Wordsworth once wrote “Heaven lies about us in our infancy”. This would become the dominant idea behind the cult of childhood throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, with its influence felt even today. It is a wonderful sentiment but does it hold true for most children? In a word, no. Certainly children should be allowed the chance to live in this idealized world of childhood sublimity but for most children it remained tragically out of reach. For every precocious Alice in Wonderland there were a thousand Alice’s in textile mills toiling away and Peter Pan’s Lost boys could more easily be found in the depths of coal mines, factories or dirty street corners than in lush imagined forests of primal boyhood. From New York to London and From Paris to Istanbul children met the real world with a grim determination and resignation that was far removed from the comfortable nursery of polite, literate society. And then there are the children across the globe who are not so lucky as to be immersed in lingering poverty, the ones surrounded by the ominous presence of war.
If Wordsworth sought to convey an idealized, middle class childhood then Dickens captured the darker truths behind that ideal. While characters such as Tiny Tim and Little Dorritt begin in dire circumstances only to benefit from the rewards of their own purity many of his best creations more closely mirrored the street urchins that were an ever present reminder of London’s ill conceived treatment of children. These children suffer in spite of their moral character or are forced to surrender their purity in the name of survival. That is all to often the reality for children.
Heaven does not lie about most children. It is a distant and uncertain dream obscured by the real world. Maurice Sendak understood this better than most and used his understanding to good effect in many of his stories for children. Selma Lane, an expert on Sendak quotes him as saying “It is a constant miracle that children get through childhood from one day to the next”. Much of his writing explores this very miracle and does so in a manner that is never condescending to children nor overly simplistic for adult readers.
Sendak was the son of a Polish- Jewish immigrant with distinct memories of his father receiving a letter detailing the deaths of his family in the holocaust. Even though Sendak was comfortably ensconced in America and far away from the turmoil of Europe during the war this one event was no doubt a catalyst for his coming to terms with the very real difference between literary childhood and their real world counterparts. After all in a global madness that stole the lives of 1.6 million Jewish children where can one hope to find heaven anywhere, least of all circling a child with its halo of protection and innocence. Imagine it. 1.6 million Children dead in such a short time and in such gruesome ways. It is a staggering number to which can be added children from Bosnia, Somalia, Mogadishu, Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan, all victims of wars they had no control over. And of course, we can easily add the countless numbers of children who suffer and die due to civil unrest, gang related violence, poverty and the often unforeseen effects of politics. The list keeps growing when we add those children who lose their innocence through abuse, negligence and the failure of parents, schools and communities to offer the necessary protections. Simply imagine a name, any name at all and it will correspond to some child somewhere who never had a chance to know what innocent meant, who would never enjoy a happy jaunt into enchanted woods with a teddy bear companion, or who never found their fairy godmother to take them away and for whom virtue is not it’s own reward. These are the children who are left behind, those who are forgotten and discarded, mangled and mauled and spit out all while we speak of the beauty of childhood and the sweet innocence of a child’s smiling face.
The sad truth is that the bogeyman wins more often than he loses, the wicked stepmother succeeds in breaking the will of the little girls and heaven, for those with the luxury of belief is not an ideal of virtue but a release from pain and sorrow. It is indeed a wonder children grow up at all and yet despite the obstacles, those with a little luck and a lot of nurturing do. There is an elasticity to the emotional state of children that proves surprisingly flexible and that can, with care return to shape. It is the job, no the duty of parents, teachers and indeed all adults to ensure the ideals we take so lightly from the children’s books we have grown to love are allowed to take root in the world. It is no small task but our children’s lives depend on it. We may not be able to end the strife which plagues children around the world, though it is a noble goal, but we can provide the safe and nurturing environment which will in turn allow the idealistic purity and virtue of childhood to flourish. In so doing we create the heaven Wordsworth envisaged so long ago.