While traditionally considered the first creative American children's book to value childhood imagination over didacticism, Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys, published in 1852, may be explored more usefully as a key text in the history of science education. (1) That notion may sound peculiar to those familiar with Wonder-Book, a collection of stories that appear to be simple, cheerful retellings of the Greek myths of Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora's Box, Hercules' eleventh labor, Philemon and Baucis, and Bellerophon and Pegasus. Yet Hawthorne uses these classical myths in a pedagogically innovative way--to promote a scientific mode of thinking among girls and boys at a time when scientific training for youth in the United States was haphazard at best.
Today's readers often miss the dense layers of science in the book because they have lost interest in botany and classicism, popular transatlantic subjects in the mid-nineteenth century. In Wonder-Book, Hawthorne trades upon botany's pedagogical reputation as a moral restorative and an excellent intellectual, spiritual, and emotional self-cultivator. His choice dovetails well with his use of Greek myths, which offered connotations of purity, morality, and pedagogical probity by virtue of their place in nineteenth-century Anglo-American classicism. (2) Hus Wonder-Book stands as a pedagogical specimen doubly strengthened by the nineteenth-century elite's appreciation for the civic and personal virtue that botany as well as Greek culture could propagate.
Rousseau's influence on Wonder-Book adds another resonant layer. The protective countryside that in Emile forms the ideal sphere in which to raise a well-born child emerges in Wonder-Book's framing devices, which surround each myth, as a hortus conclusus, or inviolate garden, where twelve children named after wild flowers safely nourish their budding imaginations with healthful doses of Greek myths, as told to them by visiting college student Eustace Bright. By creating this Edenic kindergarten, (3) Hawthorne reminds us that the imagination's organic qualities must be carefully cultivated for meaningful cultural advancement. Thus Eustace's stories, which are themselves experiments in recasting Greek myths, suggest to readers that the imagination is the visionary power that leads to wholesome self-cultivation and cultural progress, an idea that Quicksilver, Hawthorne's version of Hermes, subtly conveys. Mental machinery, in other words, trumps metal machinery because its ingenuity, teamed with farsighted perspective, is the most fertile tool with which humans work. The fictive children's imaginations, supported with what today we would call a scientific demeanor--that is, one that respects and uses observation, objectivity, critical thinking, and teamwork--promises a morally advanced and highly able next generation capable of raising the young nation to new heights.
By relying so heavily upon botanical discourse, Hawthorne creates a world in which morality, pedagogy, and science emerge as imaginative play, exploiting what John Keith Limon calls "the possibilities of science" at a time when the boundaries between magic and natural philosophy were still porous. As Limon says, "it requires an insistent ahistoricity to assert that the differences between scientific quackery and scientific respectability could have been neatly defined in the nineteenth century, as the reader of the respected 'Silliman's Journal' (in which one can read about unicorns and self-moving rocks) well knows. Where science philosophy left off and pseudo-philosophy began was unclear." Indeed, he continues, there were "so many versions of science available to the writer (so many possible alliances) between 1798 and 1859 that it is not far-fetched to conclude that, whatever personal or intellectual or aesthetic problem the litterateur may have run into, there must have existed a 'science' that responded to it" (12, 6, 14). …