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Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter
Alison Lurie
New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
$15.00, 219 pages, ISBN: 0-14-200252-6.

Daniel Opler
New York University

By far the best thing about Alison Lurie’s Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter is Lurie’s writing. Lurie, of course, is a prolific novelist and the winner of the Pulitzer prize, so this should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, her ability to engage the reader with simple, direct, and thoroughly delightful prose cannot be underestimated. I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, and I suspect most people, inside the academy or outside, would have a similarly pleasurable experience. At the same time, as a work of analysis and of scholarship, Lurie’s work is often frustrating, with clever phrases frequently taking the place of serious analysis.

Often Lurie is willing to take historical shortcuts that do not serve her argument particularly well. When Lurie addresses Louisa May Alcott, she refers to Alcott’s parents as “what would now be described as vegetarian hippie intellectuals with fringe religious and social beliefs” (14). Phrases like this, while tempting and engrossing in their way, are also intellectually and academically questionable. In a single stroke, this sentence allows Lurie to ignore the complex and quite specific meanings of both the hippie movement of the 1960s and the communitarian movements of the nineteenth century. It takes no great historical insight to realize that not all radicals are alike—that the communes of the 1860s had no immediate or direct connection to the sex, drugs, and rock and roll (and the determined rejection of suburban consumer culture) so central to the communes of the 1960s.

Other examples from Lurie’s text, while less blatant, display an even more problematic lack of insight into the historical context of these works. Lurie’s analysis of Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, focuses exclusively on Andersen’s personal life—most strikingly, Andersen’s inability to create solid romantic relationships. We are told next to nothing of the historical moment in which Andersen lived, beyond a tantalizing hint when Lurie mentions in passing that Andersen was able to attain from “upper-class or titled persons” only “friendly, slightly distant patronage,” not the romance, admiration, or close friendship that he continually sought from them (4-5). We are told nothing about the meaning of this behavior within the context of European history at that moment, except that Andersen was wandering around the German principalities in the 1830s telling his stories. Lurie does not discuss whether these principalities were among those German states undergoing huge political transformations at this time; nor does she provide any hint of the role of the rise of nationalism or of the bourgeoisie in Andersen’s work. These contexts, which may well have been central to Andersen’s work, disappear utterly in Lurie’s description. The reader can only speculate on Andersen’s place in the complex history of Germany in the 1830s and 1840s.

Perhaps the most troubling essay in the collection is Lurie’s hopelessly enamored treatment of L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. Clearly an essay that closely relates to Lurie’s earlier book, Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups, where she argued that children’s literature is often more radical than adults realize, Lurie sees in Baum’s work the work of a truly revolutionary and progressive man. She sees Baum, among other things, as an avowed feminist, despite Baum’s satirical take on women’s suffrage in his depiction of “General Jinjur,” who takes over the Emerald City with an army of women, making men do the housework. Lurie’s description of Baum’s close relationship with his mother-in-law (a radical feminist who encouraged Baum’s writing) is intriguing, and will provide a great deal more information to those, like me, who are not L. Frank Baum aficionados. At the same time, her discussion ignores many of the more troubling aspects of the Baum books, as when she claims that the strange creatures in the Oz books “have a right to their own peculiar customs and way of life,” arguing that “in the world of Oz, acceptance of minority rights is taken for granted” (39). Lurie does not mention, in this one-paragraph discussion of race and Oz, either of the two occasions in which Baum explicitly used racial terminology. This is highly convenient for her argument, since these instances suggest that Baum was more racist than the generalities Lurie addresses imply (in Rinkitink in Oz, for instance, Baum portrayed a Tottenhot, a play on the name of the African tribe “Hottentot,” as somewhere between a human and a goat). Nor does Lurie’s discussion of Baum mention his most famous racial writing, his editorial where he called for the continued extermination of Native Americans. It is, overall, a highly disappointing missed opportunity to interrogate Baum with a more critical eye.

