One of my favorite college classes examined children’s literature through the lens of cultural attitudes towards childhood. For example, the Brothers Grimm wrote all those dark, scary tales of witches & evil forests because in their day (early 19th century), childhood was just a smaller version of an awful adulthood. Poorer kids had to work on farms or in factories, even wealthier kids succumbed to disease, and stories had to prepare them for the general dangers of the world. In the Victorian era (later 19th century), children were viewed as pure and angelic, so their books were supposed to help enhance their innocence. And by the 20th century childhood really evolved into a separate phase of life, where books could enhance kids’ imagination or teach them valuable lessons. (And reading all these stories was a welcome change from typical academic fare – I loved sitting in the library, where my classmates were absorbed in Advanced Principles Of Molecular Biology or The Sociolinguistics of Anthropology, and they’d look over to see me enjoying “The Little Engine That Could.” But I digress . . . )
Sometimes, however, we would run into a classic piece of children’s literature that didn’t fit this historical trend – and in the case of some, like the Lewis Carroll ‘Alice’ books, as college students we naturally concluded his influence was pharmaceutical instead of cultural. Rabbits with pocket-watches? Disappearing grinning cats? Drinks & cakes that changed her perspective? (Okay, you can explain the Mad Hatter by the fact that the chemicals used in hatmaking were so toxic, they caused brain damage, hence the expression ‘mad as a hatter’, but Carroll’s Hatter was still pretty weird.) And for generations kids have enjoyed the strange, surreal world of Alice, thinking nothing in their lives would ever seem so crazy.
Until lately – the political scene has gone so out of whack, not even Lewis Carroll could have written it . . .