Reviews 2009

Owner of the means of instruction? Children’s Literature: some Marxist perspectives

Owner of the means of instruction? Children’s Literature: some Marxist perspectives. Edited by Jenny Plastow. Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2007. 145 pages. £11.99 (paperback).

In 2006 the School of Education at the University of Hertfordshire hosted a conference on “Children’s literature—some Marxist Perspectives.” A year later, the proceedings were published in book form in the new series of Children’s Literature Annuals. The volume contains a high number of contributions—in this review, I will concentrate on those that are closest to the theme of the conference. In his keynote lecture, Michael Rosen argues for the necessity of Marxist perspectives in children’s literature, motivated by contemporary social issues. He sees the failings of the (English) educational system in particular as a sign that Marx’s theory is still valid today and applies the concepts of class struggle and base-super-structure to analyse it. Readers who do not share his view of current social problems will hesitate to follow Rosen. Taken out of their economic and historical context, the application of these core Marxist terms may be somewhat misleading.

David Rudd warns the reader not to resort to one-sided ideological readings of texts: “we should try to recognise more openly the multiple pleasures that texts and their writers offer us, without necessarily decrying them for being simplistically reactionary or progressive” (45). His rereading of Bill Naughton’s Spit Nolan is an outstanding illustration of such practice, eschewing a purely Marxist view and widening instead the scope to the religious allusions in the text. Rudd’s essay also succeeds in addressing critically but fairly the literary views of scholars with a Marxist leaning, such as Jack Zipes, and manages to make the thoughts of another Marxist, Slavoj Žižek, applicable to children’s literature research without succumbing to this world view himself.

Because of its long theoretical tradition, as well as its history as political practice, a clear concept of Marxism is important when writing on such a controversial ideology. In “A Journey to Utopia,” Anne-Marie Bird falls victim to a simplified understanding of Marxism. In its core, her paper is an insightful and well-written interpretation of Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child. But it is unconvincing in its attempt to link Hoban’s analysis of the American dream in the 1960s to Marxist ideology. For Bird, any criticism of capitalism seems to qualify as Marxism. But if we follow her interpretation of the novel’s end as depicting, in the words of Frederic Jameson, “a utopia of misfits and oddballs” (66), then the utopia being displayed here is anything but Marxist. The entourage of the doll house rather appears as what Marx vilifies as a “lumpenproletariat” in his Communist Manifest, an obstacle for the rule of the working masses. Unfortunately, the reference to Marxism here obfuscates an otherwise lucid paper.

Meanwhile, the essays of Pat Pinsent (“Catholicism, Class and Cultural Identity in British Children’s Fiction”), Farah Mendelson (“Writing the Future Red: Writers on Science Fiction”), and Jean Webb (“Swash-buckler with a re-fashioned sword?”) do not seem to apply any specifically Marxist perspective at all. That is not to say they are not worthwhile to read—all of these papers are interesting in their own right; it is just that the connection with Marxism is more insinuated than argued for.

In contrast, not complying with the theme of the conference is not something Victoria de Rijke can be accused of. Instead, her paper “The Revolutionary Quack,” with Martin Waddell’s and Helen Oxenbury’s Farmer Duck as its subject of interest, is largely a propagation of Marxism, although not in the form of a stringent argumentation but as a sometimes confusing tapestry of quotes, lifetime data of prominent Marxists, and political outbursts. The essay mounts up to a distinct ideological conclusion: “Farmer Duck leads proletarian 5 year olds to recognise their role in the class struggle, as they identify with the oppressed and the revolution required to overthrow it” (129-130).

In addition to these scholarly papers, the conference proceedings include essays and texts by the authors Richard MacSween, David Harrold, Conor Kostick, Rhiannon Lassiter, and Beverley Naidoo, who at their best give interesting accounts of how writers conceive their works and how they themselves choose to understand them. The book contains several photos taken at the conference, and some of the articles are illustrated with pictures from children’s literature. It is not always clear, however, why some illustrations were chosen, as they do not seem to come from the works being discussed. It is also unfortunate that the sources of these illustrations are not mentioned anywhere in the publication, and even more so that the page numbers of quotes are not referred to.

As Jenny Plastow puts it in her introductory remarks, the publishers wanted to give the reader “the flavour of the event, salty and challenging, engaging and confrontational—and funny” (5). With its photos, illustrations and mixture of scholarly articles and essays, the publication bears witness to a certain playfulness. Such an approach will not find the approval of everyone, and may even annoy some. Maybe some aspects of Marxist thinking can be salvaged from the ruins left by state communism, and maybe this is a worthwhile endeavour. But a revival of Marxist theory has to be argued for; it cannot be taken for granted—unfortunately, the publishers fail in this respect. Those who still want to separate the thinking of Marx from the catastrophes of the twentieth century must first refute the arguments of his critics, in particular the objections raised by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies. It could be that this objection misses a point. Seemingly, this publication intends to establish Marxist perspectives that do not refer to Marx, as none of the references includes the works of Marx and Engels, and none of the essays quotes directly from them.

Ulf Schöne