OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CHILDREN'S POETRY by Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby, eds., Reviewed by Julia Mickenberg
 

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN CHILDREN'S POETRY
Eds. Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby
(Johns Hopkins, 2014) xxi+ 564 pp.
Reviewed by Julia Mickenberg on 2014-07-03.

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By any measure, this book is a landmark text for scholars of the nineteenth century, for specialists in children's literature, and for scholars of poetry. But many people who are none of these things--including people still in elementary school--will find much in the book to enjoy. Billing itself as the first and only critical collection of nineteenth-century children's poetry, this book claims to survey major trends in nineteenth century children's poetry. While largely fulfilling this claim, the book clearly aims to entertain its readers as much as to offer literary history.

Kilcup, a professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has written on nineteenth-century American poetry and women's environmental writing; Sorby, a professor at Marquette University, has published scholarship on nineteenth century children's poetry as well as her own poetry. Together they have gathered hundreds of poems from a wide range of sources. These include children's periodicals such as The Juvenile Miscellany, Merry's Museum, Our Young Folks, St. Nicholas, Youth's Companion, Wide Awake, Harper's Young People, and The Slave's Friend; regional journals like the Southern Literary Messenger, Indiana School Journal, Cherokee Rose Buds (published by students of a Cherokee Nation female seminary), and The Western Adventurer; readers and primers; and volumes for adults that explicitly included poetry for younger readers. The poems collected here are by well-known authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lydia Sigourney, and Helen Hunt Jackson; by juvenile authors known to scholars of children's literature such as Lucy Larcom, Mary Mopes Dodge, Peter Parley (Samuel Goodrich), and Palmer Cox; and by many unknown or anonymous authors, among them freed slaves, American Indians, and child authors (including poems by a 16 and 17-year-old Robert Frost and a 15-year-old Alcott). All together, the poems express varying regional and political concerns.

Arranging their book thematically rather than by author or date, the editors follow nineteenth century editorial practices but also aim "to spark connections and conversations among new generations of readers and scholars" (xx). By highlighting themes such as natural history, playing, and learning, themes that presumably arose organically from the poetry selected here, the sections themselves say much about nineteenth-century childhood. Additional sections on politics, death, slavery, and science show that widespread concerns of the age affected children's lives as well, despite the fact that, by the end of the nineteenth century "childhood" was being cordoned off from the adult world.

A number of poems in this anthology appear with the illustrations that accompanied them when originally published. Since some illustrations include text, they show how font and layout could make the words of a poem part of a comprehensive design. Many of the illustrations are strikingly beautiful, such as the one for Frank Dempster Sherman's "Daisies." Within a frame that encloses the three-stanza poem, a woman gracefully sailing through the sky across the moon plucks daisies whose petals fall over a church tower and roof tops at the bottom. "What Happened," by Howell Foster, is similarly framed by images, in this case of the kangaroo who "was hung head down from a banyan-limb," of the "Royal lion [who] made a proclamation / For a day of fasting and lamentation," of the elephant who stood on its head, and of the "over-sensitive she-Gorilla" who "declared that the shock would surely kill her."

The illustrations included in this anthology complement the paintings reproduced and discussed in Clare Perry's excellent Young America: Childhood in 19th-Century Art and Culture (2006). In addition, the poems and images together supplement previous work on nineteenth century children's literature and childhood in books such as Courtney Weikle-Mills' Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence (2013), Gillian Avery's Behold the Child: American Children and their Books, 1621-1922 (1995), and Caroline Levander's Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W.E.B. DuBois (2006). Contextualized by the editors' excellent introduction and read beside existing scholarship, the poetry in this collection suggests the range of ways in which children were imagined and addressed in nineteenth-century America.

Kilcup and Sorby freely admit to making choices that reflect their own tastes as well as their desire to create a book that would be not just engaging but also palatable to contemporary readers: A truly representative anthology, they write, "would contain more 'funny' ethnic stereotypes, more plantation-tradition dialect verses, more evangelical Christianity, more deathbed sermons, and more botanical garden poems--but it would also be much less readable." For this reason, they tended to favor "charm over convention" in making their selections (xxi).

