Petros Panaou


[I] Nation-ness    

    Many theorists, including Anderson, Balibar, Gellner, Nairn, Poole, and Wallerstein, have argued that nationhood is a phenomenon of the past two centuries. Even though their views are particularly postmodern, because of their agreement about the nation’s modernity, they are sometimes referred to as “the modernists.” The “modernists” identify the economic, social, and political changes wrought by the Industrial and French Revolutions as the main causes of the nation’s inception. These world-changing phenomena brought dramatic transformations within western industrialized societies.

   Tom Nairn supports that the nation was a particularly middle class construct, which nonetheless needed to include the working classes as well. The middle classes needed “to invite the masses into history; and the invitation had to be written in a language they understood” (340). This common “language” was nationalism. The masses understood it because nationalism had the potential to embrace and be embraced by all members of the nation regardless of their social or economic status.

    Benedict Anderson drives the point home when he stresses that the nation is always conceived as a community, a deep, horizontal comradeship, regardless of the inequality that actually exists among its members. Anderson’s Imagined Communities is probably the most celebrated and often-cited “modernist” text about nation-formation. His meticulous deconstruction of nation-ness, combined with a dense and documented description of the historical milieu that led to the imagining of the nation, has established his influence across a variety of disciplines.

Anderson’s central argument is that the artifacts of nation-ness and nationalism were created towards the end of the eighteenth century as a result of a complex “crossing” of discrete historical forces. He also supports through several examples that, once created, these artifacts became “modular”:

[…] capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations. (Anderson 4)

In an “anthropological spirit,” he defines the nation as “an imagined political community”; “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (5-6). The nation is “imagined” because in spite of the fact that its members will never meet most of their fellow-members, they sustain a constant mental image of their communion. And the nation is imagined as “limited” because even the largest nation, has flexible but finite boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. Finally, it is imagined as “sovereign” because nations always dream of being free.

But do nations dream by themselves like real persons do, or is this one of the impetuses for people to form nations? In this last characteristic lies a big part of Anderson’s theory about the manner in which the first nations were imagined. The nation came to be during an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were undermining the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm, while at the same time universal religions were confronted with the pluralism of religions in the newly “discovered” world. Modern nation-ness, via the ideal of freedom and sovereignty, came to supplement the metaphysical and political gaps created by these transformations.

Freedom, Liberty, Ελευθερία or Liberté was the object of a new, political religion that came to supplement traditional religion and dynastic monarchy. Delacroix’s radiating goddess proved to be a powerful nationalizing idol that peoples around the world were willing to follow, abide to, and even kill and die for. Interestingly enough, Delacroix chooses to place an armed child next to his armed Liberté. In a similar gesture, I would like to place next to Anderson’s modern nation, Ariès’s observations regarding the modernity of childhood.

[II] Nation-ness and Child-ness

If Benedict Anderson personifies the “modernist” approach to nation-ness, Philipe Ariès epitomizes the “modernist” approach to child-ness; it seems to me that the two speak to each other in more than one ways.  In his most often-cited statement, Ariès declares that “in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist” (Ariès 125). Ariès, similarly to Anderson, has helped us recognize another naturalized cultural artifact.  Like nation-ness, child-ness is also a modern construct. As Kincaid suggests, we have come to realize that, rather than being an “eternal” condition that must be “protected,” childhood innocence is something that gets “inculcated and enforced” upon children.

Basing his argument mainly on an analysis of medieval paintings, Ariès asserts that prior to fifteenth century children were depicted simply as miniature adults.

Childhood was an insignificant phase of dependency that was passed over quickly. He traces the “evolution” of childhood as a separate, identifiable subject in painting, postulating that while “the discovery of childhood” is first encountered in thirteenth century art and continues to be present in the art of subsequent centuries, major changes in the perception of childhood only became intensely evident in seventeenth century art. These pictorial differentiations, according to Ariès, indicate an emerging perception of children as a separate group with specific attitudes, needs, and characteristics.

While several scholars have challenged his postulation that the idea of childhood did not exist prior to the period he examines , it is hard to challenge the fact that modern, universal childhood is indeed a social construct, which was created in the 1600s and was given a solid form during the centuries that followed. Sharon Stephens suggests that,

[…] even if we modify Ariès’s bold thesis and acknowledge that every known society has concepts and practices that in some respects mark off children from adults in order to assure physical care and socialization for biologically immature human beings, the originality and generativity of Ariès’s claim remain. The particular form of modern childhood is socially and historically specific. (5)

Most historians and sociologists of Western childhood point to the nineteenth century as the period that saw an intense preoccupation with child-ness which led to the universalization of innocent childhood. In “Constructions and Reconstructions of British Childhood: An Interpretative Survey, 1800 to the present,” Harry Hendrick focuses on the social structuring of childhood in nineteenth-century Britain:

In 1800 the meaning of childhood was ambiguous and not universally in demand. By 1914 the uncertainty had been resolved and the identity determined, at least to the satisfaction of the middle class and the respectable working class
. (36)

   Composing a meticulous sociological analysis, Hendrick points to a gradual cultural shift that took place throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; a cultural shift that transcended socially and geographically specific imaginings of childhood and produced a uniform, coherent, and universal model of child-ness. Some of the central institutions that acted upon childhood at the time were the legislative authorities, the “domestic ideal” (i.e., the nuclear family), public schooling and welfare, and political groups that endorsed a reformation of the working class.

