A Child’s Heart

Dew — is the Freshet in the Grass —
‘Tis many a tiny Mill
Turns unperceived beneath our feet
And Artisan lies still —

We spy the Forests and the Hills
The Tents to Nature’s Show
Mistake the Outside for the in
And mention what we saw.

Could Commentators on the Sign
Of Nature’s Caravan
Obtain “Admission” as a Child
Some Wednesday Afternoon.

~Emily Dickinson


John Steinbeck was born on this day, February 27th in 1902.  His masterful prose, as for William Wordsworth and William Blake, was based on the belief that a child’s lucid vision captures the essentials. Steinbeck scrawled reminders to himself: capture a “child’s vision” because “adults haven’t the clear fine judgment of children.” That meant to write with precision and freshness. Truth is like clear pure water.

In his book The Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck wrote:

We have not known a single great scientist who could not discourse freely and interestingly with a child. Can it be that the haters of clarity have nothing to say, have observed nothing, have no clear picture of even their own fields? A dull man seems to be a dull man no matter what his field, and of course it is the right of a dull scientist to protect himself with feathers and robes, emblems and degrees, as do other dull men who are potentates and grand imperial rulers of lodges of dull men.

When Emily Dickinson wrote of “obtaining admission as a Child” to Nature’s Caravan, she evoked the words of Jesus who reminded his listeners that entering into the kingdom of God requires doing so as a child. In all of the complexity of such a profound truth, the picture is that of a wide-eyed child whose heart is filled with joy and delight.

Luke 18:15-17

And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them.

But Jesus called for them, saying,

“Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”

D I G  D E E P E R


John Steinbeck

(born Feb. 27, 1902, Salinas, Calif., U.S.—died Dec. 20, 1968, New York, N.Y.) American novelist, best known for The Grapes of Wrath (1939), which summed up the bitterness of the Great Depression decade and aroused widespread sympathy for the plight of migratory farmworkers. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1962.

Steinbeck attended Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., intermittently between 1920 and 1926 but did not take a degree. Before his books attained success, he spent considerable time supporting himself as a manual labourer while writing, and his experiences lent authenticity to his depictions of the lives of the workers in his stories. He spent much of his life in Monterey county, Calif., which later was the setting of some of his fiction.

Steinbeck’s first novel, Cup of Gold (1929), was followed by The Pastures of Heaven (1932) and To a God Unknown (1933), none of which were successful. He first achieved popularity with Tortilla Flat (1935), an affectionately told story of Mexican Americans. The mood of gentle humour turned to one of unrelenting grimness in his next novel, In Dubious Battle (1936), a classic account of a strike by agricultural labourers and a pair of Marxist labour organizers who engineer it. The novella Of Mice and Men (1937), which also appeared in play and film versions, is a tragic story about the strange, complex bond between two migrant labourers. The Grapes of Wrath won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and was made into a notable film in 1940. The novel is about the migration of a dispossessed family from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California and describes their subsequent exploitation by a ruthless system of agricultural economics.

After the best-selling success of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went to Mexico to collect marine life with the freelance biologist Edward F. Ricketts, and the two men collaborated in writing Sea of Cortez (1941), a study of the fauna of the Gulf of California. During World War II Steinbeck wrote some effective pieces of government propaganda, among them The Moon Is Down (1942), a novel of Norwegians under the Nazis, and he also served as a war correspondent. His immediate postwar work—Cannery Row (1945), The Pearl (1947), and The Wayward Bus (1947)—contained the familiar elements of his social criticism but were more relaxed in approach and sentimental in tone.

Steinbeck’s later writings—which include Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), about Steinbeck’s experiences as he drove across the United States—were interspersed with three conscientious attempts to reassert his stature as a major novelist: Burning Bright (1950), East of Eden (1952), and The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). In critical opinion, none equaled his earlier achievement. East of Eden, an ambitious epic about the moral relations between a California farmer and his two sons, was made into a film in 1955. Steinbeck himself wrote the scripts for the film versions of his stories The Pearl (1948) and The Red Pony (1949). Outstanding among the scripts he wrote directly for motion pictures were Forgotten Village (1941) and Viva Zapata! (1952).

Steinbeck’s reputation rests mostly on the naturalistic novels with proletarian themes he wrote in the 1930s; it is in these works that his building of rich symbolic structures and his attempts at conveying mythopoeic and archetypal qualities in his characters are most effective.

Encyclopedia Britannica (Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2016).

Children in Literature and Liturgy

The relationship between God and his chosen people, often described in the Bible as a marriage, is also figured in terms of a parent-child relationship (e.g., Deut. 14:1; see also Pss. 73:15; 103:13). Occasionally in the OT Gentiles are also referred to as children of God (e.g., Isa. 45:11). In the NT what the Israelites were by birthright Gentile Christians, according to the apostle Paul, could hope to be by adoption: “He hath chosen us. … Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself” (Eph. 1:4–5; see also Rom. 8:15–23; Gal. 4:5). Just as there are children of the flesh, then, so there are also “children of the promise,” and these may be as Isaac was to Ishmael—“not children of the bondwoman, but of the free” (Gal. 4:22–31).

