Another Go Set a Watchman Post

In case you maybe somehow haven’t heard, the Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman was released yesterday. I have seen plenty of comments and posts saying they will read it or they will never own a copy. I have seen plenty of reviews that say it falls far short of To Kill a Mockingbird (honestly, how could it not). I have also, just like many of you, questioned the motivation and timing of its release. If it is, however, what it is purported to be — an earlier draft of Mockingbird given a strong Revise & Resubmit by her publishers — then it is utterly fascinating.

It is a fascinating glimpse into the HOW of writing something as timeless and enduring as To Kill a Mockingbird. Personally, I don’t care whether she’s accurately captured our hopes and dreams for the future of beloved characters because — and this is very important — they aren’t the same characters. So Atticus is a racist? That’s an important stop the character made on the way to becoming the man who defends Tom Robinson. Jean-Louise’s grown-up problems fade into the sharper, more black-and-white, fair-and-unfair problems of a six-year-old. I confess, there’s something comforting about the idea of Aunt Alexandra being largely unchanged.

Some people have suggested that this new writing will irreversibly taint the old. I humbly suggest that these people are wrong in both their expectations and their extrapolations of Watchman. To be fair, it is not all their fault; Watchman was billed as a sequel, which it is not. It is billed as new, which it is not. It is a draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, beautiful, enduring novel, but it did not spring fully-formed from the mind of Ms. Lee. It took work and messiness and writing and rewriting. I think there is both room and reason to appreciate Go Set a Watchman for what it is: an imperfect stepping stone to one of the pinnacles of American literature.

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Writing – You’re Doing It Wrong?

I loved the analytic writing in college, but not being an academic, there’s not much call for it anymore. So recently, with the encouragement of some very good friends, I’ve been doing more creative writing– poetry, flash fiction, and short stories. I’ll be honest, I haven’t done much of this sort of writing since high school, and lack of practice has not made it easier.

That being said, It has been nice to get back into the habit, even if I’m having to relearn a lot in the process. I’ve been reading essays and following blogs on writing and how to write and good tips and techniques and all that stuff. I have noticed something weird, though. There are a ton of posts on The Correct Way to Write. Now, I know I’m comparatively new to all this, but are you actually kidding me? It almost seems like a gimmick thing: “This One Weird Trick Will Make You a NY Times Bestseller!” I’m sure though, that there are some writers who honestly believe that there is a certain process you have to follow in order to create your best work. And I am also sure that for them, that is (mostly) true. But to claim that there is a Correct way to write is like saying there’s only one way to cook eggs.

Fellow newbie writers, I am here to tell you that there are lots of ways to cook eggs and pretty much all of them are delicious. You like going to a coffee shop and writing on your laptop? Awesome! You prefer to sit alone in a perfectly silent room and write everything longhand in Moleskine notebooks using your lucky pencil? Great! You do your best work when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars? Blast some Hair and get to work! It’s counterproductive to spend a ton of time worrying about whether your process is “right” or not. Just find what works for you, and then write. And when you do, make sure you’re not writing about how everyone else is doing it wrong.

Victorian Children’s Literature – New Find

So I found this great old children’s book called Sketches of Little Boys. Despite the creepiness of that title to modern ears, it’s a delightful mid-19th century piece specifically for boys full of stories about good boys and bad boys.

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The exact little boy in this story always puts things back where he found them, so when a valuable book is missed from the family library, Father is sure the boy did not lose it after reading it. Sure enough, an Uncle had borrowed the volume while the family was out, and everything works out nicely.

It apparently was part of a series put out by “Dean and Son, 31, Ludgate Hill, three doors west of Old Bailey,” and best as I can tell, was printed in the 1850s. I don’t know how it got to New Orleans, but I wish I could find more!

