Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Boys, Books, and Reading

Somewhat serendipitously, I came across the following piece from 1918 shortly after reading this post over at Easily Distracted about the production and reproduction of gender identity in society. The text that follows is fairly long, so bear with me (and it):
“William Heyliger, author of books for boys, made an address before the American Booksellers’ Association last May, which had been broadly quoted. He said in part:
The boy is in a state of development. His imagination is aflame. The heroes of his books are as real to him as his own playmates. He lives in his books; and the messages they contain, be they good or bad, become part of his creed. Unconsciously he absorbs the pulse and the spirit of the tales. He reacts to them; in a sense he is molded by them. Part of our juvenile literature deals with two tremendously powerful factors in the life of the boy: his school and his sport. Men who have worked with boys for years know that if the big, fundamental truths such as honor and fair play are to be presented to boys, they must be interpreted in terms that boys can understand. The boys understand school; they understand their sports. If a writer, through the thrill and tension of a story can make them see the meanness and the taint and the tarnish of a victory without honor, will they not carry this ideal with them through life? Oh, do not be deceived that this is unimportant! Consider for a moment that Germany has no national sport. Consider that her boys have no books dealing with fair play and boyish standards of honor in competition. Perhaps that is why Germany today stands convicted of the foulest crimes against fair play and decency. The Anglo-Saxon cry of ‘fair field and no favor’, has no counterpart in her language. She doesn’t understand fair play. We would be dealing with a different Germany, perhaps, if her boys had been taught that a crooked victory was something to be despised, and if their juvenile literature had driven that lesson home. The right type of book for boys, that speaks to him in language and terms that he can understand, the book that presents to him an ideal that he willingly adopts as his own, must be considered as something more than a mere piece of pleasure-giving fiction, in this day, when a nation blind to fair play and clean hands is drenching the earth with martyred blood, it is a high duty to uphold those books that sound a note of honor and fair dealing. It is the cause, the ideal that counts – with individuals and between nations.” (Welles 239-40)
Welles, Jessie. ed. "War Notes for Librarians." Wisconsin Library Bulletin 14.6 (1918): 237-43.

There are a number of things going on here that I find interesting. The expectations for books for boys are fairly normal for this period. However, the idea that boys understand these two things, school and sports, and Heyliger's association of these two things with (masculine) Anglo-Saxon values, is contrasted with the feminine identity of Germany. True, it was/is convention to refer to a country/nation as she/her. But here, we have the notion that a 'she' doesn't understand "fair play, " and that "her boys" (making her the mother - mother's are always blamed for everything) haven't been taught proper values.

In this, I see the elision of gender and nationhood during a time of war in this passage intensifies gendered identification of these particular characteristics in a way that indicates the separate spheres of men and women in public life. One reason for prohibiting women from the public sphere of business and politics was that they lacked this education in proper values and the sense of fair play. By associating the feminine and foul play with Germany, Heyliger provides boys with moral authority to overrun, overturn, overthrow, the feminine, un-masculine elements in society.

I'm not sure where I am going with all of this, but I am very aware of the irony that this was published in a journal read primarily by women.

1 comment:

max said...


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