"None but Imaginative Authority": Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Progress of Nineteenth-Century (Juvenile) Literature in America

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Writing to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on March 21, 1838, Nathaniel Hawthorne proposed to "make a great hit, and entirely revolutionize the whole system of juvenile literature" in America (15: 266). This first experiences with that genre, though not particularly successful, had nonetheless indicated professional possibilities, and thus during three separate periods of his literary career, he wrote for the juvenile audience. Did Nathaniel Hawthorne "make a great hit" with appreciative audiences and lucrative publications? Did he "entirely revolutionize" America's juvenile literature by turning young readers (and the parents who bought books for them) away from the informative, didactic, and evangelical writing that were their staples, and toward the works of fancy and imagination that had been anathema to them? While the answer to the first question is "yes," the answer to the second is both "yes" and "no."

Hawthorne did eventually make a "hit" in the juvenile market with literature that signified a "whole new system" in that genre, but his writing for children occurred within evolving literary, cultural, and--above all--personal contexts that fostered his revolution, a revolution indeed but one for which he was not solely responsible and one that had consequences beyond those he sought. Hawthorne's entry into the world of the Transcendentalist Peabody sisters and their associates facilitated his departure from widely held expectations for juvenile literature, a genre that necessarily encodes an author's implied or expressed beliefs about the nature of the child. Hawthorne's notions about children, his depictions of them, and his writing for them were complicated and enriched by his transitions from bachelor to fiance, then to husband of Sophia, and to father of Una, Julian and Rose. These successive personal contexts permitted Hawthorne to interrogate boundaries between fact and fiction, to destabilize historical narrative, and to legitimate and promote imaginative literature, thereby enriching his--and the nation's--(juvenile) literature. (1)

First Period: 1835-1837, the Future Citizen and "Fact"

In 1835, the bachelor Nathaniel Hawthorne, residing with his mother and sisters on Herbert Street in Salem, published "Little Annie's Ramble" anonymously in Youth's Keepsake. This sketch did not produce appreciative general audiences for reasons to be examined later, (2) so Hawthorne turned to what he hoped would be more profitable ventures. With occasional assistance from his sister Elizabeth, he compiled dry-as-dust biographical, historical, (pseudo-) scientific, and geographical material for the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge. (3) This kind of writing, according to John C. Crandall in "Patriotism and Humanitarian Reform in Children's Literature, 18251860," had as its "prime motive ... to turn out young patriots and future solid citizens who would preserve the glorious traditions and persevere in the execution of American ideals" (4).

Remuneration for work in American Magazine was disappointing, but Hawthorne had produced what was expected of juvenile literature at that time; therefore, Samuel Goodrich invited him to write for Peter Parley's Universal History on the Basis of Geography. Goodrich is now remembered as the publisher of The Token, where some of Hawthorne's early stories had appeared anonymously, but Goodrich was then more widely known as the pseudonymous "Peter Parley," the prolific, well-loved writer of juvenile literature, and narrator who provided continuity among items in the Universal History. Goodrich's prodigious production included seventy-nine volumes that can be ascribed to him with certainty (that is, volumes not produced by hack writers--like Hawthorne--for Goodrich), and, by the mid-1800s, seven million Peter Parley books had been sold (Long 158-59).

Goodrich's determination to produce informative literature for children arose from public and private motives. …