Reviews 2013

Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature

Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature. Carol J. Singley. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 224 pages. $71.50 (hardback).

In Adopting America, Singley explores the recurring presence of the orphaned child throughout the history of American literature. Taking on canonical texts throughout the history of American culture, she draws connections between early settlers’ experiences in the new world and adoption, recognizing recurring tensions between adopted and inherited identities. She suggests that adoption narratives tend to follow two “thematic strains”: adoption as a “form of salvation,” rescuing the needy child from poverty, and adoption as a “fresh start” enabling the struggling child to realize his or her full potential (5). She incorporates approximately fourteen canonical and non-canonical texts in her study, five of which are non-fiction historical accounts. While Singley notes in her introduction that Adopting America is by no means an exhaustive study—she outlines gaps in the field in terms of Indian captivity texts, African American literature, and boarding school narratives—the book offers innovative and insightful explorations of the link between adoption and American culture in literature from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

Singley suggests that, while the theme of adoption does occur within some European canonical texts, the subject is especially prominent in American fiction throughout history, drawing on Calvinist traditions of salvation, migration, and changing attitudes toward genealogy and identity. She makes connections between the emergence of popular adoption fiction in the nineteenth century and arising issues of nation building. However, Singley notes that the turn of the twentieth century marked a shift from themes of nation building to those of science and psychology, prioritizing the mental and physical well-being of the child within the adoptive family. Singley comprehensively traces this shift in major American texts emerging over a span of four hundred years, and explores issues of gender, class, and race in rapidly urbanizing—and orphanizing—American society. Singley dedicates five of her eight chapters to nineteenth-century fiction, paying close attention to the popularization of the adoption narrative, and explores texts such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series, and Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, along with a broad sample of well-chosen works from other periods.

The first chapter, entitled “Abandoned and Adopted in the New World,” makes connections between themes of adoption and Puritan settlement in the New World, focusing on the notion of separation from the birth parent. Looking at early sermons by prominent figures in New World settlements, including Cotton Mather’s “Orphantrophium,” and the adoptive behaviours of Samuel Sewall and John Winthrop, Singley structures adoption as an emulation of Calvinist salvation. Early American settlers recognized themselves both as abandoned children and God’s chosen adoptees, and relied heavily on the practice of “placing out”—moving children from one household to another to fulfil educational obligations or because a parent died. Early ideas of adoption, or placing out, conflicted with the Puritan’s cultural xenophobia, and Singley suggests that tensions arise between adoption and the Puritanical emphasis on genealogical kinship.

In Chapter Two, “Problems of Patrimony: Benjamin Franklin and Ann Sargent Gage,” Singley explores Franklin’s Autobiography and the adoptive experiences of Gage to explore attitudes of adoption in the Revolutionary period and the early republic. She convincingly recognizes Franklin’s text as an unresolved struggle between biological kinship and adoptive identities, and explores ambivalent American attitudes toward genealogical identity. The focus of the chapter then shifts to Gage’s struggle to come to terms with her identity as an adopted woman, and Singley analyses the forces of gender and class at work in the experiences of female adoptees.

Chapters Three to Six explore a thorough and broad selection of nineteenth-century texts and highlight the shifting attitudes toward adoption of the emerging middle class. From the illegitimate Pearl in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter to the orphaned Dan Kean in Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys, Singley analyses on-going American ambivalence toward genealogical kinship. She suggests that Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne defies domestic literary conventions, as Hawthorne allows her to rear an illegitimate child and avoid patriarchal intervention. While Hawthorne does represent romanticized Puritanical ideals in seventeenth-century New England settlements, Singley notes that The Scarlet Letter also comments on nineteenth-century constructions of the conventional American family by questioning the importance of kinship in tensions between adoptive and inherited identities.

Singley next looks at popular nineteenth-century adoption narratives, and concludes that these texts reflect cultural anxieties surrounding the dissolution of the cohesive family unit, and work to enshrine the traditional family through literature. This exploration leads into a discussion of child saving and nation building in Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World and Susanna Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, where Singley recognizes literary adoption as primarily a female experience.

The sixth chapter is dedicated to issues of race, slavery, and indentured service in Harriet Wilson’s 1859 novel Our Nig. Singley compares the text to Sarah S. Baker’s Bound Out; Or, Abby at the Farm and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and recognizes that adoption is not an a viable option for all children in late nineteenth-century texts. She argues that Wilson’s failure to end Our Nig with a happy adoption for the protagonist reflects Northern racism and the exclusion of the African American experience from hegemonic literary genres. This chapter is perhaps Singley’s most comprehensive and interesting, and her exploration of these texts—concluding that African American children are denied adoption, and therefore citizenship—offers fresh and innovative perspectives on these canonical antebellum narratives. She also provides fresh insight into Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men and Jo’s Boys, revealing Alcott’s implicit biases regarding adoption, and her preoccupation with genealogical kinship.

Finally, Singley moves into a discussion of early twentieth-century adoption narratives, which symbolize “the death of romantic myths of adoption and nation building” (14). She explores issues of childhood and adoption in Edith Wharton’s Summer, and suggests that literature emerging at the turn of the century no longer valorises qualities of nurture, but instead prioritize genetics and inherited nature. This final chapter explores the “darker side” to adoption, and investigates issues of child abuse, incest, and racism in early twentieth-century American adoption narratives.

Adopting America foregrounds innovative ways of deconstructing adoption in canonical American texts, paving the way for scholars interested in the field. The text is a short one—at only 224 pages, Singley is able to captivate her readers with concise yet insightful discourse. Her notes section is extensive and valuable, and provides a substantial number of titles and authors for further reading. Engaging sociological and historical approaches to her literary analyses, Singley offers an interdisciplinary approach to exploring adoption in American literary culture. Her prose is well-versed and approachable, making the text ideal for both academics and general readers. Adopting America offers new ways of thinking about orphaned children in canonical—and non-canonical, for that matter—texts throughout history, and Singley’s text creates a strong foundation for adoption and childhood scholarship.

Samantha Christensen
University of Alberta, Canada