The injunction to “honour thy father and thy mother” is prominent among the Ten Commandments and the first commandment with a promise attached. Dependence, trust, and humility are taken as normative in a child’s relationship to his or her parents and, indeed, in that of the children of God to their heavenly Father: “LORD my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty … as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child” (Ps. 131:2). Thus, when Jeremiah was called by God, he pleaded inadequacy in terms of childlike dependence: “Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.” Exemplary obedience and trust are likewise emphasized in the story of the child Samuel, as well as in canonical accounts of Jesus’ childhood. (Extrabiblical childhood narratives, by contrast, are concerned to demonstrate that Jesus’ divine powers were already present in his early years.) Such qualities are also assumed in Christ’s words, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:13–16; cf. Matt. 11:25; 18:3). It was a child whom St. Augustine heard in his garden, saying, “Tolle, lege; tolle, lege” (“Take it up, read; take it up, read”) (Conf., bk. 8). Since Augustine was struggling at this time against (among other things) his Manichaean desires for special knowledge, the child seems to recall not only humility like Jeremiah’s but also the biblical tradition of divine wisdom which is often seen as foolishness in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18–27).

In English literary tradition Vaughan, Traherne, Herbert, Herrick, and Crashaw among others adopt a posture of comparable humility: each writes poems using a child, or a childlike persona (see, e.g., Herrick’s “To his Saviour, a Child; a Present, by a Child” and Herbert’s “H. Baptisme II”). Chaucer’s Prioress, too, wants to be seen as a participant in this tradition. She realizes that God can be praised “by the mouth of children” as well as “by men of dignitee” (Prologue to the Prioress’s Tale) and so hopes that, like the child in her tale, she might sing a song of praise. But since she neglects her adult and spiritual responsibilities, the apostle Paul probably provides the aptest gloss: “In malice be ye children, but in understanding be ye men” (1 Cor. 14:20; cf. Matt. 10:16). Paul is expressing his displeasure that the Corinthians are still spiritual children at a time when they ought to have developed in the faith. As Augustine puts it, “Let your old age be childlike, and your childhood like old age; that is, that neither may your wisdom be with pride, nor your humility without wisdom” (Enarr. in Ps. 113.2 [NPNF 8.548]; see also Enarr. in Ps. 131.5 [NPNF 8.615).

The Bible has little to say about the innocence of children. Even Christ’s “Except you be converted, and become as little children” (Matt. 18:3) has more to do with humility and obedience than innocence per se. In traditional Christian thought, innocence is attached to infancy but not to childhood. The infant, although guilty of original sin, has not the capacity to turn the inclination to sin into actual sin; hence the phrase “the slaughter of the innocents” used of Herod’s murder of infants (cf. Augustine’s comment that “the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind” (Conf., bk. 1).

The notion of childhood innocence arose in connection with the Enlightenment’s rejection of the doctrine of original sin and belief in naturally good human nature being perverted by evil social customs. Rousseau’s Emile is the key statement of this view, although Locke’s philosophy of education had already shifted the understanding of human nature away from original sin to human potentialities and so made the education of children more important—because more promising—than hitherto. Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is an important Romantic expression of the Enlightenment view of childhood, as are Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience,” which together reflect the author’s gnostic belief that good has to encompass evil but that innocence can be recovered on a higher level of inclusive gnosis.

Victorian literature is characterized by a sentimental view of children. Many of Dickens’s child protagonists, embodying a kind of Edenic innocence, act as parents to their elders, protecting adults who have become victims of an evil environment. Thus Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop embodies both the tradition of the innocence of the child—being contrasted with the evil Quilp and with all the ancient instruments of war which surround her in the Shop—and the tradition of the wisdom of the child—as in her reversing roles with her grandfather (chaps. 15 and 16).

By the end of the 19th cent., reaction to Victorian sentimentality gave rise to a more realistic (and sometimes Christian) portrayal of children as by nature inclined to evil rather than good and deserving to be made accountable for their actions. Literary examples of this changed attitude include Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and More Beasts for Worse Children, and the stories of P. G. Wodehouse. Wodehouse’s early school stories show children as displaying the same good and evil characteristics found in adults.

Increasingly, though, his fiction portrays children as consistently adult in their capacity for evil but lacking in adult social conscience. Wodehouse’s spirited female adults encourage girl children to act on their antisocial impulses. His male adults view with dismay the destructive deeds of their boy counterparts, often expressing sympathy for Herod’s solution to the problem of their continued existence.

Freud’s theories of sexuality in infants support the new antisentimental view of childhood innocence which is reflected in such books as Richard Hughes’s High Wind in Jamaica. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is in the same tradition, having been written, the author says, as a deliberate refutation of the view of boyhood projected in R. M. Ballantyne’s popular adventure story, Coral Island (1858).

Bibliography. d’Ariès, P. Centuries of Childhood (1962); Marcus, L. S. Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth Century Literature (1978); Stone, H. Dickens and the Invisible World (1979); Walquist, D. J. “The Best Copy of Adam: Seventeenth-Century Attitudes Toward Childhood and the Poetry of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne.” DAI 39 (1979), 6785A. David L. Jeffrey, A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992).

Header Image by Tom Darin Liskey

 

 

 

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Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life