23 October 2009

Mary Sues of the 19th Century

Months back, I noted this passage from “Too Good to Be True: 100 Years of Mary Sue”, by Pat Pflieger. For those who have had the pleasure not to encounter a “Mary Sue,” the term was invented to classify some fanfiction writers’ tendency to insert original characters into established worlds—too-perfect characters who, it becomes clear, are stand-ins for the writers and all that they wish to accomplish or say in that world.

But the phenomenon well predates the moment adolescents had the bright idea of writing their own Twilight, Harry Potter, or even Star Trek stories.

Nineteenth-century versions appear in the pages of Robert Merry’s Museum. Founded in 1841 by Samuel Goodrich, by the time the magazine was absorbed by the Youth’s Companion in 1872, it had featured works by every major nineteenth-century American writer for children, from Goodrich to [Louisa May] Alcott, Jacob Abbott, Mary Mapes Dodge, and Sophie May.

It also published works by lesser literary lights, most notably the subscribers themselves, who made the magazine their own from 1857 to 1868. While boys tended to write non-fiction articles, girls most often wrote stories and poems—some about wonderful girls whose accomplishments and charms are tangibly appreciated by those around them.

Emily Martin, who in 1862 saves a sleeping Indian chief from certain death by bear; Maia, whose gentleness and kindness are extolled by animals and elves in 1858; Unella, a white child raised by Native Americans in 1865, so lovable that she holds the entire village in a gentle thralldom; even little Ellen, who dies beautifully of her mother's thoughtlessness in 1849—all have elements we associate with Mary Sue.
Most of Pflieger’s essay is about examples and traits of the modern Mary Sue. But it’s refreshing to realize that she’s always been with us.

Check out Pflieger’s website on “Nineteenth-Century American Children and What They Read” for more images and stories from Robert Merry’s Museum and other popular magazines of the era.

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