A New Defense of Nonsense; or, Where Then Is His Phallus? and Other Questions Not to Ask

Work Type


Publication Date

Winter 1999


Liberal Arts and Sciences


literary nonsense; children's literature


Victorian literary nonsense has mostly elicited two critical responses since Edward Lear published A Book of Nonsense in 1846. On one side we find the critics who argue for the "non-sensicality" of the genre. Partly as a backlash against those who see satire or symbolism in Lear's work, this group sided with Lear in proclaiming the genre "'Nonsense,' pure and absolute" (Lear, More Nonsense iv). This approach raised a certain fear among many critics in the second half of the twentieth century: if nonsense were truly "non-sense," it would preclude further critical debate.1 Thus the sense school of criticism was born; critics of this school use existing theories or milieus, whether biographical, linguistic, psychoanalytical, or cultural/symbolic, to interpret and impose (ostensibly bring forward) meaning on (or from) the text. Elizabeth Sewell began this trend with her structural analysis in The Field of Nonsense (1952), in which goals, order, and meaning are placed upon what seems a misnomer, the genre of literary nonsense. Since Sewell, this method has continued in various forms in the work of Marlene Dolitsky and Jean-Jacques Lecercle, and it continues to dominate the critical response to the genre.


This article appears in Volume 24, Number 4 (pp. 187-194) of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly; published by Johns Hopkins University Press.