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McLuhan, Youth, and Literature: Part III

By Eleanor Cameron

Perhaps some will not agree with me that the number of real children’s books — like the Borrower and the Green Knowe books, the Little House and the Moffat books, Charlotte’s Web(Harper), Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton), The Return of the Twelves (Coward), The Gammage Cup (Harcourt), the books of Philippa Pearce — those that sit securely as classics in the realm of memorable literature, outnumber the ones you find memorable for teenagers. But for my own satisfaction I want to try to get to the bottom of why this should appear to me to be so.

For one thing, the average writer for teenagers seems to find himself caught between wanting to present a world in which the burgeoning awareness of sex and of sexual desire is overpowering, and at the same time feeling himself inhibited because he is not, after all, writing books to be published for adults and so cannot feel perfectly free and unconfined. Chekhov pointed out that the great writer has a sense of absolute freedom within the discipline of his craft, within his moral point of view, his sense of aesthetic distance. He has reached that point where he can be himself to the utmost degree and can say what he wants to say in exactly the way he wants to say it without descending to the meretricious, the vulgar, or to a cheap voyeurism. And I think that it is this sense of restriction — of not feeling perfectly free to express all he knows to be true of teenage sexual feelings and the teenagers’ deepest attitudes toward them — that so often pulls the quality of the writer’s work for this age down to the level of the bland and the superficial, to what Josh Greenfeld, in a review of Emily Neville’s Fogarty (Harper), called “the cultivated cop-out.” That cop-out, he said, is what is the matter with most children’s books. But what he meant by “the cultivated cop-out” in reference to Emily Neville’s novel was her failure to communicate any real understanding of Fogarty as a man desiring a woman. She closed the door on that scene, and on Fogarty’s emotions in that moment because she possibly hadn’t the knowledge or the power or the courage to face them and delineate them in a way she could handle. And I was sharply resentful at finding a novel about a twenty-three-year-old man reviewed with children’s books (and called by Greenfeld a children’s book) simply because Emily Neville usually writes for teenagers. But resentful above all because “the cultivated cop-out” in a child’s book would have nothing at all to do with lack of frankness about sexual love, but would be guilty of an avoidance of truth regarding some facet of a child’s complex emotions before the age of puberty.

Furthermore, the writer for teenagers so often restricts himself as to implications about life in general. Very seldom do we get the reverberations called up by a sense of the past in teenage stories about contemporary life. The past seems scarcely to exist. More often than not, he avoids complexity of structure and of characterization and meaning. It is as if the writer for older youth is scared to death of losing his rock-tuned, TV-engrossed reader, so that he keeps telling himself, “Keep it simple! Keep it simple!” In an exploration of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service (Walck) [1] I have told why I feel that it fails in its overall impact, and yet by comparison with Neville’s characterization of Fogarty, and with most of Wojciechowska’s, Hentoff’s, and Zindel’s characterizations and structures, I salute the intricacy and handling of Garner’s conception, and the fine characterizations of his Welsh protagonists, Huw Halfbacon and Nancy and Gwyn.

Not only does the writer for youth seem, on the whole, to be incapable of complexity of characterization and meaning, but of subtlety and wit and individuality of style as well. Most of the junior novels sound exactly alike, and many are written in the first person, as Zindel’s are. It is as if the writers felt that only a banal, flatfooted, unevocative way of writing — utterly lacking in the overtones and elliptical expressions the accomplished writer takes pleasure in — would be tolerated by his audience. But surely there can be no more unrewarding prose than is found in these books, written as if by the teenagers themselves. Scarcely ever do their writers educate the ear, give it a chance to become fine-tuned, expand its experience of word play, or provide the reader any opportunity to reach into subtle comprehensions or to grow aesthetically. On the contrary, they offer only those word arrangements teenagers themselves use every day of their lives, which are most often extremely limited modes of expression.

I make no blanket condemnation of I books. For Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is literature and was written in the first person, a remarkable accomplishment when you consider that Huck is unlettered. But so deeply did Mark Twain enter into Huck, into the uniqueness of his personality, and so great was Mark Twain’s own individuality, so sensitive his ear, that he could with integrity bring to his book unforgettable poetic feeling, projected as through Huck’s own sensibility. Joseph Krumgold’s three novels for young people are written in the first person, and especially is . . . and now Miguel (Crowell) rewarding as to style because of Krumgold’s fidelity to all that is profoundly true of Miguel. Adrienne Richard’s Pistol (Atlantic-Little) is told in the first person, but in the plainness of style there is no banality; rather there is great dignity and expressiveness and a certain cumulative power.

Benjamin DeMott, in an essay review of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, has noted what literature possesses for him: “[h]igh spirits, humor, strong narrative rhythms, responsiveness to place as well as person, a swift idiomatic speaking voice, the power to nudge open a door upon common life without instantly banishing delight and wonder” [2]. You might think he was speaking precisely of the Cleavers’ Where the Lilies Bloom (Lippincott), for it answers well to each of DeMott’s requirements. It is told in the first person, but the Cleavers have, above all, the “swift idiomatic speaking voice,” whose attributes in this case are dryness, irony, understatement, and humor in the midst of desperation.