By far the best analysis in Lurie’s book is in her treatment of Dr. Seuss’s bestselling Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Seuss claimed that this book was a tale of “limitless horizons and hope,” but Lurie insightfully points out that it is rather “the yuppie dream—or nightmare—of the 1990s in cartoon form.” The main character, Lurie reminds us, begins in a “large, clean modern city […] but underneath this city are unpleasant, dangerous things” (100-101); the hero then sets out to find fame and fortune, wandering around the world with “no personal relationships […] except that of competition." As Lurie reminds us, happiness in this book is “equated with wealth, fame, and getting ahead of others” (104). This is unquestionably an excellent reading of the work. At the same time, it raises other questions that Lurie fails to address. Most important among them: why have Seuss’s ideas changed so dramatically since the 1940s and 1950s, when she suggests he espoused imagination, conservation, anti-racism, and charity towards the less fortunate? It also raises the question of whether his ideas have actually changed at all. Certainly one of the fascinating things about American liberalism is the ability of its proponents to combine individualism like that expressed in Oh, The Places You’ll Go with the support for liberal reform reflected in some of Seuss’s earlier works. But such speculations are only that; Lurie provides us with highly insightful readings of Seuss’s individual texts, but is less generous when attempting to weave connections between them.

One final essay in the collection deserves individual attention. Late in the book, Lurie presents a comparative essay, a book review of her own, where she addresses the work of both British folklorist Iona Opie and American social scientist Barrie Thorne. Opie, Lurie tells us, “describes rather than analyzes” (141), and provides us with what Lurie quite openly thinks is an extraordinary study, one that “you can open […] anywhere and find something to enjoy” (143). Barrie Thorne, on the other hand, “is a professor writing for professors, which traditionally requires a more formal manner” (140). Thorne, Lurie continues a few pages later, “began with some disadvantages,” among them that Thorne “believed that a book must have a thesis, a focus of interest” (144). Additionally, in Lurie’s view (without much by the way of evidence), Thorne was more “ill at ease on the playground” than was Opie (144-145). In a way, this essay, although it is not the final essay in Lurie’s collection, might have made a good conclusion: it would have given Lurie a sort of response to those critics like myself who wish for greater insight and structure in Lurie’s work. In this essay, Lurie suggests, it is perfectly acceptable to describe children’s activities (and, by extension, their books), rather than performing the sort of analysis that is consistently lacking in Lurie’s own work.

Unlike Thorne’s thesis-driven study of children’s games, Lurie’s Boys and Girls Forever is essentially a book of collected essays, almost all of which first appeared elsewhere. Lurie’s attempt to bind them together in the foreword with an assertion that “most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves” serves primarily to draw one’s attention to the many talented authors she leaves out, many of whom do not fit this assertion at all (ix). To name a few, Lewis Carroll, mentioned only sporadically in the study, was a highly successful mathematician and college fellow as well as a writer; C.S. Lewis, mentioned only once, was a well-known theologian; and Carlo Collodi was a major figure in the Italian Risorgimento and a noted satirist before writing Pinocchio. Like many of the authors Lurie addresses, these authors hardly constitute a group I would describe as children. Indeed, I doubt that any genre has provided a more diverse and complicated group of individuals as has children’s literature.

This lack of a coherent and convincing thesis also points to a related difficulty with Lurie’s work. The question of the inclusion or exclusion of a particular author is never raised, discussed, or explained. Some of her choices, like her decision to include Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, were certainly delightful to those of us who grew up with Jansson’s work in the house; nonetheless, I would have liked a clearer explanation of why Jansson’s, Baum’s, or Alcott’s works were included when others, certainly equally worthy, were omitted.

When I began reading Lurie’s book, I found myself wondering why more historians don’t write like Lurie does, why academic prose has become so hopelessly dry and uninteresting, especially when compared to Lurie’s far more informal and far more enjoyable writing. Within a few pages, however, I found myself longing for the synthetically detached work of my fellow academics. Lurie’s writing is extraordinary, and it makes the book a great joy to read at times. But, sadly, the analysis of this work did not match the high quality of Lurie’s remarkable prose.

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