April 22 (1899) is the birthday of Vladmir Nabokov, the Russian-American author who died in 1977 and is most remembered for his controversial novel Lolita. What is extraordinary–Jerry Griswold suggests in this edited excerpt from his Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story–is how Nabokov’s salacious story echoes an American childhood classic.
Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) often seems to resemble Vladmir Nabokov's Lolita (1955). Adam Ladd (who is thirty-two) has a keen interest in the fourteen-year-old Rebecca, not unlike the middle-aged Humbert Humbert who is fascinated with the twelve-year-old Lolita. Explaining his predilection, Humbert uses the term "nymphets" (“girls between the age limits of nine and fourteen") and observes, "There must be a gap of several years, never less than ten between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet's spell." Mr. Ladd would agree. As he says, he prefers the "beginnings of ladies to the grown kind.”
Still, there is a major difference between the earlier book and its counterpart published some fifty years later: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm reads like Lolita without sex. Unlike Humbert, Mr. Ladd's fascination with Rebecca is asexual. And unlike Lolita, Rebecca is sexually innocent.
Mr. Ladd wouldn’t have it any other way. He prefers the vision of Rebecca as a little slip of a thing, and he needs to constantly be reassured about her sexual immaturity. Most revealing are the last pages of the book when he encounters Rebecca at a train station: Though she strikes him as "all-womanly," he is relieved when "he had looked into her eyes and they were still those of a child; there was no knowledge of the world in their shining depths, no experience of men and women, no passion, nor comprehension of it."
After that meeting, Mr. Ladd wanders away and throws himself under a tree. He reads the book he meant to give Rebecca, The Arabian Nights, and the story of Aladdin's enchantment with the beautiful Princess Badroulboudour. It is a moment not unlike that in Lolita when Humbert finds himself near a playground full of children and thinks, "Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, my mossy garden. Never grow up."
Jerry Griswold is professor emeritus of literature at San Diego State University and former director of the National Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. He is the author of seven books, including Audacious Kids: The Classic American Children’s Story and Feeling Like a Kid: Childhood and Children’s Literature, both published by Johns Hopkins University Press.