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Childhood Isn’t What it Used to Be

“You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.”
Billy Collins, “On Turning Ten”

Children have been around pretty much forever. What I find interesting is that the Western concept of childhood as a unique stage of human development only dates back to the 1600s. The more modern notion of childhood as a time of innocence distinctly separate from adulthood is as recent as the Victorian era. (It should be noted here that the literature I will be looking at was intended for a predominantly white, Christian, middle- and upper-class audience, who had the benefit of education, leisure time and expendable income. While progress was made regarding working conditions and child labor laws, Victorian ideals of the sanctity of childhood did not necessarily extend from the nursery into the factory or the slum). It is during the 19th century that fiction and poetry expressly for children came about, resulting in enduring classics such as Alice in Wonderland and Tom Sawyer, as well as the verses of Robert Lewis Stevenson and Edward Lear. Magazines for children also began to appear during this time. Above all, there is a flood of didactic literature in textbooks, nursery books, and magazines.

Didactic literature is written with moral education as its ultimate goal. As such, it can show us the virtues and vices that a society thought it important to address. Children’s literature makes this easier because the writers would want their points to come across as clearly and simply as possible for the young readers. (I’ll be using Struwwelpeter again since it’s available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg, but there are plenty of other examples to be found in used bookstores or online if you want to find your own. Often, as in the case of Harriet with her matches, Fidgety Philip, or Little Suck-a-Thumb, the particular crimes of the children are secondary to the common offense of disobedience. Harriet disobeys her mother and burns to death. Philip ignores his parents’ commands to be still at the table and pulls the dinner down on himself, depriving the whole family of their meal. Suck-a-Thumb obeys his mother right up until the point where she leaves the room, resulting in a tailor cutting off the naughty boy’s thumb with scissors. I’ve looked at disobedience before, but it really seems to hit its stride by the mid-1800s. I also enjoy that many of the stories about naughty boys and girls are in verse, while the stories about good children are in prose. The good children are not given disproportionate praise or success (goodness being its own reward), while the naughty children receive punishments that seem far more severe than their offenses merit. The good children are also infinitely more boring to read about. Let’s look a little closer at the disobedient children.

Philip isn’t a bad child that we know of, but we do know he can’t sit still. His behavior at the dinner table becomes rambunctious enough that he treats his chair like a rocking horse. It hardly comes as a surprise that it eventually rocks over backwards. It’s also natural that he grabs at the tablecloth in a last-ditch effort to right himself. Chair, child, tablecloth, and dinner all end up in a heap on the floor. Even today, this would frustrate and anger a parent, but in Philip’s world, there’s no pizza delivery, no microwave dinners. A hot dinner took hours to prepare over an iron stove or an open hearth. Let’s be honest, he doesn’t even get properly punished, when you look at the day’s labor he wasted in an instant.

Harriet is a bit more serious. We still teach children not to play with matches for this very reason (well, because they could get hurt, not because a divine fire will burn them to ash without marring anything in the house. Really, this reads more like a spontaneous combustion than an accidental fire). It’s worth mentioning that after childbirth, fire was the leading cause of death for 19th century women, so the warnings Harriet received were hardly meaningless. While sad, her death was probably a very realistic result of her disobedience within the context of history.

Worst of all, little Suck-a-Thumb… sucks his thumb. Which is very bad and wrong. Because grown-ups say so. I’ll be honest, I know it can screw up your front teeth and all, but there are a lot of weird thumb-sucking stories out there, and they all seem to result in the child losing his or her thumb. We are threatening children with maiming for a pretty minor offense. I’m not a parent and all, but it just doesn’t seem like that big a deal. Maybe as adults, we should let this one go, and spend our time teaching children not to be little jerks who spill all the food off the table and get away with it.

These poems seem funny and odd looking back through the lens of 170 years or so, but they (mostly) had real lessons to teach children. The tales of good and obedient children, despite being more dull and less gory, teach kindness to animals, compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, studiousness, industriousness, and generosity, which are all pretty important things for a child to get an early grasp on. All in all, didactic literature is an effective tool to help children learn how to learn what traits their society values and how best to succeed in that environment, and it’s still used today!

Seriously, though, can we all just agree to leave the thumb-suckers alone?

