Secret Space and the Child in English Children’s Literature of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries

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Jessie Willcox Smith, 1905.

Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.56.02 PMRobert Louis Stevenson, “My Kingdom,” 1885

I. Kindergarten

A little girl, looking for a place to hide in a game with her siblings, steps into a wardrobe and stumbles into another world. A child wandering about before tea finds a hidden dell and transforms it into a secret kingdom. A displaced orphan discovers a buried key and a hidden door which lead her into a place all her own. Children spending their summer holidays in the Lake District make a secret camp on a deserted island. And a lonely boy in a big house builds himself a miniature city and disappears into it every night, escaping a nasty nurse. Space is explored, hidden, and discovered; tumbled into, transformed, claimed, and rescaled. Imagination is power as it rewrites the world for its wielders; children become kings and queens, explorers and gardeners, saviors and gods—never simply “children,” never only themselves. And yet, through their imaginative interactions with space—their transformations of their surroundings, their discoveries and creations of secret spaces all their own—literary children discover and become themselves, throwing off the strictures that limited the Victorian child (and child protagonist) to become people—and selves—in their own right.  Read More



I met a man in the street today whose collar was turned up even though there was no wind. I did not nod to him, but pushed my left index finger through the hole in my left coat pocket and kept walking.

I think that’s all.


Most people are good people until they are given the opportunity to go bad. This reminds me of an aunt who died last year alone in her apartment. They only noticed because the neighbors complained of the smell. The aunt had rotted because she had been given the opportunity.


When not speaking, keep your mouth shut.


“Lyuba!” cried the undertaker.

“Elena!” cried the baker.

“Kchkch!” cried Irina, raising the doorknob.

Behind the fence Serge drank the goat’s milk and listened to the thwacking.

April 18, 2017


Matvei ate peas from a spoon.

The children’s grandmother peeked out from behind the curtains.

The goat in the garden bleated.

The sun went down.

Andrei waited in the dark.

Mice squeaked and Arseni died. Read More


King Lear and Cordelia, Bernard Partridge.

King Lear is a play fascinated with language. In it, styles come into conflict as much as do people, voices proliferate, language fragments and reforms, and words control the fates of people and kingdoms. However there is nothing and no one more central to the question of language in the play than she who rejects it from her first line: Cordelia, plainspoken lover of deeds, not words. In rejecting language, Cordelia raises the problem of representation, of the gap between the thing itself and the language which seeks to describe, capture, and convey it. In her conception of the world, there are concepts and things which escape expression, defy utterance and, rather than attempting to pin them down with half-right words, she rejects outright the medium which fails her as limited. Language, for Cordelia, is simply not good enough because it cannot always fit an exact word or set of words to a feeling, a thing, a person and so, unwilling to compromise, she chooses silence. When her silence, though, is misinterpreted, Cordelia is pushed back into the realm of language, forcing her to confront the problem she had rejected. Thus, Cordelia’s aim becomes to seek a solution to the problem of language, a quest which leads her to the attempted creation of a reductive form of language which tries to render language the closest thing possible to physical deed. For Cordelia, language becomes gesture, word becomes silence, silence becomes action. In this creation of a reductive language based in plainness and physicality, she attempts to excise from language the problem of the gap between object and referent, the problem of imprecision, which she so mistrusts.  Read More


Hughie O’Donaghue, Long-Legged Fly, in response to Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly.”

