Reading Agency: The Making of Modern German Childhoods, 1770-1850
Pedagogical innovations, the development of new book genres and markets, and an increased emphasis on bourgeois domesticity conspired at the end of the eighteenth century to make German-speaking Central Europe a key site for reimagining the socialization of children and ideologies of childhood. How children’s reading contributed to radical transformations of modern Western childhood around 1800 is the central question of my dissertation. My research was significantly advanced by a month-long visit in June 2011 which allowed me to explore the extraordinary holdings of the Cotsen Children’s Library, supported by a grant from the Friends of the Princeton University Library.
This project is especially concerned with children themselves as they contributed to the making of a new vision of childhood. Children’s literature presents an intriguing intersection of adult desires to shape childhood and the agency of the child readers themselves. Observing the ways in which children subvert the intentions of authors and educators through their own reading, misreading, rereading, not reading, and so on is a powerful tool to engage the overlooked agency of children.
During my stay at Princeton, I examined a range of materials in the Cotsen collection, including periodicals, fairy tales, world histories and geography textbooks particularly relevant to this project, as well as illustrated books, encyclopedias, and other items which have given me a deeper understanding of German children’s reading world. I particularly appreciated the unusual opportunity to see rare texts such as a complete set of Wilhelm Hauff’s Märchen-Almanach (Fairy Tale Almanac, 1826-28) and absolutely unique holdings such as Das kleine Fabel- und Erzählungs-Buch für kleine folgsame Mädchen (The Little Book of Fables and Tales for Obedient Little Girls, 1800) and Leopold Chimani’s Die Freuden und Lasten der verschiedenen Stände (The Pleasures and Burdens of the Different Classes, 1841).
I will briefly describe three examples to illustrate the kinds of discoveries this research visit afforded. The first, Die Reise von Prag nach Wien: Ein geographisches Spiel für die Jugend, or The Journey from Prague to Vienna: A Geography Game for Youth, is a board game from the 1780s which requires players to answer geography questions correctly to advance around the board. The playing board displays a map with drawings of people, carriages, natural features, and landmarks, illustrating possible interactions and catastrophes of traveling on the road. This remarkable item is particularly of interest for this project in the way in which it connects explicit instructional aims of teaching geography with a new sentimental approach to socializing children that emphasized pleasure and amusement alongside education. The second is a world history schoolbook aimed at especially young children, Luise Hölder’s Kleine Weltgeschichte: von den ältesten bis auf die neuesten Zeiten in anziehenden, regelmässig fortlaufenden Erzählungen für Kinder von 6 bis 12 Jahren, or Little World History from Ancient to Contemporary Times in Appealing, Regularly Continuous Tales for Children from 6 to 12 Years Old (1823). The content of this text is quite conventional and similar to world history textbooks for older students, but the most surprising element of the text comes in the illustrations. Rather than depicting the subjects of the narrative in typical classical scenes, these images show children themselves dressed up as the historical figures and brandishing odd props to act out the scene. A third example, Christian Schulz’s Mungo Park's Reise in Afrika: für die Jugend bearbeitet (Mungo Park’s Travels in Africa: Edited for Youth), was published in 1805, the year Park’s second expedition in Africa disappeared. When I requested this volume and its companion, I. G. Stedmann's Reisen in Surinam, I assumed that they would be simple German translations of the original British texts and might reveal something about transnational publishing. I was pleasantly surprised to find something much more interesting: the Mungo Park book is in fact an entirely reworked text, framed as a dialogue between a father and his children. Again, the new ideology of sentimental child-parent relations is bound up in educational concerns—in this case, a rising emphasis on the importance of geographic learning.
I would like to thank the Friends of the Princeton University Library for the support which allowed me to encounter and explore such fascinating materials. I cannot say enough in gratitude for the knowledgeable and helpful staff at the Cotsen Children’s Library and in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room. Andrea Immel and Aaron Pickett’s command of the field ranges far beyond the specific materials held in the Cotsen collection, but beyond their professional advice I appreciate even more their friendliness and generosity during a very busy time.