Memoirs of Play: Any Ideas?

I’m putting the finishing touches on my syllabus for next semester’s History of Play and Leisure, just trying to find one or two more perfect or unusual readings to round out a few of the weeks. (And then I need to make a final cut, as I’ve loaded up some weeks excessively, as is my typical practice on a syllabus draft.)

Anyway, on the week devoted to post-1800 historical associations between childhood and play, I’ve got some very good secondary literature, but I’m trying to think if there’s an absolutely perfect memoir (short or long) or older novel that is centrally focused on play in childhood. I can think of a ton of evocative chapters or portions of famous books, but I’m not coming up with a single one that’s really thematically zeroed in on play and games. I’m thinking of showing the movie “Hope and Glory”, though.

Actually, any memoir of games, play, etc. that’s especially good would be useful.

Other things I’m still foodling with:

Renaissance/early modern leisure, play, games, entertainment
Medieval tournaments/jousting
Contemplative practices and leisure (was thinking Thoreau’s Walden, but older historical material would be useful)
19th and early 20th Century histories of hobbies or hobby cultures
Histories of drinking culture in non-Western societies besides Africa (got plenty of European/American stuff, and plenty of Africanist scholarship)

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25 Responses to Memoirs of Play: Any Ideas?

  1. I’ve got a grad-school-mate who’s working on beer in Japan, but he doesn’t have much published yet.

    There’s an older article about the Japanese equivalent of sideshows, “The Carnival of Edo: Misemono Spectacles From Contemporary Accounts,” by Andrew L. Markus, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

    I’m not coming up with a lot of play memoirs. The best known child-hood memoires in Japan would probably by Totto-chan and Fukuzawa Yukichi’s autobiography. There was a fair bit about childhood in a book I used last year: Yamakawa Kikue, Kate Wildman Nakai (Translator), Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life, 1997, Stanford UP.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    The thing that’s driving me nuts is that I can think of a good 20-30 wonderful memoirs and novels from a number of cultures with great scenes or episodes of childhood play, toys or games, just none where it’s really the central or major theme.

    The sideshow article sounds good, thanks.

  3. j. says:

    have you already included iona and peter opie, the lore and language of schoolchildren (1959; nyrb classics, 2000)? it’s an absolutely delightful book, and despite it being more specific than not to mid-century british children, and being anthropological/folkloric/etc. in its methods, i think it could be used for a number of purposes in a history course. the opies often emphasize the nature of play (and things related to play), and are notably sensitive to the ways that the orality and non-institutional character of much of their matter make the historical continuity of children’s play lives both precarious and remarkably resilient. (there’s also a bit of lamenting, which, you know.)

  4. eb says:

    I don’t know if Russia is European or not for your purposes. If not, David Christian’s Living Water is about vodka. I haven’t read it, but it’s been recommended.

  5. JasonII says:

    you’ve probably already considered it, but i’ll suggest it anyway: tom sawyer. iirc isn’t the whole novel about play? i know there’s the whole murder action thing, but even that is a kind of adventure. i would say that it also offers an iconic image of american boyhood (whether that image is accurate or not) for many people.

  6. SamChevre says:

    H. L. Mencken, Happy Days

  7. dave mazella says:

    Hey Tim,

    For the medieval-early modern notions of play, how about Huizinga, Homo Ludens?

    One of the great 18c novels of play (and meditations upon the darker motives of adult play) is Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, with its discussions of hobbyhorses and Uncle Toby’s fortifications.


    Dave Mazella

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Homo Ludens is the focus of the second week of the course.

    Tristam Shandy is a nice idea! Tom Sawyer is pretty much the main thing I was thinking of trying to give them a bit of, along with a chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    The Opie book is a good idea, J. My main anxiety about some of the psychological and developmental literature on play and childhood is the extent to which much of it dehistoricizes play, which is fine in its own context but is likely to drag the conversation off-topic in this particular week’s session. But the Opie book doesn’t, it sounds like (I know of it but haven’t read it). Off to the library!

  9. Alan Baumler says:


    I assume by drinking cultures you mean alcohol, but you might look at

    Shao, Qin. 1998. Tempest over Teapots: The Vilification of Teahouse Culture in Early Republican China. The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 4 (November): 1009-1041. (accessed November 7, 2007).

  10. Alan Baumler says:

    Another possibility is
    Kokichi, Katsu. 1991. Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai. University of Arizona Press.

    It has a long section on his youth as a playful (and troublesome) child, but most of his adult life also centers around the same themes as he is always a trial for his family but also because he makes what living he does as a teacher of swordsmanship and general floating world impresario.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Nice ideas, Alan, thanks. The Kokichi memoir sounds especially interesting.