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Victorian Children’s Lit – The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches

I thought I’d do something a little different today and give you a wonderful example of Victorian children’s literature. I will do a more in-depth examination of the subject soon, but in the meantime, I hope this will amuse you. This is “The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches,” from Struwwelpeter: Merry Tales and Funny Pictures, by Heinrich Hoffman which was first published in Germany in 1844, and in English in 1848. Click here to find the entire collection as an ebook on Project Gutenberg.

008It almost makes me cry to tell
What foolish Harriet befell.
Mamma and Nurse went out one day
And left her all alone at play.
Now, on the table close at hand,
A box of matches chanced to stand;
And kind Mamma and Nurse had told her,
That, if she touched them, they would scold her.
But Harriet said: “Oh, what a pity!
For, when they burn, it is so pretty;
They crackle so, and spit, and flame:
Mamma, too, often does the same.”

The pussy-cats heard this,
And they began to hiss,
And stretch their claws,
And raise their paws;
“Me-ow,” they said, “me-ow, me-o,
You’ll burn to death, if you do so.”

But Harriet would not take advice:
She lit a match, it was so nice!
It crackled so, it burned so clear—
Exactly like the picture here.
She jumped for joy and ran about
And was too pleased to put it out.

The Pussy-cats saw this
And said: “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws:
“‘Tis very, very wrong, you know,
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o,
You will be burnt, if you do so.”

And see! oh, what dreadful thing!009
The fire has caught her apron-string;
Her apron burns, her arms, her hair—
She burns all over everywhere.

Then how the pussy-cats did mew—
What else, poor pussies, could they do?
They screamed for help, ’twas all in vain!
So then they said: “We’ll scream again;
Make haste, make haste, me-ow, me-o,
She’ll burn to death; we told her so.”

So she was burnt, with all her clothes,
And arms, and hands, and eyes, and nose;
Till she had nothing more to lose
Except her little scarlet shoes;
And nothing else but these was found
Among her ashes on the ground.

And when the good cats sat beside
The smoking ashes, how they cried!
“Me-ow, me-oo, me-ow, me-oo,
What will Mamma and Nursey do?”
Their tears ran down their cheeks so fast,
They made a little pond at last.

The McGuffey Eclectic Readers

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When I was 3 or 4, my parents had a reprint set of McGuffey’s Eclectic readers. At the time, I assumed that these books were how everyone learned to read. It might surprise you to learn that this is not so.

Now that I am grown up, any time I find one of them in a used bookstore or an antique shop (not often), I jump at the chance to get it. So far, I have an overwhelming collection of two small volumes: a speller and the Fourth Reader from the 1879 revised edition.

So what are they?

The McGuffey Readers are a set of six graduated lesson books written by William H. McGuffey and published from the 1830s-1880s. The first volume started with pictures and simple spelling– cat, ball, dog, and the like– and the sixth contained excerpt from Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Dickens. The volumes in between had lessons on everything from etiquette to history to biology to astronomy. They were used in schools across the United States for decades. You can read more about their history here.

They are not perfect books, especially if the Fourth Reader is anything to go by. One inventive story has a girl falling asleep during her “natural philosophy” lesson only to have a dream in which water molecules are explained as sprites and fairies, which my more science-minded friends assure me is not the case. Varied as the subjects are, there is no mention of the immigrants teeming to America’s shores during the period. They’re overwhelmingly didactic, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness to a modern audience. The only mention of the Civil War (which ended only 15 years prior to the publication of this book) is a rather melodramatic ballad in which two soldiers die, each thinking of his daughter, one in New Hampshire and one in Georgia. A nosy child opens a box she’s not supposed to touch and gets a face full of snuff.

So why do you like them?

I like them because it is fascinating to see how students learned and teachers taught. There are notes to teachers in the textbooks themselves, so you can see how a lesson was meant to be implemented. They try to teach children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and diligent, and those are things every generation can learn.  And they have things like this:

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That’s cool stuff. Who really teaches articulation as part of a regular core class anymore?

So on the off chance you come across a McGuffey reader, pick it up and see what’s inside. They’re an interesting glimpse into the history of American education.