Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Modern America has virtually no use for the modern British children's book" (What Hath Harry Wrought?)

So, yesterday I was looking up something in Humphrey Carpenter's SECRET GARDENS, his book on the classic writers of the Golden Age of children's books (Kingsley, Carroll, Alcott, MacDonald, Grahame, Nesbit, Potter, Milne, Barrie) and came across a rather strikingly dated statement.

Writing in his Epilogue, about Tolkien and Lewis, Carpenter concludes

"Both writers [T & L] became hugely popular
in America; but they were the last English authors
for children to do so." (p. 214, emphasis mine)

The reason, as Carpenter sees it, is that after Catcher in the Rye American and British writers diverged, with the former following J. D. Salinger's lead in writing realistic novels about children's attempts to cope with the adult world,* while British writers like Garner opted instead for a return to roots, incorporating bits of old folklore into their tales. He concludes:

"Modern America has virtually no use

for the modern British children's book." (p.216)

This was written in 1985. Even then, I would have protested that McKillip and McKinley and Alexander et al. had built up a body of work to match the Garners and Coopers and Wynne Jones: the transAtlantic dichotomy he describes just doesn't seem to have been that much of a factor, to the writers at least.

As for his lament that Americans just don't read children's books by British authors, it's ironic how much the landscape had changed, just a decade later. 1995 saw the publication of Pullman's THE GOLDEN COMPASS (a.k.a. NORTHERN LIGHTS), which certainly made a splash over here, if not as big a one as it made in the UK.** And just two years later came the first of Rowling's HARRY POTTER novels, which were as hugely popular over here as they were over there, uniting both countries in a decade of Pottermania.

It's not Carpenter's fault, of course, that things changed: it's just that his statement is so emphatic that it emphasizes just how much things HAVE changed, and in such a short time. In retrospect, a better case could probably be made that Tolkien and Lewis's popularity in America turned out to be indicators of a mainstream tradition, not outliers.

* * * * * * *

By contrast, sometimes a predictor gets lucky. Thus C. S. Lewis, in the first book review of THE HOBBIT ever published (and thus the piece that inaugurated 'Tolkien studies' back on Oct. 2nd, 1937) wrote "Prediction is dangerous, but THE HOBBIT may well prove a classic."

--How right he was!



*He does note that during this period "American writers were also starting to create (for the first time) a large body of fantasy writing for children. Admittedly much of it has consisted of inferior imitations of Tolkien" (p. 215), but doesn't seem to feel this counters the main point he is making. (he does exempt Le Guin & Hoban from that criticism)

**probably because of a fundamentalist Catholic/Evangelical backlash in this country


David Bratman said...

McKillip is American. Did you mean to say that American authors can write like the British style too?

Pullman looks to me like an exception to Carpenter's rule, though his work is still a bit too new to tell for sure. And then there's Harry Potter, which might eventually fade into obscurity and be remembered only as a weird fad of its day, but I'm betting not.

I don't think any of the other latter-day authors you mention reach that status of canonicity - although they're all excellent writers, far better than either Pullman or Rowling, in my opinion.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi David.
I was contrasting several well-thought-of American children's writers of the period with their British counterparts. Carpenter sees a vast divide; I see much the same sort of activity on both sides. I also feel McKillip's best, THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD, is more than a match for anything Garner, say, has published.
As for Pullman and Rowlings, time will tell. The Beatles and JRRT still reign supreme in their respective fields decades after 'Beatlemania' and the LotR paperback boom; others who seemed important then have faded.

--John R.