15 September 2007

American Fantasy Before the War

In a comment on yesterday's posting about Knight's Castle, Fuse mused:

It recently occurred to me that Eager is one of the rare American fantasy authors aside from Baum that are still read today. Obviously he owes much to Nesbit, but when I was trying to come up with American fantasy pre-60s that's still popular, I found myself oddly stuck.
I think this question is directed at the classic Baum/Nesbit model of novels for kids of primary or middle school-age involving fantastic events, either in a fairyland or in an America their readers recognize. I can think of a handful of other American fantasy authors from the 1940s and '50s whose work remains widely available:
  • Robert McCloskey's Homer Price (1943) and Centerburg Tales (1951). Tall tales more than full-blown magical adventures, those stories nevertheless do often defy the laws of nature.
  • E. B. White's Stuart Little (1945). Unless one believes babies can be born in the form of mice.
  • William Pène du Bois's Twenty-One Balloons (1947), because of its Newbery Medal (I was surprised to find his Peter Graves from 1950 out of print). An homage to Verne, perhaps an unknowing progenitor of steampunk.
  • Betty McDonald's Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle titles (1947-1957). Moralistic magic from America's Mary Poppins.
  • Ruth Stiles Gannett's My Father's Dragon trilogy (1948-1951). Dragons--what more can I say?
But that simply pushes back the timeframe for Fuse's question. What was going on in American juvenile fantasy in the years between Glinda of Oz (1920) and Homer Price? Who in America was writing children's fantasy novels in the 1920s and '30s? And where did those books go?

Tomorrow I'll discuss some forgotten or nearly forgotten fantasy titles. But for now I'll note some other places where young American readers could have gotten their recommended dose of magic in those decades.

First, there were British fantasies--and fantasies that seemed very British, even if they were written in America. Hugh Lofting composed his Doctor Dolittle series (1920-1948) in Connecticut, but he set them in his native England, and in the past. Likewise, Margery Williams was an English emigré, and her Velveteen Rabbit (1922) retains the feel of Victorian or Edwardian children's literature.

This might just reflect what the ALA committees of the time loved, but there seem to have been lots of collections of legends and fairy tales. Among them, Ella Young wrote such story cycles as The Unicorn with Silver Shoes (1932), retelling and building on Celtic legends. (All I know about her I learned from Ruth Berman.)

And we have to consider literature that not everyone liked to consider as literature. The 1920s and '30s saw a proliferation of American daily newspaper comics with fantastic elements: among them, Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Buck Rogers (the last spun out of magazine stories). Then in the 1930s and '40s came comic books, including the superhero and monster genres. Comics in both forms could feed young readers' interest in fantasy without bogging them down in novels.

Dime novels gave birth in 1910 to the Tom Swift series, nascent science fiction for young readers by whoever was writing as Victor Appleton that week. Amazing Stories magazine appeared in 1926, and competitors soon afterward. Although these magazines weren't marketed to young readers, they had older juvenile readers, and some contributors, such as Robert A. Heinlein, later wrote for teens.

Finally, a bunch of American fantasists in the early 1900s created books or characters that are still going strong, though they didn't write for children: Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Lester Dent (creating Doc Savage under the house name of Kenneth Robeson). So it was not an unfantastic time.

TOMORROW: Forgotten American fantasies?


Jared said...

Well, actually, "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Hobbit" are pre-1960...

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, but they're British.

Other pre-1960 British children's fantasies still popular include P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins (1934-), Lucy M. Boston's Green Knowe (1954-), Mary Norton's The Borrowers (1955-), and Michael Bond's Paddington (1958-).

fusenumber8 said...

Well exactly. I apologize for not being more clear. When I said pre-1960 I meant fantasies (which you so rightly assumed). I suppose there was the delightful "Journey to the Mushroom Planet" books, but I'll be looking forward to reading the other titles that occur to you.

J. L. Bell said...

Canada claims Eleanor Cameron, author of the Mushroom Planet books (1954-), but since she grew up and lived most of her life in California, I think we can count her as another American.

That sort of not-very-scientific science fiction offers another clue to what happened to fantasy writing in the 20th century. Though there was science-based speculative fiction before, it became a powerhouse genre in the 1900s.

That may have simultaneously pushed fantasy toward more "old-fashioned" forms (fairy tales, high fantasy, sword and sorcery) while providing a separate outlet for readers' out-of-this-world interests. Fairies became aliens, fairylands became other planets, magical washtubs became spaceships.

eric shanower said...

Eleanor Cameron died in 1996 (or was it '97). Her son David, who was the basis for the David in the Mushroom Planet books, died about 6 months after she did.

She was working on another Mushroom Planet book when she passed away. She finished a manuscript, titled Stones from the Moom, I believe. It needed a lot of work still, which she recognized, since she left a bunch of notes for changes.

She attended a couple Winkie conventions in the mid-1980s.