Nathaniel Hawthorne, “A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys” (1852): In Praise of Remixing

“It would be a great pity if a man of my learning (to say nothing of original fancy) could not find a new story, every day, year in and year out, for children such as you.” (“Tanglewood Porch: Introduction to ‘The Gorgan’s Head,’” 1166)

Perhaps too much children’s literature takes on a moral message. A great thing about A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys is that it is arranged as a dialogue with the listeners. The major arc of the book takes place in the Tanglewood academy, where one of the children, Eustace Bright, retells stories from Greek mythology to the students. After each tale is told, an interlude is include in which the other students speak their mind about the story, often reinterpreting the story in ways radically different from traditional readings. Over the course of a year, we hear of six such story sessions, including some “often-told” tales: Perseus and the Gorgon, King Midas and the golden touch, Pandora’s box, Heracles and the golden apples, the bottomless pitcher, and Bellerophon’s slaying of the Chimera. I would like to point out my initial reading of some of these tales and follow with the voices of the children who take their own message from it.

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The Gorgon’s Head
One thing I enjoyed about that new version of Clash of the Titans was how the emphasis was on the triumph of humanity over the scheming of the gods. In the story retold by Hawthorne—and I suppose this is the standard version because it is in the version of the Perseus tale I read to my daughter—the hero triumphs over the kings with the help of Hermes (called Quicksilver here). This version removes the battle with the Leviathan and Persesus winning of a bride and centers just on the slaying of Medusa and Perseus’ return to slay the king who sent him on the foolish quest. Here the gods are not the malevolent forces they appear in my memory of Greek mythology. The horrors comes from men. The children, however, were more interested in the Three Grey Woman who shared a single eye.

gorgon

The Golden Touch
The story of Midas sets up a broader discussion among the children over the meaning of the story. In Hawthorne’s retelling of the Midas story, Dionysus is replaced with a simple man (I suppose it still could be Dionysus). He also focuses much more on the relationship between Midas and his daughter, who is given a prominent place in this story. The children’s response is fascinating. One points out immediately that in the world she lives in most adults seem to have a “Leaden Touch” and “make everything dull and heavy that they lay their fingers on.” Another wants the ability to turn things from gold, back again in order to change the autumn leaves to green. Eustace seizes on this idea and invents an origin of the beautiful New England autumn. King Midas “gilded the leaves of the great volume of Nature.” (1210–1211)

golden

The Paradise of Children
Hawthorne very carefully constructs his retelling of the story of Pandora as both a fall from innocence and a fall from eternal childhood. “Then everybody was a child. They needed no fathers and mothers, to take care of the children; because there was no danger, nor trouble of any kind, and no clothes to be mended, and there was always plenty to eat and drink.” (1215) What I see coming through is that Hawthorne retold these stories for the ears of children. Too often the stories remain adult in content and perspective, but are merely simplified. In my memory of the story of Pandora’s Box, the stress is on the origin of adult problems. Hawthorne prefers to dwell on the world of blissful childhood. In the post story dialogue, one of the children thinks only about how she would have been punished for the act, apparently ignoring the sins Pandora unleashed. Another child, wondered if every evil was unleashed. Eustace confirmed this by providing an example of a very youthful dilemma, a snowstorm that stopped them from ice skating (he is telling this tale in winter). The child replies that that is not trouble at all, “but a pleasure.” (1230)

So, you get the idea of how Hawthorne constructed these re-tellings as a dialog with children and how the children pushed the interpretation of the stories, stealing them from the authority. Eustace discusses this in more detail at the close of his re-telling of the Heracles/golden apples/Atlas story. “And besides, the moment you but any warmth of heart, any passion or affection, any human or divine morality, into a classic mould, you make it quite another thing from what it was before. My own opinion is, that the Greeks, by taking possession of these legends, (which were the immemorial birthright of mankind,) and putting them into shapes of indestructible beauty, indeed, but could and heartless, have done all subsequent ages an incalculable injury.” (1255) There you have it, a brilliant argument for the creative power of remixing.

Children’s literature must leave children free to think about their world on their own terms. Any moral message will be from a bygone age (that of their parents and grandparents) and whatever their wisdom may have been, it will not necessarily be of use to the epoch that is emerging. And if it is, the next generation will get there on their own, without our help.

chimera

If you allow me one final quote from this brilliant little book.
“For my part, I wish I had Pegasus here, at this moment. I would mount him, forthwith, and gallop about the country, within a circumference of a few miles, making literary calls on my brother-authors. Dr. Dewey would be within my reach, at the foot of Taconic. In Stockbridge, youder, is Mr. James, conspicuous to the world on his mountain-pile of history and romance. Longfellow, I believe, is not yet on the Ox-bow; else the winged horse would neigh at the sight of him. But, here in Lexos, I should find our most truthful novelist, who has made the scenery and life of Berkshire all her own. On the hither side of Pittsfield sits Herman Melville, shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale,’ while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study-window. Another bound of my flying steed would bring me to the door of Holmes, whom I mention last, because Pegasus would certainly unseat me, the next minute, and claim the poet as his rider.” (1301)

This literary heritage summarized here is ours to remix. And this is one of the goals of my project.

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