Precocious and prodigious children and their environment in 20th century American literature

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction
1.1. Preface: Defining the topic
1.2. Prodigious or precocious? Types of talent: an introduction of the characters

2. Wunder or kinder?
2.1. Authenticity of precocious and prodigious child protagonists
2.2. Jane and Ada
2.3. Seymour

3. Gifted children and their parents
3.1. Emily
3.2. The fatherless three
3.3. Role models, parent figures: female versus male
3.3.1. Preference unclear: Frances, Jane
3.3.2. Ignoring the fathers: Ada, Meimei
3.3.3. Mrs. Glass versus Mr. Glass
3.4 Sybilla: a "wundermutter"

4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

1.1. Preface: Defining the topic

In literature, just like in reality, gifted children may differ from each other in every aspect except for the very existence of a special talent or very high intelligence. Still, both in life and fiction, certain types can be traced. The terms child prodigy or wunderkind evoke a child which has developed outstanding skills in a certain area like chess (cp. the protagonist of Amy Tan's short story "Rules of the Game" or Luzhin in Nabokov's "Luzhin's defence"; in reality, almost every grandmaster demonstrated exceptional skills in early childhood, the most prominent example being probably Capablanca), music (McCullers' wunderkind in the short story of the same title does not live up to a comparison with Mozart, but is also considered a piano prodigy as a child), or any other art or science. In the study "Child Prodigies and Exceptionally Early Achievers", the psychologist John Radford practically equates the former with the latter, despite the conjunction in the title. The Wikipedia offers a similar definition: "A child prodigy, or simply prodigy, is someone who is a master of one or more skills or arts at an early age. One possible definition of a prodigy is a person who, by the age of 10, displays expert proficiency in a field usually only undertaken by adults"[1].

As this paper intends to study prodigious children in American literature, the best source for a definitions seems to be the leading American dictionary. However, Webster's[2] is extremely vague: "a person or thing of remarkable qualities or powers: an infant prodigy"is listed as a second possibility after an even more general reference to everything extraordinary. Merriam-Webster OnLine defines a prodigy in point 2b as "a highly talented child or youth"[3]. Unlike the print version, it also lists the word wunderkind as "a child prodigy; also : one who succeeds in a competitive or highly difficult field or profession at an early age", implying by the also that such success is not a typical trait of an infant prodigy. The Encyclopedia Britannica gives the most elaborate description which (according to a mini-survey of about a dozen subjects effected by the author of this essay) perfectly matches a native speaker's use: "an extraordinary person, particularly a child, who shows spontaneous early signs of genius or exceptional ability along certain lines"[4]. It also stresses chess, maths and music as typical fields of prodigious achievement.

Mentions of the words prodigy and wunderkind in other articles of the Encyclopedia add up to 150. The adjective prodigious occurs 176 times, but only rarely referring to early achievers. Surely the encyclopedia's editors did not have to use this particular term every time they considered somebody as showing talent early. Word combinations like at an early age or as a child appear thousands of times, but a random sampling shows that in the overwhelming majority of biographical articles they are used to describe outer circumstances rather than achievements.

1.2. P rodigious or precocious? Types of talent: a n introduction of the characters

We see that only a very small percentage of prominent personalities listed in the encyclopedia are described as prodigious. This may imply that most wunderkinder only seldom achieve fame as adults or/and that only extremely remarkable children are referred to as prodigious. At least the second hypotheses appears to be true: the word prodigy is used with great care by scientists. The line between just bright or gifted children on the one hand and prodigies at the other hand is solely imaginary and extremely blurred, but it is clearly not in balance with the line at the other end of the scale, namely the one between children with below average intelligence and children regarded as mentally retarded. According to the Wikipedia "one common criterion for diagnosis of mental retardation is a tested intelligence quotient of 70 or below."[5] Discussing the reliability of an IQ measure would lead us too far, but the fact that we are dealing with numbers is helpful in tracing the disbalance: whereas a score of 30 points below the average is regarded as pathological, subjects with an IQ of 130 are not called prodigious in scientific literature (at least by Radford and his colleagues he quotes) unless they also display some outstanding achievement or ability.

Сhildren who do show such traits are often excessively urged or even forced by their parents to concentrate on the chosen topic, and, while outstanding performance can hardly be achieved without any interest and talent on part of the son or daughter, the pressure also plays a great and – in terms of the child's happiness – often sad role. Parental exploitation of this kind, combined with permanent public exhibition, is forced upon Meimei in Amy Tan's Rules of the Game. On the other hand, a very narrow field of interest and ability may develop without any influence on the parent's part – the most extreme example being the clinical cases of the idiots savants who combine autism or mental retardation with special abilities.

