Love it or hate it—or, display some more middle-way attitude if it pleases you—popular fiction plays an important role in society. The Brandeis Collection of Children’s Literature contains examples of the genre that date from the fin-de-siècle to the Eisenhower administration. Only four authors get detailed mention on this site, but the collection is much more extensive, including books from Henry Castelmon’s The Sportsman’s Club series, the X Bar X Boys, MacGuffey’s Reader, and Ainsworth Magazine, among others. A broader sample is available here.
Though often caricatured as simple rubber stamps for the dominant social values of their time, these books reflect some of the narrative challenges that come with trying to validate through myth a power structure that undermines its own myth. This is generally expressed as a problem of plotting in the novels discussed in this exhibit. One might ask how an author concludes his story of upward mobility in a satisfying way, if possessing wealth has been marked negatively throughout the story. What kinds of heroes fail in a popular novel? More specifically, what kind of hero fails in, say, a novel by Horatio Alger, who does not fail in a novel by Oliver Optic? If popular fiction serves only to reinforce the status quo, why do the novels in this collection have such different attitudes about wealth, the right way to attain it, and the right way to use it?
In making these books available to a wider audience, this exhibit hopes to encourage further discussion of popular fiction’s social function. A list of the entire collection is available via Brandeis OneSearch. For those books out of copyright protection, the catalog offers links to online versions available, for free, through the Internet Archive.
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A brief word about provenance:
The Collection of Children's Literature is a part of the Dime Novels and Juvenile Literature Collection. The department received these materials from different sources. Large donations came from Charles and Edward Levy, Victor Berch, and Edward T. LeBlanc.