Each stanza of Yeats’ “Long-Legged Fly” opens with the same word, “that,” carrying all the force of “in order that.” Immediately, just in this one word, we feel that something tremendously important is at stake, even before Yeats conjures the images of what’s at stake for us (partly through the incantation-like repetition of “that”): a sinking of civilization, the burning towers of Troy, the onslaught of sexual awareness in young girls. It’s easy to read the poem as an analysis of the cycles of civilization, the role of the individual in history, and of the creative moment. In the first stanza, a general saves civilization in a great battle, in the second civilization is destroyed by a woman and the love men bear for her face, and in the third it’s rebuilt through art and sexuality. Each stage is depicted through a single great figure, around which history narrows to a point, before it opens up again, having for a moment been one with their action. History, in this vision, is defined by these great figures—generals, lovers, and artists—who tower above the rest of us in their importance. And yet, in the long view of history, these people (all of whom seem to fall under the umbrella of “creative” in Yeats’ mind) are as but flies in contact with the ever-flowing stream that is simultaneously the stream of history and a timeless source of creative power. For each of these people—in the moments they are depicted—to access this creative power and accomplish what they must, silence and solitude are necessary. The fly becomes a metaphor for the artist: connected and yet separate, suspended on the surface by long spindly legs, but not actually in the stream. The creative moment, in this vision, is one profoundly important, upon which the very fate of the world may rest, but it is also one cut off from the world by its reliance upon solitude and silence. Read More


Actually an illustration by Sir Samuel Luke Fields for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but the closest I could get to something approaching the sort of scene in Middlemarch. Though of course we need a lady at the piano. Among other things. Ah well.

Both Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and George Eliot’s Middlemarch are concerned with the representation of the inner and outer worlds of individuals and collective units in society and with their interrelation. In both novels, aesthetic experience plays a key role in the author’s understanding of the relation of people to one another and to the world. However, while in Buddenbrooks the inner and outer worlds and the individual and collective experiences of its central characters become increasingly separate, in Middlemarch, Eliot seeks to draw together individual and community, inner life and outer life. In the realization of this project, aesthetic experience becomes key: in Buddenbrooks music and aesthetic experience offer an escape from the pressures and requirements of the every day world, creating an inner spiritual alternative to the strict values of the outside works, while in Middlemarch aesthetic experience serves to connect and unite. Art, though, is not something universally accessible or universally experienced. Rather, in order to be affected by it, one’s entire being must be oriented towards it. For the unsympathetic listener, music is only so much more noise—perhaps pleasing noise, but nothing beyond that; to the uninitiated viewer, a painting is only so many daubs of paint. To experience the aesthetic realm as transcendent—of one’s reality or of interpersonal boundaries, whether as performer or participant—one must open oneself up to it and the experience of it, having in mind no higher object than the aesthetic experience itself.

In looking at aesthetic experience in both of these novels, it is first important to note that in neither is aesthetic experience universally good or universally accessible. To take the example of music, both novels contain characters for whom music is nothing more than “measured noises” (65) in the words of Casaubon—and has the potential to be much worse. When the municipal band comes to play for the Buddenbrook firm’s 100th anniversary in Thomas’ house, he experiences the music as something far worse than “measured noises”: “all the notes run together, one chord devours the next, making everything melody absurd” (480) he tells us,  despite the fact that other people at the celebration enjoy the band, making it clear that music in Buddenbrooks is not a thing understood or perceived universally. Read More

The death of the child is central to Dostoevsky and The Brothers Karamazov and, as such, it seems almost natural for the book to end with the death of a child and with a speech which orders that this death of this child not be forgotten, but rather be cherished as a sort of talisman against future wrong-doing. Looking at Alyosha’s final speech and taking into consideration its subject matter, it becomes interesting to look at it in relation to the novel’s other great speech of the death of the child: Rebellion. However, while Ivan speaks of the anecdotal horrific deaths of innocents unknown, Alyosha’s speech is grounded in the particular, the present, the personal. The death Alyosha speaks of is a perfect one—it has none of the horror of being torn to pieces by dogs or skewered by bayonets—and furthermore, it is the death of someone we, as readers, know. And yet Ilyusha’s death is not the death of an innocent, like the innocents of Ivan’s anecdotes. Ilyusha is on the border between innocence and experience (and its inherent guilt); he has, perhaps unwittingly, tormented the dog Zhuchka. He feels extreme guilt for his actions, but he has left the realm of innocence, even if he has not fully entered the realm of sin beyond. It is not just their subject matter that sets the two speeches apart, though, but also the two brothers’ responses to their subject matter. While Ivan rails against God and Heaven for the state of things, Alyosha stays rooted firmly upon the earth—symbolized by the gathering around Ilyusha’s stone. Though no one in this final image “soaks the earth with their tears” (thank goodness), through the stone, we feel the connection to the earth and one another which Markel and Zosima and now, apparently, Dostoevsky through Alyosha preach. The death of Ilyusha is, for Alyosha, an inspiration for union and communion, rather than the splintering off and rejection with which Ivan meets the deaths of innocents in the world. The final scene would seem to tell us that what Alyosha proposes is a more feasible answer for living than Ivan’s: we are to join forces with our fellow men and hold the dead in our memories, using our memories of them to keep us from committing the evils the thought of which torment Ivan.

