Saturday, October 18, 2008

Does Great Literature Help Children Become Prodigiously Productive Adults?

There are two people, Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) and John Buchan (1875-1940), whose lives were among the most productive I have ever encountered. Potter was English, Buchan Scottish.

Beatrix Potter: behind her success in stories was a mind steeped in Shakespeare and great novels and poetry.

As related in Linda Lear’s Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Potter was not only a writer and illustrator of children’s books, she was a naturalist, a scientist, a wife, a farmer, a breeder, a land preservationist, manager, and organizer, who excelled at everything she ever put her hand and mind to.

A Young John Buchan

John Buchan is far less known but is the author of 39 Steps, a spy novel made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. One day I picked up the book in the library to read, since I had enjoyed the movie’s supreme spy suspense. But in contrast to most spy novels, 39 Steps was a treasure of poetic prose. I continued to read Buchan’s novels; my favorite so far is Witch Wood. Aside from writing, Buchan was an attorney, private secretary to High Commissioner for South Africa Lord Milner, a war correspondent during World War I, a member of the wartime military intelligence services, Director of Information and Director of Intelligence under Lloyd George, a director of Reuters news agency, a Member of Parliament, Lord High Commissioner of the Church of Scotland, Governor General of Canada (for five years until his death), husband, and father of four. In his lifetime, he wrote 33 fine-quality novels and tens of nonfiction works.

Despite the differences in their careers and literary output, Potter and Buchan similarly devoured great literature in their formative years.

As Buchan relates in his autobiographical Memory Holds the Door:

“My boyhood must have been one of the idlest on record…. I was always reading, except in the Border holidays. Early in my teens I had read Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and a host of other story-tellers, all Shakespeare; a good deal of history, and many works of travel; essayists like Bacon and Addison, Hazlitt, and Lamb, and a vast assortment of poetry, including Milton, Pope, Dante (in a translation); Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. Matthew Arnold I knew almost by heart; Browning I still found too difficult except in patches.”

39 Steps: suspense with poetry.
[Caveat: Buchan went out of favor for anti-Semitic and racist tinges in some of his works. However, it is my belief that this was an attitude of the times in which he lived. I believe that his beautiful and heart-breaking last novel, Sick Heart River, also called Mountain Meadow, written on the eve of World War II, bares his true heart and humanity.]

Likewise, biographer Lear reports that Beatrix Potter’s “appetite for books was large, especially after she started reading for herself.” Lear quotes Potter as saying in 1929: “I learned to read on the Waverly (sic) novels [of Sir Walter Scott]. I was let loose on Rob Roy, and spelled through a few pages, painfully; then I tried Ivanhoe—and the Talisman—then I tried Rob Roy again; all at once I began to READ (missing the long words, of course).” Lear notes that Potter’s “rich diet of art and literature contributed to a lifelong delight in rhythm, cadence, wordplay, humour, dialect and dialogue.”

Then in her mid-twenties, Potter deepened this word wealth by memorizing six plays by Shakespeare. She “repeated them randomly as mental practice, keeping account of her progress in an exercise book…. Beatrix not only loved the language of Shakespeare and the Old Testament, but was fascinated by the mind’s ability to recall something once thoroughly learned.”

A mouse that reads.


Gracehoper said...

Thanks for the info on John Buchan. Can't wait to give him a try.

Mrs. D said...

I read the 39 Steps a few years ago, and loved it. I think it far surpasses the movie adaptation.

Thank you for this information. Can you imagine memorizing 6 Shakespeare plays. These are two exceptional individuals.