They clearly had plenty to choose from, because most of their selections are well worth reading as poetry, though some are perhaps more notable as artifacts of particular sensibilities and concerns. The introduction explains the place of children's poetry within nineteenth century poetry more generally, within the history of children's publishing, and in relation to various social and economic trends and to figures such as the Schoolroom poets (whom Sorby treated in a previous book, Schoolroom Poets [2005]). The editors also note the blurriness of the line between adult poetry and children's poetry during the nineteenth century, something already discussed in studies such as Beverly Lyon-Clark's Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Children's Literature (2004). (By the 1920s, when publishing houses launched "juvenile" divisions, the line between children's books and adult books became firmer.) But the editors also argue that while the period between the Civil War and World War I is often considered a an "interregnum" or low-point in American poetry, it was actually a "golden age" for in children's poetry (9), as it was for children's literature more generally. Moreover, while the editors acknowledge that antebellum children's poetry is sometimes dismissed as didactic, they maintain that it is more emotive than informational, and thus played its part in "children's affective education" (6).

Most compellingly, the editors show how children's poems served as "contact zones" between adults and children, and between the natural world and civilization: while celebrating children's natural innocence, the poems also aimed to civilize them. Furthermore, though often didactic and sentimental, nineteenth-century children's poetry was also playful, imaginative, and even subversive, as especially exemplified by some of the delightful poems in the "Nonsense" section. It could also be political, as already noted, grappling with topics such as slavery and economic disparities.

Beyond the editors' introduction, editorial incursions are decidedly limited, presumably to allow the poems to stand on their own. The table of contents lists the source of each poem and the date of its first publication, an appendix lists the poems by date, and two indices-- one by author and one by title--make it easy to search for individual authors or poems. But within the text itself, the poems are mostly accompanied by no more than titles and authors' names. Personally, I would have liked to see the date and source of each poem in the text as well as more biographical information on the poets. While some is offered in the introduction, there are far too many poets here for the editors to discuss them all. When the poets are children themselves, the editors note their ages, and they also note tribal affiliation for Native American authors. But often they furnish with the poem only an unfamiliar name, and no names at all for most of the artwork, which--as the editors note-- was typically published anonymously in the nineteenth century.

This pared-down approach presents some challenges to the modern-day reader. For instance, although I appreciated the editors' willingness to include "plantation-tradition dialect verses" so as to be truer to the historical record, such verses can be hard to construe when unaccompanied by any information about the author or the publication: sometimes I can't tell whether a poem was written by an African American or by a white Southerner mocking African-American linguistic conventions. The dialect-free poem called "The Negro's Flag and Country," by Christina Moody (age 13-16), is clearly by an African American because the author identifies herself as "a Negro." But I'm not entirely sure what to infer from the dialect in "Ol' Man Rain P'ease Go Away," "Bed Bug," or "Little Brown Baby." I would also have liked to know more about the role of samplers in the making of poetry. I applaud the inclusion of poetry from samplers, much of it anonymous, some of it identified as the work of children, but in their introduction the editors might have said more about the place of needlework in the lives of nineteenth century children-- especially girls.

Altogether, however, the strengths of this book outweigh its defects. Though the editors might have furnished more information about the poets whose work they included, the introduction is informative and the poems themselves well chosen. In fact, when I tried a number of the poems out on my own daughters, aged eight and eleven, their initial resistance to anything related to my work (which they tend to see as an incursion on our family life) soon gave way. After I began to read a poem or two aloud each night before the girls went to sleep, it quickly became clear that they thoroughly enjoyed many of the selections, and in some cases were drawn to poems by the illustrations. They probably most enjoyed the nonsense poems, which generically tend to stand the test of time, but they were also struck by forgotten gems of children's literature such as "the War of the Rats and Mice (Almost a Fairy Tale)," by well-remembered classics such as Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain!" or by reminders of the wonder and contingency of life itself, as Oliver Herford's poem on our world:

If this little world tonight
Suddenly should fall thro' space
In a hissing, headlong flight,
Shriveling from off its face
As it falls into the sun,
In an instant every trace
Of the little crawling things--
Ants, philosophers, and lice,
Cattle, cockroaches, and kinds,
Beggars, millionaires, and mice
Men and maggots all as one
As it falls into the sun--
Who can say but at the same
Instant from some planet far
A child may watch us and exclaim ,
See the pretty shooting star!"

The poems collected in this book inspire wonder, delight, some sadness, a sense of place, and a little skepticism. As such, they mark the timeless aspects of childhood experience as well as the time-bound lives of nineteenth-century American children.

Julia Mickenberg is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


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