The final scene, though, is not simply a monologue by Alyosha. The boys (of which there are “about twelve” (884)—a suspiciously disciple-like number) have a presence too, though they almost entirely speak in a chorus, rather than with individual voices. In this, the boys literalize the union which Alyosha preaches. We have heard a novel of monologues and now, in its final moments, that form is rejected and replaced by a chorus of voices as “the boys caught up [Kolya’s] exclamation” (893). That the actual words of the chorus are not recorded only emphasizes the fact of the chorus. It doesn’t matter what is being said—only that it is said together. In a similar transformation, Dostoevsky emphasizes in this last scene image over word—what seems something of a sharp turn at the end of these nearly 900 pages. One would think that all those speeches, all the words we’ve read and heard would culminate in a statement about language, but rather they terminate in what amounts to a subjugation of the word to image as Alyosha preaches the importance of holding a memory close to one’s heart, as a sort of armor against future ill. “Remember his face, and his clothes, and his poor little boots, and his coffin” (893), Alyosha asks, prompting the boys to a chorus of “We shall remember!”s. Alyosha figures images as the basis of memory. As one closes the book, it is this image of the boys crowded around Alyosha standing beside the stone which sticks with us. It is an image of permanence and unity projecting itself beyond the last page of the book, into a future for both the characters and for Russia. The final hurrah which Kolya leads the boys in for Alyosha (“Hurrah for Karamazov!”) is a hurrah projected into this future. While all throughout the novel the name Karamazov has been associated with sin, jealousy, lechery, and the characters of Fyodor, Dmitry, and Ivan, here it has been cleansed. The Karamazov being cheered is Alyosha—who hitherto has almost never been referred to by his last name (I say almost because I have not checked this for certain, but am pretty sure he hardly ever is until Kolya shows up—partly because he begins a monk and thus has rejected his worldly family and his name)—and with him the name name is allowed a new beginning. The hurrah projects the name forward into a future where it will be able to take on new associations. The future is open wide as the novel ends and it is these boys—the youth of the novel—who will be going forth into it, memories guarded at their breasts, unified in spirit, though they may part ways.

A look at a few Duesenberg, Fisher Body, and Cadillac/LaSalle Ad Campaigns from the early 1930s


Léon Benigni, 1931.

To write this paper, I spent several days buried in the depths of Widener (and I do not say “depths” lightly; the bound periodicals are kept on the lowest floor (4 below the main floor, that is), in the farthest possible corner from the stacks entrance—getting there is a self-interrment as well as a commitment). I don’t mean to sound as if I’m complaining. I definitely don’t spend enough time in Widener (partly because its hours are ridiculously silly) and I had a blast sitting on the floor between the stacks surrounded by old editions of Life, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Saturday Review, Harper’s, and Collier’s. (I will complain, though, about having to carry stacks of bound Saturday Reviews up 4 flights of stairs to get to a scanner and having to manhandle them onto the scanner itself.)

The assignment was open-ended (like everything else for the class that assigned it—more on that later) and only asked that we use anything from the course so far (lecture, class handouts, the many books we’d been assigned) to think about image (broadly, this course was on “image”) in connection with anything found in a magazine published before 1940. So down I went into Widener to page through magazines published before 1940. I began about 1890, but nothing really gripped my attention (at least in terms of finding a subject for a paper) in these earlier magazines and I moved very quickly until I hit about 1920 and the explosion of color print advertising. Then, I was snapping a photo of nearly every ad on my phone, liking each one more than the last.  Read More