Archive for September, 2010


I’m back at school in Minneapolis and in the middle of setting a variety of goals (to run a 5K with my roommates Halloween weekend, to draft a dissertation chapter this month, and so on).  But my newest ambition is someday to write a book for which the following epigraph from the gospel of Douglas Adams would be appropriate:

The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases.

For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question, How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?

– The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 35


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My trip to France this summer was the first time I’ve been in Paris during the notorious “fermeture” of the August vacances, when the city shuts down for a month-long holiday.

"Closed for August vacation" signs in the 18th arr.

[Photograph from http://cedricm.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_archive.html]

It was amazing to see how thoroughly this pervades the city: everyone from the man who repairs umbrellas in the Marais to French blogs go on vacation. It also makes “la rentrée,” the beginning of the school year and reopening of businesses in September, a much bigger deal than it is in the (decentralized) United States. See, even Astérix is getting back to the grindstone!

Book cover for Astérix et la rentrée gauloise

But I was tickled to read in a girls’ magazine from the 19th century that this phenomenon is nothing new. Here is the almanac’s entry for the month of August:

The month of August is a time of rest for children; those who have taken part in the prize-giving have permission to enjoy themselves all the time during vacation; they play all the games possible with their little comrades.

Le mois d’Août est pour les enfants un temps de repos; ceux qui ont eu part à la distribution des prix ont la permission de se divertir pendant tout le temps des vacances; il jouent à tous les jeux possibles avec leurs petits camarades.

La Poupée: Almanach des Petites Filles (1869, p. 12)

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Children’s fiction in the late Enlightenment was often presented in dialogue, as a sort of play. Some of these publications are surprisingly engaging, with comic characters, little dramatic subplots, and even minor stage directions. This kind of dialogue provokes interesting questions about how young people might have interacted with the text and one another, in an age when reading aloud was still more common than not.

But those stories are definitely the exception. For the most part, these exchanges between “real children” are as didactic and forced as other early children’s literature. It’s odd, though, to see even a two-dimensional, paper child expressing opinions about their own learning, when I’m so urgently seeking any scraps of evidence about real children’s reading subjectivities. I need to spend more time thinking about the relationships between historical readers and these dramatis personae.

Here’s an example from perhaps the most famous French periodical for young people, Mme. Leprince de Beaumont’s Magasin des Enfans, which I finally got around to reading in the BnF last month. Take a look at this exchange between two friends about their dolls and trinkets:

Lady Spiritual: It’s been more than six months since I threw all these things in the fire: I begged Papa to give me all the money that he had spend on these bagatelles so that I could buy books and pay all kinds of teachers.

Lady Babiole [name of a fairy tale princess from Mme. d’Aulnoy]: I’m not of your taste: if I were the mistress, in place of giving two guineas a month to my geography teacher, I would have the most beautiful things in the world brought from Paris; this would amuse me very much, instead of this man boring me to death; when I see him, I can’t stop yawning at every moment: he tells Mama, she scolds me, and that makes me hate the teacher and geography even more.

Lady Spiritual: You don’t like reading stories?

Lady Babiole: No, honestly, my dear; still, it’s necessary that I read, because Papa wants it: but when I’m grown up; and can do what I want, I assure you that I will never read.


I suppose there’s a way in which we could read these characters as together demonstrating a range of opinions that more or less does represent girls’ feelings in 18th c. France. But the problem is that the rest of the story is obviously intended to persuade its contemporary audience that Lady Spiritual’s position is the only one moral and true.   Hmm. Before I leave this passage to percolate, I want to point out how radical it is that even the sanctimonious Spiritual is shown to be making her own choices about her time, education, money, and consumption!

[Below is the original text. French experts, forgive any errors I’ve made in my quick translation. Better yet, suggest any changes in the comments!]

Lady Spirituelle. Il y a plus de six mois que j’ai jeté toutes ces choses dans le feu: j’ai prié papa de me donner tout l’argent qu’il employait à ces bagatelles, pour acheter des livres, et payer toutes sortez de maîtres.

Lady Babiole. Je ne suis point de votre goût: si j’étais la maîtresse, au lieu de donner deux guinées par mois à mon maître de géographie, je ferais venir de Paris les plus jolies choses du monde; cela m’amuserait beaucoup, au lieu que cet homme m’ennuie à la mort; quand je le vois, je ne puis m’empêcher de bâiller à tous momens: il le dit à maman, on me gronde, et cela fait que je hais encore davantage le maître et la géographie.

Lady Spirituelle. Vous n’aimez donc pas à lire des histoire?

Lady Babiole. Non, en vérité; ma chère; il faut cependant que je lise, car papa le veut: mais quand je serai grande; et que je pourrai faire ce que je voudrai, je vous assure que je ne lirai jamais.

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2 notes: First, is it possible that there’s a relationship between the French gronder, to scold, and the American sense of “being grounded”?  Or is the latter simply a borrowed metaphor from aeronautics?  And second, though I haven’t even gotten through the posts from my first stay in Paris, I’m now back in the city for one night (perfectly timed with a transit strike) before flying back across the ocean.  To be close to the train station, I’m staying in a delightfully disreputable hostel near Montmartre.  It’s very vie bohème.  At least in my head.

