I was delighted when I picked up the latest edition of Classical World to discover that it contained Sheila Murnaghan’s article, Classics for Cool Kids: Popular and Unpopular Versions of Antiquity for Children. (The contents page of the journal in PDF format is here.) Why was I so excited? Because this article began life as the keynote address at a graduate conference I organised with two colleagues in April 2010 called All Roads Lead From Rome: the Classical (non)Tradition in Popular Culture. You can read my write-up of the conference itself on the Rutgers classics department blog.
I wanted to take a minute to reflect on the impact of that conference. The most obvious outcome is that we helped create and workshop a publication, and get a very kind acknowledgement in the footnotes for “giving [the author] such a congenial occasion for trying out these ideas”. What more could any conference organiser want than to know that they provided a good environment for bouncing ideas around? I had the same experience at the last Feminism and Classics conference; the paper I gave there is now an article awaiting publication, which is why I decided to submit an abstract to Feminism and Classics again this year. It seems to me that an effective conference is one which provides interesting material for its listeners, and an engaged audience who contribute helpful and constructive suggestions to the speakers. I have to say that I’m delighted to see that All Roads Lead From Rome has done that in at least one case.
I should, of course, plug the article, which will be a great read given how interesting the original paper was. (I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to read the article itself yet – as soon as my copy of Classical World was taken out of its packing, it was stuffed into a packing box, so it will have to wait until it gets to the other side of the ocean!) Professor Murnaghan is interested in the development of classical themes in American children’s literature, which is a fascinating topic; she starts with the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the 1850s (namely his Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, both still in print), and advances up the ages to the Percy Jackson phenomenon. The tracking of classical motifs in children’s literature has done quite well in the UK, as evinced by the 2009 conference Asterisks and Obelisks: Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature in Lampeter; I can’t source an online program now, but I seem to recall it being primarily dominated by UK and European literature. There are some interesting parallels and differences in the UK and US treatment, as one would expect; the tone of the Wonder Book is quite different to Charles Kingsley’s Heroes, or Greek Fairy Tales for my Children, the book which allegedly inspired Hope Mirrlees to learn Greek. (And quite right too – the introduction contains an honest but provoking comment that “those of you who are boys will, perhaps, spend a great deal of time in reading Greek books; and the girls, though they may not learn Greek, will be sure to come across a great many stories taken from Greek history, and to see, I may say every day, things which we should not have had if it had not been for these old Greeks”!)
The article makes a useful extra contribution to the literature around understanding classical themes in American children’s literature, and I think provides a helpful comparison to the themes that seem prominent in British writers. That kind of cross-cultural difference in the use of classics is crucial to understanding the basis on which classical receptions are built – children’s books are the earliest exposure most of us get to classical culture, so understanding our initial impressions of how this stuff works is an important part of understanding the wider network of classical receptions in popular culture. After all, each reception is informed by every previous reception: our childhood reading affects our reaction to the classics in one way or another for the rest of our lives.