THE CRADLE OF AMERICAN LIT
Being a kid is hard. Even if you dodge bullying and boredom, school dogs your days. Parents haunt your nights. Elders nag you to read more, save your allowance, consider your future, your future, your future. Being a kid is hard but late in the 19th century, childhood’s burden got a lift.
As Christmas approached in 1873, a fresh magazine hit the newsstands. Though its cover was full of holiday cheer, inside was everything a kid could want year-round. Puzzles. Riddles. Stories and poems by the best children’s writers. Stories by children themselves.
Presiding over this empire of childhood was a woman who understood kids because she A) had been a happy child; B) had two kids; and C) had written a children’s story that became a classic.
Before she created St. Nicholas, Mary Mapes Dodge was that rarest of 19th century writers — a woman. In 1858, after her husband drowned, Dodge and her sons left Manhattan. Holing up in a Jersey farmhouse, she began writing for her life. Essays. Poems. Stories. Then in 1864, she fell in love with Holland and began reading everything she could about the “springy little country.” Without ever visiting the Netherlands, Dodge captured its spirit in Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.
With its dreamy little Dutch boy donating his skate money to save his father, Hans Brinker was an instant bestseller. The book earned Dodge a name, and an offer to start a children’s magazine.
Dodge began by deciding what her magazine would NOT be. Because most children went to school, she noted, “their heads are strained and taxed with the day's lessons. They do not want to be bothered nor amused nor petted. They just want to have their own way over their own magazine.” St. Nicholas, she said, would have “no sermonizing either, no wearisome spinning out of facts, no rattling of the dry bones of history.” A child’s magazine, she said, “is a pleasure ground.”
Between 1873 and 1940, other magazines teased America’s youth, but none welcomed children like St. Nicholas. The welcome began in the first issue:
“DEAR GIRL AND BOY,
Here they come! There they come! Near by, far off, everywhere we can see them — coming by dozens, hundreds, thousands. . . Why, this is delightful! And how fresh, eager, and hearty you look! Glad to see us? Thank you. . .”
Mapes’ monthly column, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, addressed readers as “my dears.” Stories and puzzles used the editorial “we” and “us.” And children responded, writing to St. Nicholas with questions, problems, profundity. From 1873, the $3 a year magazine saw its circulation rise from 40,000 to 70,000 to 100,000. And many of its readers were writers in embryo.
A dozen or more American writers got their first byline not in a newspaper or literary journal but in St. Nicholas. An average issue might include a story by Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott, a poem by Longfellow, illustrations by Maxfield Parrish.
But in 1899, when Dodge added monthly contests through her St. Nicholas League, she rocked the cradle of 20th century lit. St. Nicholas had a keen eye for talent. “Some of those who are winning prizes, as well as many of those who are not, are going to be heard from by and by in the grown-up magazines and picture galleries of the world.”
Read on, children. For here in St. Nicholas are the first published poems by 14-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay. Here are drawings by 11-year-old e.e. cummings and nine-year-old William Faulkner. A photo by 13-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald. A sketch by 11-year-old Eudora Welty, a story by E.B. White. . .
“We Leaguers were busy youngsters,” White remembered after growing up to write for The New Yorker. “Many of us had two or three strings to our bows and were not content till we had shown in every department, including Wildlife Photography.” Beyond prizes, White concluded, St. Nicholas taught children to find joy in creation. “There is no doubt about it, the fierce desire to write and paint that burns in our land today, the incredible amount of writing and painting that still goes on in the face of heavy odds, are directly traceable to St Nicholas.”
But magazines, like children, must someday age and die. Dodge guided St. Nicholas into the 20th century. When she died in 1905, her assistant kept the magazine thriving until the Depression. Then, although circulation stayed steady — 150,000 a month — advertising dried up.
St. Nicholas folded just before World War II. After the war, new magazines — Jack and Jill, Highlights for Children, Humpty Dumpty — followed in its pajama-clad footsteps.
Mary Mapes Dodge’s “pleasure ground” did not end the burden of childhood; it only recognized what its editor knew so well. “The child's world is a different world, a preparatory world, a world that is coming on. You must build yourself around the humanity of childhood."