Children's Literature: A Reader's History, from Aesop to Harry Potter

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

8
On beyond Darwin
FROM KINGSLEY TO SEUSS

In Rovering to Success, Robert Baden-Powell tells a story about a group of African dignitaries who visit London. Taken by the sights of the great city, they are taken even more by the sight of British military manhood. Arriving at the army school at Aldershot, the Swazi chiefs, dressed up in frock coats and top hats, “were not fully satisfied until they had had the men stripped and had examined for themselves their muscular development. Swazi savages could therefore appreciate manly strength and beauty.” Whatever deeper tensions lie in this bizarre moment of cultural confrontation, it remains clear that, on the surface anyway, Baden-Powell's ideal of social life lay in an idea of development. The boy could, whatever his origin, turn himself into a specimen of strength and beauty. Apparently, this conviction did not hold for the chiefs, for whatever their social status in their homeland, they remain on Baden-Powell's pages agape ape-men.1

Why was it that the white boy could develop? Why was it that the black man seemed, to European colonists and fantasists, a child? The literary critic Gillian Beer, describing the misplaced impact of Darwin's theories on the colonial imagination, summarizes the condition that could generate Baden-Powell's tales: “The European was taken as the type of achieved developmental preeminence, and other races studied were seen as further back on the chart of growth. The image of growth was again misplaced from the single life cycle, so that whole races were seen as being part of the 'childhood of man,' to be protected, led, and corrected like children.”2

Darwin's impact on children's literature has long been seen as lying in this fundamental misunderstanding. Writers such as Charles Kingsley,

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