poorly printed that sometimes whole lines were blotted out. A child would buy a few pages for a centavo or two and I, along with the other children of the plantation, would memorize all the words and sing them to each other. Some of the songs told real stories with beginnings and middles and ends, stories that were often sad, but comic now and then, too. One, I remember, was about a garbage man whose sweetheart deserted him, and he grew so melancholy, he lost all interest in his work! That particular song had the lyrical title El Cantino Arabal. Such was our longing for stories that we made up still others of our own, inventing for ourselves a kind of mythology of which those coarse pink sheets of paper were the text.
When I returned to the United States, I went to live in a small community on Long Island. A few other little girls and I found an abandoned shed in the neighborhood and decided to start our own library. We pooled our books, and somewhere we dug up a few sticks of furniture. Until the cold drove us out, along with the awful depredations of a neighborhood gang of small boys who regarded us as enemies, we spent many charmed hours after school in our library. By the time we had to abandon it, I had a real library card.
When I was in the seventh grade, we had to memorize a good deal of poetry, especially William Wordsworth's poetry. No one I knew then, except a born actor or two, really liked to memorize poems. It was hard work. But we did it. And the poems stayed in my mind, within reach for many years. As I got older, I began to read poetry for my own pleasure, and among the poets who seemed to me to be magician-saints, Wordsworth towered, difficult, dense, as remote and unimaginable a human being as Pericles.
A few years ago, I spent some weeks in the Lake Country in England. I went to visit Dove Cottage where Wordsworth and his family lived from 1800 to 1808. It was a clenched little house full of dark passages and tiny rooms. In the kitchen, there was a black, rusted coffee grinder the Wordsworths had used. I could hardly tear my glance from it. It had never occurred to me that Wordsworth had been real!
Later, I went on to Rydal Hall, a few miles away from Grasmere. It was a lovely Georgian house Wordsworth had rented when he became a little prosperous. It stood on a hill, and all around it were his gardens, just as he had planted them. The house had only recently returned to the Wordsworth descendants. Two elderly women from Grasmere kept guard over it and look the few pence it cost to explore it.
As I passed by one of them, she whispered something to me. I leaned forward. More loudly, she said, "Miss Wordsworth! She's in there!" And she pointed to a narrow door next to her chair.
I thought she was speaking of a ghost. I nodded. She smiled. "His great-great-granddaughter," she explained.
At that moment, the narrow door crashed open into the little hall where I stood, and out came a large, handsome middle-aged woman in a fierce tweed suit. A cigarette drooped from her lips, and she was smiling with immense good humor. I was introduced. She shook my hand vigorously and asked, "Are you enjoying the house?"
I don't remember what I replied. I do remember that I remained rooted to the spot as she swept out the front door, hurled herself into a dilapidated station wagon, reversed violently, knocked into a fence, laughed, waved to me out the car window, cigarette ashes flying, and disappeared down the driveway.
It is not memory alone, but imagination that brings back to me the palpable presence of that car-banging, tweedy woman, her amiable face afloat in the smoke of her cigarette, and hovering behind her, spectrally, the lineaments of her ancestor.
William Wordsworth wrote in Book XIII of The Prelude (which he titled Imagination): "… each man's mind is to herself witness and judge; and I remember well that in life's every-day appearances I seemed about this time to gain clear sight of a new world."
Imagination is the great witness. Without it, there is no past, only, as Gorki wrote, morbid forgetfulness.
This section contains 2,897 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)