The Politics of Children’s Literature

To the editor, New York Times,

I agree with your objections, aesthetic and otherwise, to the proposed Mary Poppins statue in Central Park…and I share your puzzlement as to why our enlightened and sophisticated parks commissioner should have okayed it. But why has no one raised the most obvious objection to commemorating this woman: that she was a domineering ignoramus who couldn’t, or at least wouldn’t, answer the simplest questions of her charges. Nor did she give them, as other semiliterate governesses of ten did, love and imaginative sympathy. For these qualities, Miss Poppins substitutes the densest, dreariest conventionality backed up by authoritarianism: “It’s right bdecause I say it’s right and button up your galoshes and come along at once!” Or words to that effect. When their perfectly reasonable questions became too pressing, she evades them by some silly trick like flying up into the air with her umbrella… They all fall for it, according to the book, and she establishes a charismatic dominance over her brood. But I wonder if the older ones didn’t realize she was merely changing the subject, like any other stuffy grownup… Years ago I used to read books to my children and I remember how bogus and somehow unpleasant that Mary Poppins stuff came out– none of us really liked Mary P. very much, for all the magic she used to conceal her lack of either knowledge of feeling–and how quickly we gave her up for the adventures of that free-and-easy savant, Dr. Doolittle, a real intellectual type who loved to explain everything and did so most satisfactorily and charmingly. If we must have another brazen child-trap in Central Park, let it be a statue of the civilized doctor rather than the troglodytic governess.

-Dwight MacDonald, October 15, 1966, from Discriminations: Essays and Afterthoughts 1938-1974, p. 250-251.