“To My Boys”: Lanier’s Children’s Literature

My group’s theme is Sidney Lanier as a popular Southern poet and his decline in popularity. Within our study of Lanier I am focusing on how the publication of Lanier’s prose for children factors into Lanier’s decline in popularity and ultimate removal from the canon. Lanier’s works for young boys act as a smaller representation of what happened to Lanier and his writing on a larger scale during the twentieth century. Though the topics of his children’s literature are still popular – mostly medieval knights and animals – the style of his writing is vastly different from the language, and even length, of children’s books today. The complex, sometimes graphic, highly descriptive writing, without much simplification of vocabulary, is indicative of how different an audience Lanier was writing for in the late 1800s and what expectations a publisher had for children’s literature at that time. Due to its complexity and length, Lanier’s children’s literature fell out of popularity, just as his poetry and prose did, despite the fact the form and subject matter were so different. My objects represent how Lanier’s audience changed based on the expectations of children’s literature and the time in which the pieces were published.

My first, oldest object is an illustration on page 44 of the 1880 edition of The Boy’s King Arthur. This version of the book is very dense, with a ten-page table of contents just to outline every part of the story. The language is very complex and does not sound like it is written for children by modern standards. The introduction suggests that boys should be very mature and that this is the kind of literature they both ought to and are essentially required to read, according to Lanier. Adults’ ideas about the maturity level and reading abilities of young boys in the nineteenth century differed greatly from the ideas in the twentieth. The “object” within this book is an illustration of a man being decapitated in battle, which is a literally gruesome depiction of how explicit and mature the text was, uncensored as a book about knights and warfare might be today.

My second object is found in the extra-illustrated edition of Bob: the Story of Our Mockingbird from 1899. A unique and interesting object in and of itself, I have selected a page of manuscript writing inserted into the book as my object. The language of this book is playful pleasant, more like our modern-day notion of children’s writing, but the subject matter and the complexity of the sentences is still at a level that we would not find in a book published today for young people.

The third object is from The Lanier Book from 1904, which contains selections of poetry and prose intended for young boys to read. It was a cheaper, more concise way to read many stories, including Bob and the story of King Arthur. Published later, it indicates that the draw for very long, detailed stories and their purpose in a young boy’s life had in some way declined, but there was still interest in the message and language of this kind of writing. The object I have selected is the table of contents, which shows the variety of stories and poems included and in this way indicates the type of reader the publisher was targeting.

The fourth and fifth objects in my “collection” come from the same source, the 1933 edition of The Boy’s King Arthur. Published later than the other books and at a time when Lanier’s writing was on the decline rather than at the height of its popularity, this book physically looks more like a modern day children’s book but contains the complex prose of the original publication. My first object is the cover, which is exemplary of the gigantic, beautiful color illustrations found throughout the book. Illustrated by famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, the publishers were clearly looking to draw people in with his name and his pictures. The second object I selected from this book is the page that appears after the cover page, which in a short paragraph indicates that this edition does not include Lanier’s original introduction and that the story has been cut down. The table of contents is only one page in this book, but there is still a contents of illustrations, which indicates the publisher’s priorities and audience. The pages of text are huge with large type, most likely to accommodate the size of the images, not make room for more of the story. By this time the story was still a popular one, but this complex, mature version was on the decline. The publishers were trying to keep this version alive by using other means by which to draw in readers.

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