November 9, 2011
[The Mermaid, Howard Pyle; 1910. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum.]
THE WORKS of the great American illustrator Howard Pyle, who died 100 years ago today, are a message from the past. They have the same effect as coming upon an old letter, buried in an attic, in which a relative in poetic tenderness speaks to another person long dead. To think that an artist of such remarkable talents devoted himself to creating romantic heroes for children is to have cause for immense pride and hope.
And yet it is also the occasion for dark thoughts.
In the hundred years since Pyle died, the world of children has changed profoundly. It has not changed all for the worse obviously. Medical care is much better and living conditions are good. However, the atmosphere of childhood has changed so much that it is reasonable to say that childhood no longer exists as a distinct cultural institution. Children no longer inhabit a mentally separate realm as they did in the nineteenth century. It’s not just that they are exposed to sexually-explicit imagery and music. Even in run-of-the-mill commercials, as Neil Postman noted in his book The Disappearance of Childhood, children are initiated into the world of adult worries and concerns. In commercials about prescription drugs, car insurance and politics, they are force-fed the trivial preoccupations of adult life.
Childhood is a form of higher awareness, which is not to say that children are perfectible or angelic. “What a distressing contrast there is,” said Sigmund Freud, “between the radiant intelligence of a child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.” Children know things adults can no longer fully grasp. The adult world once protected that knowledge and melded it gradually with reason, information, practical ability and wisdom. Technological change and spiritual decline have abolished that protection. It is gone in a larger cultural sense and the individual parent is left to fight against the prevailing tide like someone clinging to a street sign in a tidal wave.
Fortunately, Howard Pyle is still alive. You are not alone. Just last weekend, I was at a library book sale when, as I was about to leave with various purchases, I turned to a table of children’s classics. There for $2 was the 1919 edition of Howard Pyle’s novel Men of Iron. It was one of those moments of synchronicity, given that I have been writing about Pyle, that have convinced me over the years that angels have specific intellectual interests and like to interfere with our reading. Men of Iron is the fictional account of the young son of a lord during the reign of Henry IV who is unjustly accused of treason. The son, Myles Falworth, sets out to avenge his father and recover his family’s good name. Pyle’s illustration below, courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum (now staging a major retrospective of his work), depicts Henry IV on the first page of the book.
I brought the book home. It was a message from a past that still lives and from a remarkable man who had a sense of the inherent nobility of his artistic mission. Where the children’s illustrator today often offers unease, confusion and escape in the occult, Pyle offered the heroic. He gave children a reason to anticipate adulthood with excitement and to perceive it for what it is, even in modern cities and office parks: a battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.