It would also be false to say that every parent setting very high goals for his offspring inevitably makes it unhappy – John Stuart Mill, for instance, not only sees the base for his future development in his "unusual and remarkable"[6] education (he was, for instance, secluded from other boys), but also states to have liked it for the most part. Both the real J. S. Mill and the fictional Ludo in Helen DeWitt's novel The Last Samurai enjoy learning Greek at three and discussing literature and science (with his father or his mother respectively) at four. Two years later Ludo reads also French, Latin, Hebrew and Arabic as well and willingly as he multiplies ten digit numbers using the distributive principle. With ten he teaches himself and his mother Japanese, while his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics amazes scientists. Most English speakers would not hesitate to call this boy prodigious.

This also applies to Salinger's Glass family. The seven children all appear on a fictional radio show "It's a Wise Child", the eldest, Seymour, even changing it from a quiz show into "a kind of children's round-table discussion"[7]. All of them are well-read and "naturally profuse verbalizers and expounders"[8], all able "to learn foreign languages with extreme ease"[9]. Alongside an excellent general education, most of them display special interests (acting, poetry, spirituality...), some write short stories and poems at preschool age. Regrettably, we are given no convincing examples of creative achievements in the childhood, unless one regards the couplet "John Keats / John Keats / John / Please put your scarf on"[10] as an ingenious piece of poetry. A child prodigy can, but must not also be precocious. It depends from such qualities as linguistic ability, diversity of interests and self assurance. Ludo and the young Glasses are precocious; Meimei is not.

Others are definitely precocious, but not necessary prodigious. The title heroine in Salinger's For Esmé – with love and squalor as well as Jane in Joy Williams' Train are good examples – we would hardly call a girl prodigious in earnest just because she attempts sophisticated small-talk using elevated (and often pretentious) vocabulary at thirteen or even at ten. Jane is not the only child with an above average intelligence created by Williams – her novel The Quick and the Dead features the eight year old Emily who is not only (partly involuntary so) very self-dependent and earnest for her age, but also takes a special interest in nature protection and tries to save poisoned and wounded animals, though not very successfully – if she understood more of biology and medicine, she would indeed be a sure case of a prodigy.

Nabokov's Ada in the novel of the same name seems somewhat more gifted than the previously mentioned three girls, mirroring the talents her creator displayed in his own childhood: she is not only trilingual at eleven, she also uses all these languages to converse in a very eloquent, well-read and often quite snobbish manner. Her knowledge of lepidoptery and her talent for drawing are noteworthy, but not prodigious achievements: she has not enough creative urge. She collects, mates and admires butterflies, she seems to know the name of every plant, but makes no entomological or botanical discoveries or hypotheses. While demonstrating a remarkable technique in watercolour, she is content with copying, only rarely adding some variations. She imaginatively translates poetry, if urged to do so by her governess, but we do not learn anything about her own creations.

There are also varieties of gifted children among the literary characters which will be omitted in this essay as these cases require a special exploration. Among them are the "enlightened"children bringing a religious message, be it the Christian girl who talks about and to God at five in Fynn's novel Mister God, this is Anna or the Zen Buddhist boy who has his first mystical experience at six in Salinger's short story Teddy. In both works, the children die young (and quite happy to leave this world). These angelic creatures are balanced out by the superhuman child protagonists with demonic or at least uncanny traits in such works of science fiction like The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, Odd John by Olaf Stapledon or The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham.

This essay shall deal with fourteen child protagonists, so an overview could be helpful. These are the children which shall be mentioned (in age order; including all ages at which the character is described, including introspections, excluding late adolescence and adulthood):

Stephen (called Ludo, or L) in Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, aged four to eleven

Waverly Place Jong (called Meimei) in Amy Tan's Rules of the Game, aged six to nine
Emily Bliss Pickless in Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead, aged eight
Jane in Joy Williams' Train, aged ten
Ada [11] Durmanov in Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, aged eleven to fifteen
Frances (also called Bienchen) in McCullers' Wunderkind, aged twelve / fifteen
Esmé in Salinger's For Esmé – with Love and Squalor, aged about thirteen

Alexandra Berlina, Precocious and prodigious children [...], 5

Another seven children, the precocious Glass siblings featured in Salinger's short stories and novellas, are a difficult case for such categorisation. Some of them are mentioned at many different preschool and school ages, some do not appear directly at all; there are numerous general remarks about several or all of these children, especially in connection with the show "It's a Wise Child", which lasts from 1927 till 1943, and at least as many flashbacks and other leaps in time, which are only partly provided with age or time data. A list of names and (if given) birthdays must suffice here:

Franny (*1935); Zachary Martin (called Zooey) and Waker (twins, *1930); Beatrice (called Boo Boo), Walt, Buddy (*1919), Seymour (*1917).