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N.B.  These posts will be backlogged for awhile, since I started collecting them several weeks ago in Paris. But ideally the delay will allow me to catch up and start posting notes from the reading I do back in Minneapolis.

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My first morsel from the archive is actually from an Austrian journal article I was able to read at the BnF (Blumesberger, see below). It’s an analysis of youth periodicals by an author publishing in the early 19th c., Antonia Wutka, someone I’ve also studied. The article offered some biographical details I hadn’t known before about her experiences growing up in an orphanage. For example, Wutka apparently taught herself how to read and write French by studying secretly at night (without a textbook). I think it’s an especially poignant image from the life of someone who really treasured learning communities and later devoted her life to teaching, writing, and promoting girls’ education.

On a lighter note, Blumesberger claims that this secret nocturnal study meant that Wutka couldn’t actually speak a word of French until she met some French people later in life who helped perfect her accent.  Reading this on my first day in Paris last month, it gave me a welcome glimmer of hope for my own clunky French!

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source: Susanne Blumesberger, “Antonie Wutkas Encyclopädie für die weibliche Jugend: Ein Beitrag zum Jugendschriftum des frühen 19. Jahrhunderts,” Biblos: Beiträge zu Buch, Bibliothek und Schrift 50, no. 1 (2001): 23-34.

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Why start a blog?

In the way of a more formal introduction than just rambling about elephants, I have a few comments about why I decided to begin this blog now.  A number of developments have conspired to make this a time in my life when I think I especially need a space to take stock of things and reflect. Plus, all the procrastinatory time I devote to reading other people’s blogs about history, politics, academic life, has made me itch to join the conversation.

  • This summer I taught a course as the sole instructor for the first time, and it was a whirlwind. Obviously I can’t write publicly about the details of this particular class, but the experience made the part of me already interested in pedagogical issues jump into overdrive, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to raise some general questions about teaching here.
  • In May, I passed my preliminary exams, which means that this fall I’m not attending classes for the first time since, well, nursery school. Minor identity crisis, meet blog. (See the gospel of xkcd for a related perspective.)
  • This year I’m “on fellowship,” that is, not teaching for pennies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the luxury of being able to focus on “my work,” but I’m a little worried about the lack of structure. One possible use of this blog will be to post regular updates about my central research question (this actually sounds really painful right now, but I’m told it will be good for me).
  • We always tell students that the best way to get better at writing is to do lots of it. I’m not completely sure a blog counts for improving my dissertation and I have a sneaking suspicion that it may be a new toy for NOT writing said dissertation. Nevertheless, I do find the idea of a “bird by bird,” spiritual element of regular writing practice appealing.

As I mentioned, this blog is partly inspired by a number of  marvelous models (many of which I’ve listed to the right on the blog roll, though I’m not sure of the etiquette there…) But while most blogs that I enjoy regularly are pseudonymous and range over a wide set of topics, after a small struggle I decided to go public with my own blog for a number of reasons. And as you might be able to tell from the list of above, the issues that are making my wheels spin these days are pretty self-serving.  So if you’ve made it through this post (hi mom and dad!), I have to admit that some of my posts here may be more narcissistic, *ahem* personal. But if it turns out that something I write interests you, that’s great!  I welcome comments on individual posts or email to emilyselephant [at] gmail [dot] com.

(For an overdetermined explanation of this blog’s title, see my first post.)

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A willow tree, a sloping lawn, a quiet country house.  An elephant?

Philippa Pearce: Emily's Own Elephant book cover

This blog’s title is inspired by Philippa Pearce’s marvelous Emily’s Own Elephant.  The story is one of the picture books I still remember clearly.  Emily visits the zoo with her family and discovers that Jumbo the elephant is about to be made homeless because he is too small to be a proper zoo attraction.  Naturally, Emily’s parents suggest they bring Jumbo home to live in their meadow (and sleep in their empty shed during winter, after Emily’s father installs central heating).  It all works out beautifully for Emily, and, I believe, the elephant.

There might be other elephants in the future of this blog, but here are three more to begin with:

  • During a research trip to Braunschweig, I discovered that German has a word for those little step stools found in library: Elefantenstuhl!  (Sadly, it did not look like this.)
  • A wise blogger has written about the parable of the blind men and the elephant.  This tale is not necessarily a simple warning against extrapolating from a partial reality, but also a reminder that any exploration of the world is always filtered through a particular perspective.  I hope that writing in this space will let me “feel out” some different perspectives on history and graduate study.
  • And of course, there is the large, looming elephant otherwise known as my dissertation.  Right now this project is really only a tiny baby elephant, or maybe even hypothetical (though, I hope, not as crazy as pink elephants on parade).  I’m trying to grow it into a great big, galumphing elephant, but for now I’m simply letting it romp around the back yard under the willow tree.  Thanks for joining me!

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