The Charlotte News



Infant Poison:

Reading For Sub-Debs

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: This off-beat piece, looking at children's books, and the need for stimulus of the child's imagination to form the civilized realistic adult, speaks well to today's "Newer Education" as well. Just four or five years ago, for instance, a school district in a relatively rural community within the Bay Area of California was set upon by the local coven of witches--not hyperbole, mind you, they really called themselves thusly--in order to ban the reading of Hansel and Gretel on the ground that it promulgated the subjugation and harsh treatment of their kind, that is to say, witches, and thus infringed their freedom to practice their religion--witchcraft--free of stereotype as ugly, hook-nosed, evil spell-casters. Alack and alas... with toil and trouble, boil and bubble, and an eye of newt, comes, of course, a recent 1999 news story about a certain Lynchburg, Va. preacher and his objections to the affable little cartoon "tele-tubby" with a purse? and some supposed symbols attached to his head and breastplate which only, no doubt, the tergiversating preacher and his flock would attempt to notice or find in them some subliminal hint of symbolism. I suppose that it goes on...and this forever. So you must forgive me if I'm...


IT SEEMS TO ME that the kids who are coming along now must be having a dismal time of it--and that they are very likely to turn out a dismaying lot when they come to the age of private decision.

I've got a dentist brother, with the state board of health, who wanders about widely lecturing to schoolma'ams and parents anent the horrible dangers of eating candy. Among my contemporaries I know more than one proud papa and mama who boast that the heir apparent has got to the great age of six or seven or even nine without ever having tasted the dreadful stuff.

Poison In Fairy Tales

What is worse yet, there are simply hordes of the Professors of the Newer Education at large among us, who hold forth to the effect that fairy tales and tall stories are so much poison for the infant mind, and that the boy of ten must be protected from blood and thunder--yes, and even from Rev. Horatio Alger, Jr.--if he is going to grow into the Citizen of Tomorrow. Maybe, however, you think this isn't new? There always have been people who argued against the feeding of candy and fairy tales, haven't there? and didn't the reading of blood and thunder behind geography always land Little Willie out behind the barn? True enough, of course. But the thing is infinitely more serious this time. The old bias in the matter was mainly moral, and a perfunctory gesture or two in its favor was usually considered enough. But now--

Now, migod, the thing calls itself Science. It passes itself off on papa and mama and the schoolma'ams as positive proved fact. And so they take it with deadly earnestness. They bring most sober and watchful efforts to bear in order actually to realize it. They actually boast, not only that little Arthur has got to be nine without ever tasting candy, but that he has never heard of Jack the Giant-Killer; that Little Agnes has never had her sense of the realities soiled by contact with the Constant Tin Soldier and the Shepherdess and the Sweep who climbed up to look at the stars, and that Tommy, who's going on fourteen, never so much as heard of W. Clark Russell.

A Crime, That's All

For my part, I think it a greasy crime. The human stomach between the ages of three and ten, is undoubtedly capable of taking care of enormous quantities of sweets, and I have a shrewd suspicion, and despite the testimony of innumerable solemn quacks, that the human machine along in those years even needs at least considerable quantities of sugary fodder.

And as for the human mind--the ages of three to ten are the ages of wonder, and the ages of ten to fifteen are the ages of adventure. Taken together they make up the ages of imagination. That faculty is either made or ruined within their limits. And in a world in which there is all too little imagination in grown-up people, in a world in which it is infinitely desirable to build that faculty as much as is possible, the pabulum offered ought to be precisely such as old experience has shown to be most grateful to it in this shaping-time.

The Shape of Reality

The notion that fairy tales and wonder tales spoil the sense of reality in the child-mind is the purest nonsense. I claim a considerable sense of reality myself, and I claim further that that sense of reality has been largely shaped by books--for no man can really understand the shape of our modern world without much delving in books. But my love of books was born in me on exactly the day I ignored my mother's calls to come and fetch in the wood and stood shivering in the ecstasy over the fate of Jack of the terrible sword and the seven-league boots, locked in the oven while the "Tint" fee-fawed concerning the delicious blood of Englishmen. More than that, I have to report that I was always perfectly aware that Jack was not a reality in the way that the things of my daily world were realities. He belonged to another world, a world which I might enter, certainly, but not, I think I knew dimly even then, with feet of flesh and blood. I believe every child makes the distinction.

The Vicarious Toughs

And so for that notion that good honest blood-and-thunder makes tough guys out of nice little boys, I think even less of it than the one we have just looked at. I think, as a matter of fact, that such books serve marvellously for the vicarious satisfaction of impulses that are native to the human creature (in the male incarnation at least) and that must be satisfied in some fashion or another--if they are not to last through life, and make the adult quite unfit for civilization. For myself, I read any number of the most lurid weeklies on the sly, and I'm an almost discustingly tame person at this stage. And as for Clark Russell's masterpiece, "The Frozen Pirate"--I should not like my father to this day if he had really made good his prohibition of its reading. A grand book if ever there was one--and the only reason I don't read it again right now is that I don't know where to find a copy.

Adventure Under the Rose

I think all this sort of thing is going to bring on a crop of chronic dyspeptics who will eat nothing but sweets, and a generation, half intolerable prig and half anarchist. Unless, indeed, that look of cynicism may sometimes surprise on the faces of these put-upon young hopefuls--means that they are really as full of the immense immemorial wisdom of youth as I hope they are, that they are finding ways of coming at these things under the rose, and that papa and mama's boasts are as silly as papa and mama's boasts usually are.

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