Critical Childhood Studies, Children’s Literature, and the Canon
by Laura Laffrado
I entered the field of critical childhood studies before it existed, with the publication of my first book Hawthorne’s Literature for Children (University of Georgia Press, 1992), the first (and still only) book-length treatment of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s six books for children. From this position, I have watched the long overdue creation and development of critical childhood studies, culminating now in this website’s rich content. I want to use Hawthorne’s works for children to consider briefly how a mix of nineteenth-century US writing for children, literary canon revisions, and the dazzling advent of the Internet brought us, finally if belatedly, to this vital scholarly moment.
Work by the ever-canonical Hawthorne is an apt place to begin since he wrote both about and for children. Writing for children occupied an extended role in Hawthorne’s life and literary career; the works for children that he wrote constitute a central part of his essential literary vocabulary. Since their initial publications, Hawthorne’s works for children have consistently circulated across a range of media, languages, and cultures. In broad terms, this movement signals the ways that these works have been both socially sanctioned and framed. That is, at certain cultural levels, these works have long been regarded as familiar, valued parts of the Hawthorne canon. They are established, admired, sought after, and regularly re/presented.
Yet in the realm of scholarly attention, a different, revealing progression emerges regarding the situating and, by extension, the perceived significance of Hawthorne’s works for children. When these various texts were initially published, literary reviews were laudatory. This pattern extended into the early twentieth century. However, as the century progressed, the generic value of writing for children declined and authors, reviewers, and scholars began to regard it as unworthy of intellectual inquiry. Correspondingly, Hawthorne’s works for children were increasingly isolated from his other writings. While Hawthorne himself and works by him—the novels, much of the short fiction—were being honored in the mid-twentieth century with foundational places in an increasingly standardized American literary canon, his works for children drew virtually no attention from scholars. That is, Hawthorne’s works for children were trivialized as subliterary at the same moment that much of his other work was authorized and endorsed by scholars in central ways. This mid-twentieth-century canon omitted children’s literature, even children’s literature by Hawthorne.
And so, throughout decades of the twentieth century, while Hawthorne’s works for children stayed regularly in print and in play in popular culture, they simultaneously became considerably less available and less interesting to scholars. As a consequence of endeavors to achieve a systematic codification of and in the academy, the generic respect and admiration that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literary clubs and periodicals had accorded Hawthorne’s works for children were displaced and muted. Shunned by larger academic debates of canonicity and of the profession, works for children by Hawthorne and others remained fixed on the far margins of scholarly consideration. They lingered there until various prevailing academic assumptions were again reconsidered and recast.
In the later twentieth century, what had become the fixed narrative of the canon of US literary writing again underwent dramatic revision. As is now well-known, the canon expanded to include authors, genres, and texts that had previously been invisible to and disregarded by dominant scholarly considerations. Valuable inclusion of texts and authors occurred across categories such as class, dis/ability, gender, and race, accompanied by an increased recognition that generic boundaries had been arbitrarily perceived as impermeable. Restrictive boundaries had, among other effects, worked to separate children’s literature from other literary genres.
However, though the literary canon evolved in compelling and exciting ways, it only minimally expanded to include children’s literature. Despite this, canon revision still exercised a recognizable degree of influence over scholarly considerations of children’s literature. Revision of the US literary canon created and sustains a vital and resonant receptivity to previously neglected authors, works, and genres. As a result, a valuable space for children’s literature was generated, if only marginally authorized, within canonical bounds. Scholarly work then began to appear, work which valued children’s literature in more critical ways than pre-critical nineteenth- and early twentieth-century academic admiration. Most saliently, scholarly readings of these texts functioned to explicitly situate works for children in broader academic literary dialogues regarding nineteenth-century US literature and culture.
At the turn into the twenty-first century, this progress in literary scholarship was greatly accelerated by previously unimaginable web-related developments. The astonishing dawn of the web began a massive unloading of data onto the Internet followed by searchable databases and digital archives that allow open or minimally restrictive use of, for instance, many nineteenth-century US literary periodicals, newspapers, book advertisements, publishers’ lists, and other documents. Such material has crucially allowed scholars to access long unseen and unread children’s works and to view them in larger literary contexts.
Which brings us to the current moment and the launch of the website Critical Childhood Studies: A Long 19C Digital Humanities Project. Website founders Dr. Allison Giffen and Dr. Lucia Hodgson offer a cogent definition of the discipline: “Characterized by its intersectionality with such fields as gender studies, disability studies, race studies, queer studies, and animal studies, the field of critical childhood studies offers scholars a rich interpretive methodology to explore questions related to difference, power, affect, and subjectivity. Scholars recognize childhood as a generative site of often competing or contradictory ideological commitments: while it can serve to justify and naturalize hierarchies of power, childhood is also understood as a locus of resistance, play, and queerness.” I quote at length here to make plain the thick scholarly location at which the study of children’s literature has (finally) arrived and the critical dialogues around childhood of which it is now a vital part. I very much look forward to the productive scholarly and pedagogical discussions that will ensue.
Laura Laffrado is a professor of English at Western Washington University. Her most recent book, Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature (2015), received the Society for the Study of American Women Writers 2018 Edition Award. She is currently at work on a cultural biography of Pacific Northwest writer Ella Rhoads Higginson.