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

By Seth Lerer | Go to book overview

4
From Alphabet to Elegy
THE PURITAN IMPACT
ON CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

It is easy to demonize the Puritans. The very term has long connoted extremes of behavior, whether it be the revolutionary regicide that spawned the age of Oliver Cromwell, or the severity of dress and decorum that we think of when we imagine the early American settlers. And yet the Puritans clearly adored their children. Their progeny fascinated them: their growth, their education, and their lives as readers. Under the aegis of the Puritans, children's books became a new and separate kind of literature. They emerged as an expression of Puritan culture itself, an extension of larger publication projects keyed to spiritual education and moral growth. These were stories of redemption and conversion, tales designed to teach that, even during childhood, life has a spiritual goal.1 A child was, in the words of James Janeway's Token for Children of 1671— perhaps the most popular book of the seventeenth century, after Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress—“a precious Jewel” committed to the parent's charge.2 Children were the future of the family, but they were also the future of the Puritan movement itself.

Puritanism was a movement for the future, and the children of the Puritans figured both socially and imaginatively in that movement. At times, Puritans thought of themselves as children breaking with the family, challenging the paternalistic inheritance of British Anglicanism and the church and king. Their own rebellion voiced itself in a rebellion about naming. Acts of naming fill Old Testament narratives, and acts of renaming, as in the story of Abraham and Sarah, marked the turning points in such figures' lives.3 So, too, the Hebrew Bible was filled with stories of significant naming, where personages would receive allegorically transparent

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