Importance Of Great Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
NO greater good fortune can befall a child than to be born into a home where the best books are read, the best music interpreted, and the best talk enjoyed. For in these privileges the richest educational opportunities are supplied. Many things are said to which he lacks the key; but the atmosphere of such a home envelops him in the most receptive years; his imagination is arrested by pictures, sounds, images, facts, which fall into it like seeds into a quick soil; his memory is stored without conscious effort. It is his greatest privilege that a life so large and rich receives him with unstinted hospitality, and offers him all he can receive.
The boy who hears the talk of cultivated men and women at table about current affairs and subjects of permanent interest has the very finest of educational opportunities; the boy who listens to talk which is intentionally brought down to the level of his intelligence is by that act robbed of his opportunities. Parents make no more serious mistake than taking the tone of the family life from the children instead of giving that life, clearly and pervasively, the tone of their own ideals, convictions, and intelligence. Nature does not present one aspect to children, another to mature persons, and a third to the aged; she presents the same phenomena to all, and each age takes that which appeals to it, dimly discerning, at the same time, the larger aspects which are to disclose themselves later on.
There are a great many so-called children's books which are wholesome, entertaining, and educative in a high degree; but they possess these high qualities not because they are children's books, but because they are genuine, veracious, vital, and human; because, in a word, they disclose in their measure the same qualities which make the literary masterpieces what they are. It is a peculiarity of such books that they are quite as interesting to mature as to young readers. Of the great mass of books written specifically for children it is not too much to say that it is a sin to put them in the hands of those who have no standards and are dependent upon the judgment and taste of their elders; a sin against the child's intelligence, growth, and character. Some of these books are innocuous save as wasters of time; many more are sentimental, untrue, and cheap; some are vulgar.
The years which are given over to this artificially prepared reading matter-for it is a profanation to call it literatureare precisely the years when the mind is being most deeply stirred; when the seeds of thought are dropping silently down into the secret and hidden places of the nature. They are the years which decide whether a man shall be creative or imitative; whether he shall be an artist or an artisan. For such a plastic and critical time nothing that can inspire, enrich, and liberate is too good; indeed, the very highest use to which the finest results of human living and doing and thinking and speaking can be put is to feed the mind of childhood in those memorable years when the spirit is finding itself and feeling the beauty of the world. This is the moment when the race takes the child by the hand, and, leaning over it in the silence of solitary hours, whispers to it those secrets of beauty and power and knowledge in the possession of which the mastery of life lies. This is the time when the boy who is to write "Kenilworth" is learning, with bated breath, the great stories and traditions of his race; when the boy who is to write the lines on Tintern Abbey is feeling the wonder of the world and the mystery of fate; when the boy who is to write the "Idylls of the King" is playing at knighthood with his brothers and sisters in the Lincolnshire fields, and the brave group of noble boys and girls are weaving endless romances of old adventure and chivalry. This is the time when, as a rule, the intellectual fortunes of the child are settled for all time.
In these wonderful years of spiritual exploration and discovery the child ought to have access not to cheap stories, artificially and mechanically manufactured to keep it out of mischief, but to the records of the childhood of the race; his true companion is this august but invisible playmate. That which fed the race in its childhood ought to feed each child born into its vast fellowship. The great story-book of mythology, with its splendid figures, its endless shifting of scene, its crowding incident, its heroism and poetry, ought to be open to every child; for mythology is the child's view of the world-a view which deals with obvious things often, but deals with them poetically and with a feeling for their less obvious relations. The dream of the world which those imaginative children who were the fathers of the race dreamed was full of prophetic glimpses of the future, of deep and beautiful visions, of large and splendid achievement, and of that wholesome symbolism in which the deeper meanings of Nature become plain. Out of this dim period, when men first felt the wonder of the world, and felt also the mysterious ties which bound them to Nature, issued that great stream of story which has fed the art of the world for so many centuries, and will feed it to the end of time. For these stories were not manufactured; they grew, and in them is registered the early growth of the race. They are not idle tales; they are deep and rich renderings of the facts of life; they are interpretations and explanations of life in that language of the imagination which is as intelligible to children as to their elders; they are rich in those elements of culture which are the very stuff of which the deepest and widest education is made.
Now this quality, which invests Ulysses, Perseus, Thor, Siegfried, Arthur, and Perceval with such perennial interest, is characteristic of the great books, into so many of which mythology directly enters. The "Odyssey" is not only one of the great reading books of the race; it is also one of the great text-books. Shakespeare is not only a great story-teller; he is also an educator whose like has been seen only two or three times in the history of the world. Teach a child facts without the illumination of the imagination, and you fill the memory; give these facts dramatic sequence and impart to them that symbolic quality which all the arts share, and you stir the depths of a child's nature. The boys whose sole text-books were the "Iliad"and the "Odyssey,"and who learned, therefore, all their history and science in terms of the imagination, became the most original, creative, and variously gifted men who have yet appeared in history; they were drilled and disciplined, but they were also liberated and inspired. A modern writer has happily described Plutarch's "Lives" as "the pasture of great souls"; the place, that is, where such souls are nourished and fed. Now the great poets, novelists, historians, supply the food which develops a strong, clear, original life of the mind; which makes the imagination active and creative; which feeds the young spirit with the deeds and images of heroes; which sets the real in true relations to the ideal.
These writers are quite as much at home with the young as with the mature. Shakespeare is quite as interesting to a healthy boy as any story-writer who strives to feed his appetite for action and adventure; and Shakespeare is a great poet be-sides. He entertains his young guest quite as acceptably as a hired comedian, and he makes a man of him as well. There is no need of making concessions to what is often mistakenly supposed to be the taste of. children by giving them inferior things; let them grow up in the presence of superior things, and they will take to them as easily as they will take to cheaper things. Accustom a child to good painting, and he will never be attracted by inferior pictures; accustom him to good music, and the popular jingle will disgust him; bring him up with Homer, Shakespeare, Plutarch, Herodotus, Scott, Hawthorne, Irving, and it will be unnecessary to warn him against the books which are piled up at the news-stands and sold in railway trains. The boy who grows up in this society will rarely make friends with the vulgar and the unclean; he will love health, honor, truth, intelligence, and manliness. For reading is not only a matter of taste and intelligence; it is a matter of character as well.