  12. oconnor says:

    There are some wonderful descriptions of childhood play in Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood. Also in Angela’s Ashes, for that matter. You might be interested in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son,, which is a memoir fundamentally about a childhood from which a parent tried to extract all possibiity of play. Other random thoughts–Harriet the Spy opens with a description of an elaborate game, and of course the spying itself is a form of serious play. To enhance or contrast with Tom Saywer, there are great accounts of play in Huckleberry Finn, including a game of pirates at the opening. Twain uses Huck’s evolving sense of seriousness–of being able to tell when something is susceptible to play and when it isn’t–to draw a contrast between him and Tom at the end, when Tom wants to use Jim’s incarceration as an opportunity to enact garbled scenes from all the romances he’s been reading. Lastly … there are Alice’s Adventures Underground, and Peter Pan

  13. jpool says:

    The first thing I think of for novels about play is The Secret Garden. Not only is the garden a good central metaphor for the ways that 19th/20th century adults came to view childhood, but the novella has a lot of good material on late-victorian anxieties about childhood, play, class and masculinity/feminity.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Peter Pan is a great idea, and I wonder now why I hadn’t thought of it. Dillard is also a great suggestion. I don’t know the Gosse, so I’ll go take a look at that.

    I also love the idea of using The Secret Garden…

  15. Jmayhew says:

    Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le joujou du pauvre” is worth looking at. Not a memoir of play but an interesting text.

    Barthes’ comments on toys in Mythologies.

  16. Tom Scudder says:

    There’s a chapter in the Screwtape Letters that talks about play… (ech, found it, it’s a single sentence: “Children, until we have taught them better, will be perfectly happy with a seasonal round of games in which conkers succeeds hopscotch as regularly as autumn follows summer.”

    I’m also thinking of the bit in Brave New World involving the “Electric Bumble-Puppy” which expresses the same sort of conservatism.

    There’s also a completely different bit in either Gormenghast or Titus Groan involving a classroom game, in which the kids somehow hurl themselves out a window and if they do it right manage to bounce straight back in the way they came. But described in very close detail.

  17. Timothy Burke says:

    Occasionally there are things that are so perfect to a purpose that fail for reasons of practicality. In my Production of History class, I once tried assigning Delaney’s Neveryon books (the first one) since it seems so perfect for how memory and history interact. Too diffuse. Gormenghast would be an awesome vehicle for talking about childhood and play in my mind, but…too long, too oblique a point.

    It almost makes me think of an entry on beautifully apt but unteachable books…

  18. Alan Baumler says:

    Not to be a pest, but if you are looking for something on contemplation and leisure in China at least they spell that “travel” a good book is

    Strassberg, Richard E. 1994. Inscribed Landscapes: Travel Writing from Imperial China. University of California Press.

  19. Sisyphus says:

    What about one of Gary Soto’s memoirs? (I think the one that has stories of playing in the garden and running around Fresno is _Black Hair_.) There’s also some stories about childhood play in Cisneros’s _Woman Hollering Creek,_ and _George Washington Gomez_ might be good too … no wait, those are kinda tangential episodes.

    I’m sure there’s good stuff in novels/memoirs by the Native Americans of the Southwest but I’m blanking right now — I remember some poems about play in Luci Tapahanso’s _The Women are Singing._

    I can think of As Am writing from CA and the Southwest too but it sounds like you already have that covered.

  20. You might want to take a look at Eiko Ikegami’s Bonds of Civility. It’s about artistic circles in Tokugawa Japan. I does have some discussion of flower arranging, which comes under hobbies. And of course, the whole book comes under the broader understanding of play that Huizinga advocates. FWIW, this is my number one “must read book in humanities” for 2006. Here’s my short review:

  21. Western Dave says:

    Did Jennifer Price’s “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing” make the cut? (Unfotunatley it was renamed from dissertation to book, but an article of the same title appeared in either Western Historical Quarterly or Pacific Historical Review).

  22. maldenized says:

    There are some great scenes in Little Women. In at least one scene they put on a play for their family and friends, and in others they act out scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress.

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    Jennifer Price is an interesting idea, Dave. I’ll track down the article version–is it embedded in one of the chapters in the book? (I think you’ve recommended the pink flamingo essay to me before, so I’ve read just that one.)

    Little Women for sure. I actually think that whole mid-19th Century moment is where “child’s play” is most visible as a cultural novelty or new idea in a lot of fictions and personal narratives.

  24. Rana says:

    They’re not exactly memoirs, but have you considered things like Boy Scout manuals? Or the various “boy’s books” about how to be Indians in the woods, make your own fishing pole, and the like?

  25. vonbladet says:

    Any or all of the Arthur Ransom “Swallows and Amazons” series would surely fit the bill.

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