This stepwise saga of a rowdy youth’s progress toward Georgian bourgeois gentility is widely hailed as the paragon exemplar of Delectando monemus (instruction with delight): the motto of John Newbery, the pioneering children’s literature publisher. Seeing his son Giles hitching a ride on the back of Sir Toby Thomson’s fine coach, old Gaffer Gingerbread exhorts the lad with a tale. Sir Toby had, like Giles, begun his life in poverty, but rose to riches through a mastery of letters. When Giles begs his father to give him reading instruction, Gaffer bakes up a gingerbread alphabet, so that Giles literally becomes — as the book’s subtitle declares — “A little Boy who lived upon Learning”. The heart of Giles Gingerbread sees an alliterative alphabetic cascade, each of the letters redoubled (and sometimes tripled) — creating other scrumptious delicacies, like “Hogs-puddings and hot Cockles” — as Giles consumes the sweet letters with which he learns to read and write.
This past January, when the American Library Association celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature, scholars re-evaluated the century of selections as having constructed a cock-eyed Eurocentric canon. John Newbery himself escaped critical scrutiny, though the “old friend of children” was a calculating proto-capitalist whose fortune had been built as much upon the sale of patent medicines as books, which routinely featured “puff” product placement for Dr. James’s Fever Powder, Dr. Hooper’s Female Pills, and other concoctions.
Giles Gingerbread’s author remains uncertain, as Newbery made a career publishing the works of uncredited writers, who he sometimes treated like indentured laborers. Oliver Goldsmith was deemed a likely candidate by John Forster in the late-nineteenth century, a judgment that has been reproduced with thin proof (and challenged by Goldsmith biographers). A close reader might detect the linguistic fingerprints of another writer on Giles Gingerbread: the most gifted poet, fabulist, translator, and rhetorician in Newbery’s stable of talent, Christopher “Kit” Smart (1722–1771). “Tom Trip’s” rhyming frontispiece, pugnacious democratic Preface, and fascination with alliterative character names do sound like Smart, who suffered seven years of itinerant incarceration in mental asylums, an internment that may have been engineered by Newbery, the stepfather of Smart’s wife, Anna Maria Carnan.
The Gingerbread family lives on in another Newbery production, The Fairing: or, a Golden Toy for Children of All Sizes and Denominations (1765), where Sam Gooseberry meets Gaffer and Giles at a fair, leading to a tour de force satire about the selling short of divine Eternity for mere human Time. Because the story alludes to Smart’s past literary successes, some scholars believe he wrote this wild borderland tale. And if, indeed, Smart authored The Fairing, did he also bake up Giles Gingerbread too?
April 5, 2022