Children's Literature Essay

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Children's Literature

"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." This adage takes on various meanings according to context -- in the early twenty-first century, it will most likely be used to imply too much seriousness about schoolwork. But in the consideration of children's literature in the nineteenth century, we face the prospect of a society where child labor was actually a fact of life. We are familiar with the stereotypes that still linger on in the collective imagination, of young boys forced to work as chimney-sweeps or girls forced to labor in textile factories. But the simple fact is that between the present day and the emergence of children's literature as a category of its own, largely during the nineteenth century, there has been a widespread reform in labor practices and social mores which has altered the meaning of what "work" might mean for young Jack, or indeed Jill. An examination of how the concept of "work" is constructed within Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women can give us some sense of how work and play were complicated by issues of economics, including gender and slavery.

One of the most famous episodes in Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer is, in itself, about the concepts of work and play -- this is the scene in which Tom is compelled by his Aunt Polly to whitewash a fence. Before examining the episode in closer detail, however, some things must be noted in general about Twain's novel. For a start, we should observe the title. It would be difficult to imagine a child before the emergence of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century being in a position to have "adventures" or to find those adventures described in fiction. The title of course describes Twain's novel perfectly, with its episodic and picaresque construction. There were, of course, adventure stories in print -- Chapter VIII of Tom Sawyer indicates that Tom himself is a reader of tales about Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and is willing to act out these types of adventures as part of his own "adventures." But Robin Hood is an adult; Tom Sawyer is only a child. To some extent, childhood is here being defined as a form of freedom from adult responsibilities, and it is worth noting that Robin Hood himself is someone who overturns standard ideas about social organization and what people ought to do. The episode of Tom whitewashing the fence is a perfect example, though, about something that one is compelled to do -- Twain is careful to describe the episode in terms of the overall pleasantness of the day. Within this context, of course, the physical labor entailed in whitewashing a fence is bound to seem tedious and unpleasant -- and by contrast, the area outside the town is described as seeming like "a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting" (Twain 15). In other words, the story begins with Tom already imagining a space beyond the imposed responsibilities of civilization -- the sort of place where children can play at being Robin Hood. Twain describes Tom's reluctance to engage in work here in terms which are meant to seem exaggeratedly comic: we are told, as Tom surveys the fence, that it is "Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden" (15). In other words, even Tom's reluctance to do household chores is already exaggerated to the level of emotions more suitable to a melodramatic romance than a small-town Missouri street.

This ironized exaggeration in Tom's demeanor comes into sharper focus, however, when we consider Tom's work next to that of the first person he encounters: the slave, Jim. If the concept of child labor in the nineteenth century is remote to a present-day reader, the concept of slave labor is even more remote: and it is worth noting that Twain subtly likens one to the other. In thinking about how he can procrastinate from his assigned chores, Tom notes that "Jim never got back with a bucket of water under an hour -- and even then somebody generally had to go after him." (15). But in response to Tom volunteering to take on Jim's task, Jim notes that he has been specifically instructed to engage in work and not play: " Ole missis, she tole me I got to go an' git dis water an' not stop foolin' roun' wid anybody." (15) To some extent, the paternalism of a slavery system is likened here to the obviously paternalistic system in which children exist: neither Tom nor Jim is being paid to do their tasks. But it is interesting at the outset that Tom finds the task given to the slave to be preferable to the task that has been assigned to him -- not only because he sees it as a greater opportunity for leisure and distraction, but also for the simple fact that it is not the task that has been assigned. The suggested similarity between slaves and children becomes more readily apparent, however, when Jim receives corporal punishment from Aunt Polly: after the moment of distraction for both Tom and Jim, we learn that soon Jim "was flying down the street with his pail and a tingling rear, Tom was whitewashing with vigor, and Aunt Polly was retiring from the field with a slipper in her hand and triumph in her eye." (16). The slave and the child alike are shut out of the system of work as something that one is paid for, however Tom does exist within a world where the concept is not outlawed to him. Indeed, the idea of whitewashing the fence is intimately connected for Tom with the idea of commerce, although again Twain takes care to present this in an ironic fashion:

Soon the free boys would come tripping along on all sorts of delicious expeditions, and they would make a world of fun of him for having to work -- the very thought of it burnt him like fire. He got out his worldly wealth and examined it -- bits of toys, marbles, and trash; enough to buy an exchange of work, maybe, but not half enough to buy so much as half an hour of pure freedom. So he returned his straitened means to his pocket, and gave up the idea of trying to buy the boys. At this dark and hopeless moment an inspiration burst upon him! Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration. (16)

The description of boys without Saturday morning chores to do as being "free" is somewhat sobering, considering that the encounter with Jim has just taken place. But of course Tom Sawyer is not in the position of the slave, instead he is in the position where he can play adulthood just as surely as he plays at Robin Hood. We therefore get the image of Tom counting "his worldly wealth" which consists of "bits of toys, marbles, and trash; enough to buy an exchange of work." (16). Within this parody of a capitalist mindset, however, Tom recognizes that he lacks sufficient parody-capital, and "gave up the idea of trying to buy the boys." Instead, Tom turns to the entrepreneurial spirit in another way, and it is important to note that Twain recognizes it as such -- it is a deliberate strategem, a "great, magnificent inspiration" which consists of turning the chore into play (16). To a certain extent, Tom's inspiration may come from his observation of Ben Rogers, who will prove his target in this confidence-man-style strategem: Ben is described as pretending at being a steamboat captain. Of course, for Tom who has to paint a fence, this counts as play rather than work -- for an adult reader, however, it is worth noting that Ben's form of play consists of "personating" something that, for an adult, would be a form of work (16-7). So Tom's strategem may be derived merely from observation of Ben, because Tom turns fence-painting into an activity similar to steamboat-piloting -- something which can be transformed by imagination into play rather than work. This is evident in Tom's means of dramatizing his own activity for Ben's benefit, greeting him with "Why, it's you, Ben! I warn't noticing" (as though the fence-painting were so captivating that it provides its own distraction) and responding with "What do you call work?" (17). In other words, all Tom needs to do is redefine the activity and pretend that it has an effect upon him in order to provoke Ben's jealousy: responding to the claim that the activity constitutes "work," Tom's response is "Well, maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know, is, it suits Tom Sawyer." (18).

The episode basically represents the invention of a capitalist sales-pitch or advertising technique -- Tom glamorizes the activity for Ben by making it seem enjoyable for those of superior discernment, and also difficult and unattainable. "Yes, she's awful particular…[continue]

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