Reviews 2009

Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel

Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel. Roberta Seelinger Trites. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007. 236 pages. $34.95 (hardback).

Roberta Seelinger Trites begins her thoroughly researched and engagingly written new study of children’s literature by drawing attention to the fact that while a vast number of American novels for adolescents are invested in social critique, that investment is seldom studied or even noticed. Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel addresses this lacuna by closely reading several of the novels written for young people by Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. Trites argues that with best-selling works like Little Women and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, these authors founded a tradition of reform-minded adolescent protagonists that continues in young adult fiction today.

Using the methodologies of American Studies, Trites builds her argument through a welcome variety of chapters. Focusing on those points germane to the study of writing for children, she traces the similarities between the two authors’ biographies in the first chapter. What follows is a literary study of how Huck Finn and Jo March delineate the need for social reform through their own moral development. Trites argues that because they are usually superior to the societies in which they live, these adolescent protagonists ultimately emerge as metaphors “for the need for the nation’s social growth” (52). Chapter Three is a first-rate assessment of the intellectual milieu that informed Alcott and Twain, particularly “the religious history of romantic evangelism that caused them to write as reformers” (xv). The next two chapters trace two trends of Victorian progressivism in their work: education and feminism as means of reform. Chapter Six is a study of print culture in the era, with a particular focus on how Twain’s and Alcott’s lucrative careers were tied to the American demand for novels about social change. In her final chapter and Afterward, Trites traces the effects that characters like Jo and Huck have had on adolescent literature in the United States.

Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel is a uniformly strong text; its only weaknesses are small absences. Trites is particularly forceful in debunking the critical trend to read the work of these authors along an arbitrary gender division: Twain as a writer for boys and Alcott for girls. The meticulous tracing of the many similarities between these authors and their works puts that division to rest at last. Among those similarities are Trites’s sensitive and detailed readings of their prose styles, where both rely on the rhetorical tropes of cataloguing people, scenery, and events while traveling, and the way they use irony to describe their protagonists’ moral conflicts. Twain’s and Alcott’s similar reliance on adolescence as a trope, Trites makes clear, “seems to have been motivated by intellectual values, psychological forces, and the economic practicality that juvenile publishing was lucrative” (30). In her comparison of Huck and Jo, Trites notes that in Alcott’s formulation, Jo’s honesty, androgyny, and self-reliance provided a model to transform her society as did Huck’s acceptance of and respect for the individuality of African Americans. Trites is able to see the wider picture and link the trend began by these novelists to young adult fiction today, and she concludes her comparison by arguing with conviction that because of Huck and Jo, “American adolescents have been encouraged to think of adolescence as a movement toward the perfectibility of man” (53).

Trites’s discussion of trends of Victorian progressivism and romantic evangelism that influenced both authors is as strong as her comparison of their other similarities, and she lucidly translates those influences into a discussion of how both authors viewed education as the best tool for reform, “including their shared belief that education can improve humanity and their disrespect for corporal punishment, rote learning, and reason misused in the name of logic” (91). Twain and Alcott embed similar pedagogies and critiques of current educational practices in their novels for adolescents, and both employed the trope of the “improving child.” Trites makes clear how this trope and others now “appear almost formulaically in the adolescent literature that the two have influenced” (143).

Trites’s discussion of the legacy of Alcott and Twain is an apt summary to this text and one that should lead to future scholarship on the adolescent reform novel. Now that its history has been, at least partially, uncovered, readers have new ways to think about the genre and the wider implications of its texts. As Trites summarizes the similarities between Huck and Jo, and Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch, she makes clear that the genre is reliant “on a well-meaning and basically decent adolescent to depict the flaws, not in the adolescent, but in the culture in which he [or she] lives” (145). I fully agree and find this a first-rate study; however (and this might also be the basis for another study), I would have appreciated some attention to the precursors of Alcott and Twain. If their work largely was born of the Civil War, I wonder how it was influenced by abolitionist writers for children like Lydia Maria Child. If basic decency is a major trait of the adolescent reformer, then what about those basically good (and famously self-reliant) newsboys described by Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Horatio Alger as critics of American society? Finally, Trites explains well why she focuses only on novels, but even some limited attention to the short fiction these authors placed in the leading periodicals for young people might have enriched what is already an important contribution to the disciplines of Children’s Literature and American Studies.

Roxanne Harde
University of Alberta, Canada