The Man Who Loved Children
The Fetish and Other Stories
“An Unread Book” is Randall Jarrell’s title for his first-rate Introduction to Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children—so it seems that none of us needs to feel personally ashamed of somehow never quite having heard of the book. The literary world as a whole, though, ought to be ashamed. A few critics, most notably Elizabeth Hardwick, stood up to be counted—on the fingers of one hand. But even now, twenty-five years after its first publication, one can’t help thinking that there is probably as much good luck as good management in its reissue and acclaim. Our grateful excitement at discovering a marvelous neglected novel oughtn’t to relax us into all’s well that ends well. The Man Who Loved Children must now be safely home, but it only scraped there. Who can now be so sure that achievement is bound to win in the end? The history of this one book is a piercing accusation against that part of the literary world which is bemused by modernisms and insatiably demands not that books be kept alive but that more books be born. Et dona ferentes…Continue to beware of publishers even when they come bearing gift-horses.
The Man Who Loved Children is superb as both a telescope and a microscope. It sweeps horizons as confidently and commandingly as it sweeps to bacteria. As Mr. Jarrell says, no other novel makes so scrupulous, so passionate, and so convincing a study of a family—and with such generalizing force that one immediately expands that to the family. Samuel Clemens Pollit, who loved children, and his wife Henny, who often did not love children at all but yet almost always respected them as Sam never does: this marriage is rendered with brilliant specificity and sense of context. The seven children are a living, changing family—not, as so often, an artful background. Instead of “realistic” eruptions of child-life which then relapse (out of sight, out of the author’s mind), Miss Stead shows that the children are the element in which the family lives and moves and has its being. Children should be seen and not heard?—a canny precaution for the mediocre novelist. But here the children are not only seen and heard, they are felt, smelled. We blush for them and we instinctively react as their parents. And all this with wit:
“Ernie’s nuts,” said Little-Sam, “he’s always studyin’; he’s a fairy.”
“What did you say?” cried Henny. Little-Sam grinned foolishly while the other boys (except Ernie) looked pleased. After a devious discussion which revealed that Little-Sam used the word for anyone but a football hero, Henny suddenly cried,
“Now pack up, kids, and go to bed.”
The immediately obvious triumph of the book is its sense of speech. The language or rather languages of childhood are caught with brilliance and humor, with a warm response to what is supple and untamed and yet without that romanticism which believes that only …