WHEN THE GRASS WAS TALLER: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood by Richard N. Coe

WHEN THE GRASS WAS TALLER: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood

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An awesome, encyclopedic survey: rich in detail, thick with theory, strong on practically every account but its pedestrian style. Cee, a professor of French and Comp. Lit. at U. Cal., Davis, has collected--and mastered--a corpus of some 600 ""Childhoods"" (autobiographies of childhood and early adolescence), from all over the world and in half a dozen languages. Naturally most of this material is post-Rousseauean: Coe cites the crucial importance of both Emile (1762), which stressed the fundamental differences between children and adults, and the Confessions (1781-88), which argued for the (often fateful) continuities linking boy and man. The ""first fully perfected example of a Childhood"" for Coe does not appear till 1835 with Stendhal's Vie de Henry Brulard--not just the first part of a life story but (despite its apparently broken-off conclusion) an articulated unit with an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end. From the 19th century to our day, of course, Childhoods have proliferated, and with them attempts to explain the genre. Among many others Coe adduces Peter Marinelli's notion that the pastoral in art was killed off by utilitarianism and industrialization--and replaced by the Childhood: Arcadia is now a matter of memory, not geography. A useful insight, but Coe points out that it doesn't work with authors (like Gorky) who grew up in a setting more like hell than paradise lost. Coe has plenty of his own speculations and categories to offer too. He sees the Childhood as an essentially poetic form, a quasi-magical effort ""to recreate an autonomous, now-vanished self"" that once existed in a ""playful"" dimension (exhaustively defined with help from Johan Huizinga, Jean Piaget, and Roger Caillois). Coe delights in defining species and sub-species: the exotic-didactic Childhood (European child in a non-European surrounding), the exotic-interpretative Childhood (Third World writer elucidating his culture for his ""former colonial masters"" through autobiography), the exotic-schizophrenic Childhood (writers, like Maxine Hong Kingston, caught between two hostile environments), etc. Though he may spend too much time tinkering with such conceptual armatures, Coe does need them, because of the remarkable wealth and variety of his texts, which span the gap from Augustine to Sartre, Gwen Raverat to Claude Brown, Wole Soyinka to Judah Waten. A probing, instructive study built on herculean scholarship.

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 1984
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press