But these people — Huck, Miguel, Pistol, and Mary Call Luther of North Carolina in Where the Lilies Bloom — all inhabit worlds which have nothing to do with the world of acid rock and drugs and TV. They are remote in time or space from all this and speak our language each in his own way. Certainly the great challenge the writer about youth faces is to express the speech of towns and cities in their various uniquenesses and rhythms. June Jordan’s His Own Where (Crowell) is such an expression, specifically the private, poetic expression of black people, and one hopes that from this first adventure Miss Jordan will go on to books of greater depth and power. One recalls here Flannery O’Connor’s advice to young writers of her own region concerning the use of what is timeless and indigenous in the tone and twist of speech in their locality. “In one of Eudora Welty’s stories,” she notes, “a character says, ‘Where I come from, we use fox for yard dogs and owls for chickens, but we sing true.’ Now there is a whole book in that one sentence; and when the people of your section can talk like that, and you ignore it, you’re just not taking advantage of what’s yours. The sound of our talk is too definite to be discarded with impunity, and if the writer tries to get rid of it, he is liable to destroy the better part of his creative power” [3].

On the whole, it would seem that in the case of the average writer of novels for older youth there has been a failure not only of the ear (listening to others and to his own deepest self) but of perception as well. Such perception involves two kinds of seeing the physical act of seeing, doing justice to the visible universe, and the kind of spiritual seeing that leads the writer into every vista of his fictional conception in order to comprehend creatively all of its possibilities. Henry James’ aesthetic distance is of importance here. Lack of aesthetic distance results in emotional imbalance, exaggeration, a distorted view disclosing little but some current preoccupation, and that superficially. The gaining of aesthetic distance brings insight into one’s story, which means living with it long enough to see into its unique and expanding meaning, the opposing of “how true” to “how new.” We have only to compare Wojciechowska’s Shadow of a Bull (Atheneum) with her later novels, The Hollywood Kid (Harper) and Tuned Out (Harper), and Hentoff’s Jazz Country (Harper) with I’m really dragged but nothing gets me down (Harper) to illustrate the point. Even the titles are revealing.

At the far, opposite pole from such teenage problem novels as The Hollywood KidTuned Out, andI’m really dragged are Isabelle Holland’s The Man Without a Face (Lippincott) and Sharon Bell Mathis’ Teacup Full of Roses (Viking). I spoke of the writer’s reaching that point at which he has become so completely himself that he can speak freely of any aspect of human nature. Isabelle Holland writes with the utmost frankness of the sexual response of a fourteen-year-old boy to a homosexual, a response which the boy himself knows to be a momentary, overwhelming release brought about by the desperate need to love and be loved, to trust and be trusted. It is a strong, assured piece of writing that goes directly to the heart of a boy’s deepest wretchedness and his bewildered reaction to a man whose complex nature and private searchings he cannot begin to understand.

I spoke of the lack of style, the lack of intricacy and depth of characterization and situation in the junior novel, resulting from a want of two kinds of perception. Sharon Bell Mathis has perception, and she is incisive, selective, precise. Her style is lean and taut in a book that is composed chiefly of dialogue which not only evokes, without explanation, the identity of the person speaking, but develops his singularity and furthers the action. Movingly, with a beautiful sense of aesthetic distance, Sharon Mathis brings all her characters alive in a situation which speaks truth in a black world, but which would speak truth just as clearly were this novel about a white family. For what she is talking about is the human condition.

But such novels are rare among those for older youth, and most teenagers prefer books published for adults. But then who reads the teenage books? I think that their readers must be younger and younger each year, but what a pity that children should be getting less, spiritually and aesthetically, than they did when they were reading children’s books. On one level alone — that of subject matter — is the novel for older youth more “sophisticated.”

I wonder if one could, with any hopefulness, recommend certain titles that have seemed to this reader to be moving and penetrating fictional creations by writers who have freely and with artistic assurance explored youthful lives between the ages of eleven and sixteen, as Carson McCullers did in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Houghton) and A Member of the Wedding (Houghton). These and the books I have in mind have all been published as adult fiction, and I am led to wonder if perhaps editors should determine to publish no manuscript which will appear in their catalogues “for teenagers” unless they believe it could make its way aesthetically, if not financially, as an adult novel. It is significant in this respect that Harper’s Magazine published a portion of Pistol in its pages before it was completed as a book. And Jean Renvoize’s A Wild Thing (Atlantic-Little), handling with artistry a most difficult subject and written with admirable style, was brought out as a novel for adults in Great Britain. Its American editor, knowing it must be published, realized it would be lost in the adult market in this country, and so presented it as a novel for older youth. In this category it has been so warmly received that its life will undoubtedly be a long one.