2. Wunder or kinder?

2.1. Authenticity of precocious and prodigious child protagonists

If a protagonist thinks, talks and behaves like an adult, would we believe that we are reading a story about a child only because the author claims so? Probably not. Creating an authentic child protagonist is inherently difficult; even more so, if the child is gifted, and especially if linguistic ability is a part of the gift: the possibility of signalizing immaturity through the manner of speech is impaired. This is the case with all subjects of this study, except for the chess and music prodigies by Tan and McCullers (who do not talk childishly, either, but are not given any markedly eloquent or sophisticated lines). Most of these characters are unusually mature for their age, but nevertheless they are recognizable as children.

It is important to prove this before analyzing the child's relationship to its environment, because such an analyze only makes sense if the protagonist is presented, with some degree of psychological realism, as a child (and not as a symbol of purity and wisdom, for instance). An attempt to show how credibility is achieved in all works mentioned would not leave any space for the analysis itself, so it shall be demonstrated by means of some examples where the writer's task was especially difficult. Williams' Jane and Nabokov's Ada both consciously attempt to appear adult-like; more precisely, woman-like. The latter, being a heroine of a quite postmodern and experimental novel, is a less realistic figure than Jane: her smartness, her amour propre and her sexual urge (which is called abnormal twice) seem exaggerated even for an unusual child. Nevertheless, even the twelve year old Ada demonstrates an all in all credible combination of adult and childish traits.

2.2. Jane and Ada

Jane does not equal Ada in "her spectacular handling of subordinate clauses, her parenthetic asides [and] spondaic sarcasms"[12], but she successfully uses scientific vocabulary and patronizing expressions to perplex adults (not only by her knowledge itself but also by ridiculing their romantic gazing at nature). She employs Greek and Latin to express a dismissive attitude (which is typical for her: Jane's tone of speech is explicitly described as disgusted twice in the short story[13] and appears to be so even more often): "The moon was rising (...), a sheen of dark birds flew low across a dirt road. 'Birds are only flying reptiles, I'm sure you're all aware', Jane said suddenly"(542), "'It's the oxygen deprivation,' Jane said, 'coming from having to share the air with all these people"(544).

She bullies a girl of the same age calling her by her full name (539, 543) – cp. "'Thomas Sawyer!' Tom knew that when his name was pronounced in full, it meant trouble"[14]. She is capable of quite poignant biting remarks: "This is really messy writing (...). If you were writing to anyone other than a dog, they wouldn't be able to read it at all"(538). She plays the role of a city lady and is even prepared to abstain from favorite tidbits because they seem too childish and provincial to her:

She had developed certain attitudes. [...] Jane liked to wear scarves tied around her head. She claimed to enjoy grapes and brown sugar and sour cream for dessert more than ice cream and cookies. She liked artichokes. She adored artichokes. She adored [...] the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker Suite [...] She demanded much of life. She had very high standards when she wanted to. (538)


[1], 10.06.06

[2] The New International Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language 2003, p. 1006



[5] 12.06.06


[7] Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (Heinemann, London 1963), p. 67

[8] Seymour: An Inroduction (Heinemann, London 1963), p. 129

[9] Ibd., p. 137

[10] Ibd., p. 144

[11] "Ada", as well as "Franny"and "Zooey", are not only protagonists' names, but also fiction titles. In this essay, the name will appear in italics, if the novel or short story is in mind; otherwise the child is meant.

[12] Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. To make searching in the text easier, the text at was used, so that no page numbers can be given.

[13] Pages 538 and 549of Joy William's Train in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. Further on, in all the cases when it is clear from the context (esp. the protagonist's name) which book is quoted, only page numbers will be given in brackets in the text body.

[14] Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer,

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Precocious and prodigious children and their environment in 20th century American literature
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
Hauptseminar "20th Century American Short Stories"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Gifted children in the works of half a dozen American authors (e.g. Nabokov and Salinger) are analyzed, terms like "prodigious", "precocious" et cetera are discussed and compared.
Precocious, American, Hauptseminar, Century, Short, Stories
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Alexandra Berlina (Author), 2006, Precocious and prodigious children and their environment in 20th century American literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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