     One could describe the entire process as the political and cultural project which brought about the nationalizing of childhood in Britain. A truly national childhood meant a nationally controlled, universal, innocent childhood; the desired “nature” of childhood had finally been brought under the state’s control and was reproduced across regions and social classes.

    The constructions and reconstructions of British childhood which Hendrick describes were an integral part of a wider construction and reconstruction of the British nation . As we have mentioned earlier, the “central challenge” in the nation-building process was how to control the workers. And eventually, the middle and upper classes realized that this control was only going to be achieved through the mechanism of mass schooling.

[III] Nation-ness, Child-ness, and Children’s Literature

    If the child has been central in the imagining of the nation, then there should be no doubt about the centrality of children’s literature in this imagining. Language and print literacy, via public education, played a fundamental role in establishing universal/national childhood. In Britain and elsewhere, children’s literature was influenced by, and actively contributed to, all of the important cultural changes that took place during the nineteenth century.

    To begin with, language in general played a central role in the formation of nations. German Romantics, particularly idealist philosophers such as Herder and Hegel, believed that, “the nation is formed out of people who share a common spirit (Volksgeist) which manifests itself in their language, their customs, their myths and their culture” (Reicher 8). Language is often elevated to symbolical heights by politicians who strive to ensure the nation’s continuity through language or to mobilize their fellow nationals and others in support of their political projects. Oral and written language is often cited as evidence of the national character.

    For Benedict Anderson, the nation’s written language is more than an emblem of nationality; it is rather a means of imagining. Anderson cites mass literacy as a major historical factor in the process of imagining the nation. He argues that seventeenth century print capitalism contributed to the formation of nations by replacing the homogenizing Latin with local vernaculars. After a saturation of the elite Latin market, the logic of capitalism urged printers to address the masses in their vernaculars. And when a group comes to identify, respect, read, and write its own distinct language, then it may as well imagine its own distinct nation.

    Anderson argues quite convincingly that literature--namely, the invention of the novel--along with the newspaper “provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation” (25).

    If the novel was as central in the imagining of the nation as Anderson asserts, then there should be no doubt about the contribution of children’s books in this imagining. We have already examined how public mass schooling brought a successful closure to the process of universalizing childhood and passing it under national control. Undeniably, children’s literature, as part of both national language and national education, actively participated in this process.

    In Germany, Grimm’s fairytales played an important nationalizing role. Jack Zipes asserts that “the fairy tale as an institution became a sacred meeting place of readers from the agrarian, middle-class, and aristocratic sectors of the population” (119). “It was within this institution,” Zipes argues, “that all social classes in what was to become Germany could unite” (120).

Alida Poeti explains how Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio (1881) contributed to the process of instituting a national language for the newly unified Italy, which was still struggling for national identity:

Before the introduction of compulsory education for children after unification (1871), Italy’s many dialects and regional variants hindered the development of a widely spoken national language. Pinocchio’s wide appeal to both children and adults, however, did more to spread the use of the language than the many school textbooks Collodi wrote on commission […] (210)

Indeed, since children’s texts across Europe were printed from the beginning in nationalizing vernaculars, they played a significant role in the establishing of standard national languages. Poeti implies here that it is the focus of children’s literature on delight that rendered it so effective in spreading the national language.

Gail S. Murray sees in early American children’s literature an intentional differentiation from British literature. In this case, even though children’s books on both sides of the Atlantic were written in the same language, national identity was reinforced through cultural differentiation: “Republican virtue and Protestant evangelicalism” were “combined by such perceptive early American children’s authors as Jacob Abbott and William Holmes McGuffey to develop a unique, indigenous American literature” (24).

A nation’s literature for children can even construct national identity. In the following excerpt from Picture Books Sans Frontiers, Penni Cotton attributes this role to the literature of two European nations:

Through books, children can become aware that they are a nation family. For     example in Finland, once it gained independence from Sweden, it was the Finnish     language used in children’s books which began to strengthen the country’s identity.     Similarly, Luxembourg has been using a newly found Luxenbourgish children’s     writer to bring back the nation’s language and identity to its peopl
e. (Cotton 23)

    Most scholars accept Harvey Darton’s definition of children’s books as “works produced ostensibly to give children spontaneous pleasure, and not primarily to teach them” (qtd. in Nodelman 69), but even if these books do not teach explicitly, one cannot ignore their potential to socialize or even nationalize. To repeat a cliché, children’s literature either supports or subverts dominant/national ideology.

Children’s literature had a multifaceted participation in the imagining of the nation: It contributed to the spread and homogenization of the nation’s standard language, it facilitated the “steady supply” of literate, democratic citizenry for the nation, and it promoted national awareness and unity in a considerably more overt fashion than adult literature did. Consequently, we shouldn’t be shocked to find out that in many countries, both in the present and in the past, children’s literature that supports dominant/national ideology is promoted by the state through national grants and awards or through its inclusion in school textbooks. On the other hand, literature that subverts dominant/national ideology is often downgraded, banned, or violently rejected.

    Children’s literature and child-ness continue to be vital for the nation today; perhaps they are now more important than ever, since they can assist the nation in its defense against globalization. As Henry Jenkins emphasizes, the construct of childhood innocence, still holding strong today, “presumes that children exist in a space beyond, above, outside the political; we imagine them to be noncombatants whom we protect from the harsh realities of the adult world.” Yet, Jenkins continues, “in reality, almost every major political battle of the twentieth century has been fought on the backs of our children” (1-2).

Petros Panaou (Greece)
IBBY World Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 2008