The last time I visited the Brasch Collection I was there to take photos of all the book spines. While taking photos of the near 7,500 books, only one title truly stuck out to me – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a book that wouldn’t catch my attention if it was in any home library. Therefore I began thinking about why I found it out of place in the Brasch Collection.
We can read a library as much through what it lacks as what it contains. One striking lack in Brasch’s library compared to the majority of home libraries is children’s literature.
The heyday of children’s literature began in the mid-nineteenth century, which is when the style of children’s literature dramatically changed – “the largely moral texts of the early part of the century were replaced by works which celebrated the world of the child’s imagination” (Shuttleworth, 2004.) The rise of children’s literature occurred because the world was beginning to change its perception that children were nothing more than young adults and the idea of childhood as a time for fun and learning was rapidly spreading throughout the western world (Shuttleworth, 2004.) This can be seen through an ever-growing variety of amenities and activities for children – toy stores and treasure hunts were becoming part of childhood, if only for those families who could afford such luxuries.
“When the ‘piggy bank’ contained enough pennies, a child could make the trip to the local toy shop and choose from a vast array of mechanical toys, dolls, train sets and games.” (Shuttleworth, 2004.)
One of the new forms that emerged was the creation of media specifically designed for children that emphasized fun and exploration – two concepts that were beginning to become associated with childhood (Maybin and Watson, 2009.) There were new songs, plays, games and most importantly, for our purposes, stories. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, began what is now seen as a golden age for children’s literature. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, countless classic children’s books were published that are still read today – George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin (1872),Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1911).
Above: Brasch’s copies of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’.
However, this golden age was only enabled by technological and education advances. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, printing rates dropped and literacy improved. Thus, in this golden age of children’s literature more children’s books were able to be created and these books were cheaper and therefore easier to access for more families. Because of this, as well as the creation of the idea of childhood, the majority of us have children’s literature in our home libraries.
If we view Brasch’s library as a representation of his social and historical period, one would expect to find a plethora of the children’s literature from the ‘golden age’ in which he was collecting. However, children’s books are simply not there. Although there are a few works by Lewis Carroll, as well as some national fables and tales from around the globe, the lack of many prominent children’s classics makes Brasch’s collection remarkably different to many other home libraries.
Why is there a lack of children’s literature? Firstly, Brasch was a literary man, who was never married and did not have any children. Although this is perhaps an obvious reason for Brasch not to have children’s literature, it is a sound one. Alternatively, Brasch may simply not have found children’s literature as engaging a topic as others such as poetry or art. Or, like countless other adults before him, he may have viewed children’s literature as trivial in its infantile nature.
However, within the first half of the twentieth century, many modernists were interested in the child’s perspective:
“The widespread concern with the infant/child amounts to a vital trend within the avant-garde movement, sometimes marking a key developmental stage, sometimes crucial in the poetics or thought of an individual, and sometimes marking an entire group’s aesthetic practice” (Weld, 2014).
For many modernists of the time, the child’s perspective was intriguing as it presented an example of expression without the hinderance complex language (Weld, 2014.) In this way, Brash’s lack of interest in the child and children’s literature is unusual as it goes against the common practice of many of his contemporaries.
In many ways, this significant gap and large amount of disinterest makes Brasch’s personal collection unique. Although the Brasch collection tracks many of the publishing and literary trends of the twentieth century, its lack of children’s literature reminds us that the collection does not represent every trend. The collection, as it is easy to forget, is Brasch’s personal home library thus making it subject to his own interests. In this way, the Brasch Collection becomes an interesting blend: it is both representative of its literary historical time period and a biographical representation of Charles Brasch himself.
Gubar, Marah. 2009. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hunt, Peter, and Butts, Dennis. 1995. Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Maybin, Janet, and Watson, Nicola J. 2009. Children’s Literature: Approaches and Territories. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Shuttleworth, Sally. 2004.”Victorian Childhood.” Journal of Victorian Culture 9:1, 107-113.
Weld, Sara Pankenier. 2014. Voiceless Vanguard: The Infantilist Aesthetic of the Russian Avant-Garde. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.