I have read and reread Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (Knopf), the story of a sixteen-year-old girl sent to live in a household full of elusive corruptions which she has at first no way of understanding or suspecting, and as the full force of these corruptions is borne in upon her, she goes almost mad with bewilderment. The structure of the book is not particularly complex, but the precision, the minuteness and delicacy of exploration of the human beings involved is surely matched by only a handful of other novels dealing with the subject of a young girl’s slow awakening to the actuality of corruption.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (Macmillan) ranges with merciless clarity, yet with tenderness, the tempestuous friendships, loyalties, struggles, and misunderstandings of two sixteen-year-old boys. A Separate Peace is told in the first person, the first person of a man passionately reliving (not simply recalling) his sixteenth year with extraordinary vividness, and the following paragraph is typical of the way he gives us sights, sounds, smells, intimations, emotions, all interlaced throughout the progress of the story.

It was surprising how well we got along in these weeks. Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I discovered myself thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him again. It was hard to remember when one summer day after another broke with a cool effulgence over us, and there was a breath of widening life in the morning air — something hard to describe — an oxygen intoxicant, a shining northern paganism, some odor, some feeling so hopelessly promising that I would fall back in my bed on guard against it. It was hard to remember in the heady and sensual clarity of these mornings; I forgot whom I hated and who hated me. I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a world like this [4].

Joanna Crawford’s Birch Interval (Houghton, O.P.), also written in the first person, is the story of an eleven-year-old girl learning in a year of humor and shock that whenever we persist, driven by outside opinions, in acting against our own deepest instincts and convictions, it is almost inevitable that we will do harm and injustice to others. Birch Interval was written by a very young woman, but the moment we read on the first page, “My father was an Irishman, tall and melancholy, with too much wildness in him, like all good Irishmen,” we know that Joanna Crawford is acquainted with ellipsis and compression and can use them. And though this is a first novel by a young writer, there is no restriction of treatment, or of subject matter, or choice of words; nothing but absolute honesty, toughness, uncompromise of purpose.

Finally, Glendon Swarthout’s Bless the Beasts and Children (Doubleday) is an exhausting, magnificent story of six boys — ranging in ages from twelve to fourteen, disgusting failures in the eyes of their boys’ camp society — who have been shuffled off into a cabin away from everyone else. Here they cry and boast and find comfort in one another until finally they are hounded and pressed and driven to the limit of endurance by Cotton, their leader, into stealing a truck so that they can drive into the depths of Arizona and save a corralled herd of buffalo from the guns of brutal city “hunters.” It is a novel full of scenes that hit you in the pit of the stomach, lift you up, and wring you dry, and which you keep hearing and seeing after you have read the last words.

The morning sun was steadfast now, the air blithe as a cool bottle of cola, and the countenance of the earth was fair. But a sad wind sneaked out of the canyon below, moaning baby, baby, and the blues and trembling through the pines and fanning over the preserve in farewell. It grieved.

Squinting under big hats, the men advanced, their faces grim. Some of them wore state uniforms. Some were sixpack city sportsmen and carried merciless rifles. Then they stopped abruptly.

Before them, standing frightened and defiant at the very jaw of the Mogollon Rim, were five redeye, hayhead juvenile delinquents in dirty boots and jeans and jackets with BC on the backs, one of them hugging the head and horns of a bull buffalo and all of them in tears. Lawrence Teft, III, and Samuel Shecker and Gerald Goodenow and Stephen Lally, Jr., and William Lally were bunched up bawling in their sorrow and jeering in their triumph over what seemed to be the sound of a radio. “Yah! Yah! Yah”’ they sobbed and jeered at the men in ridiculous hats. “Yah! Yah! Yah!” [5].

Just as that child who drew a heavy black line around the words “Charlotte died. . . . No one was with her when she died” found in Charlotte’s Web a wisdom and poignancy that could last a lifetime, so youth could find in Pistol and A Wild ThingThe Heart Is a Lonely HunterA Separate Peace, and Birch Interval, in The Death of the Heart and Bless the Beasts and Childrenilluminations, moments of dramatic truth. And this is what literature is for: to tell us that language matters and to bring us the piercing imagination, not as “an idea machine,” but as an instrument of revelation, something that in the most subtle and unpredictable and sometimes hurting ways pushes us into new awarenesses of ourselves and of life. This, in the face of McLuhan’s predictions of a bookless world, a world without the printed word, is why literature, at its best, is worth fighting for.

Copyright © 1972. by Eleanor Cameron.

Read In Protest, editorial by Paul Heins describing
an anonymous response to Cameron’s article.

Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Reply,
Roald Dahl’s response to Part I of this article.


1. Eleanor Cameron, “The Owl Service: A Study.” Wilson Library Bulletin, December 1969. pp. 425-433. [Back]

2. Benjamin DeMott, “Saul Bellow and the Dogmas of Possibility.” Saturday Review, February 7, 1970. p. 25. [Back]

3. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1961. p. 105. [Back]

4. John Knowles, A Separate Peace. New York: Macmillan, 1959. p. 45. [Back]

5. Glendon Swarthout, Bless the Beasts and Children. New York: Doubleday, 1970. pp. 204-205. [Back]

Eleanor Cameron based her article on material first presented at the First Conference on Children’s Literature at Mount St. Mary’s College, June 24, 1970, and later given at a special meeting of the New England Round Table of Children’s Literature, March 24, 1972. Her book A Room Made of Windows (Atlantic-Little) received the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for excellence of text in 1971.

From the February 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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