Reviews 2009

Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature

Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century Children’s Literature. Edited by Monika Elbert. New York and London: Routledge, 2008. xxiv + 284 pages. $135.00 (hardback).

This collection of sixteen essays seeks to explore the ways in which white, middle-class adult civic values and social agendas within nineteenth-century American children’s literature influenced “the creation of enterprising children” (xviii). The four essays in Part One, “Civic Duties and Moral Pitfalls,” focus on fiction and poetry within children’s popular journals, including Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s contributions to the periodicals Juvenile Miscellany and Youth’s Companion, Louisa May Alcott’s Christmas stories, selected poems and tales within the first volume of St. Nicholas (1873), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ fiction concerning orphans. Part Two, “Politicizing Children: ‘Normalization’ and the Place of the Marginalized Child,” considers the intersecting roles of race and class within an abolitionist alphabet book; the last three books in Jacob Abbott’s antebellum five-volume series on the male African-American Rainbow; Harriet Beecher Stowe’s children’s fiction; and Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Hester Stanley stories. Part Three, “Sentimental and Realistic Constructs of Childhood,” probes the ways in which fiction and memoirs expose both normative and non-normative social conventions. Here the writers concentrate, respectively, on Robinson Crusoe’s influence on antebellum constructions of masculinity, Elizabeth Stoddard’s novel Lolly Dinks’s Doings (1874), nostalgic portraits of childhood within Realist writers’ memoirs, and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s cultural work in the kindergarten movement and in children’s texts. Finally, in Part Five, “Education and Shifting Paradigms of the Child Mind,” contributors examine varying models of pedagogy and psychology as key influences in children’s moral, intellectual, and psychic development. Subjects include children’s biographies of famous inventors; the Agassiz Association, a children’s program of scientific inquiry that focused on natural history; relationships between children and animals in texts by Mark Twain and G. Stanley Hall; and the intersection of child consciousness and the emerging field of child psychology in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (1897).

Enterprising Youth attempts to scrutinize two overarching questions that strike me as well-meaning but problematic: first, the “perceptions of children as active or passive, as representatives of a new order or as receptacles of the transmitted values of their parents,” and second, the ways that adults impress their values on children in the name of a “good citizenship” that “denies the soaring of the imagination, at least for some of its small citizens” (xviii). In the editor’s construction, texts that urge reform of normative paradigms and provide examples for change and positive growth assume that children are active agents, whereas texts that maintain or inadequately critique the status quo presuppose that children are passive. Whether children are active or passive agents, however, has nothing to do with the specific message they are reading. Both reinforcing and revolutionizing normative ideological practices requires active agents. More helpful than the question of activity or passivity, it seems, would be to inquire how the message itself—to transform, to preserve, or both—affects the style of its delivery and, across time, affects the cultural reproduction of a particular generation.

The second broad issue—how adults inculcate good citizenship—is particularly resonant in an age when various Western countries are wrestling with anti-terrorism strategies amid controversial questions about patriotism and national health. In general, the essays suggest that adults tend to approach children’s civic responsibility in two ways. These approaches differ, however, on the crucial question of characterizing model citizens. The first identifies civically minded children as those whose behaviors and choices sustain a broadly Protestant white ideological dominance, usually by perpetuating gender, race, and class hierarchies. The second approach is more complicated because it appears to detect at least three different but interlinked characteristics of youthful civic responsibility: 1) making non-normative choices, or 2) belonging to at least one non-normative demographic and making non-normative or non-stereotypical choices, or 3) living in a text that challenges the status quo or subtly suggests that readers think critically about the world in which they live. Either way, these writers imply that cultivating good citizenship requires literacy and attentiveness—two things more likely to be accessible to children with plentiful resources, including ample time, education, and nutrition, than to children whose pecuniary and/or legal circumstances force them to work as slaves, as Reconstruction or Jim Crow era neo-slave apprentices, or as wage laborers to survive and/or feed and house their families. So the cycle continues. Sadly, all these suggestions are not as revolutionary as the authors and editor might hope them to be, and thus might prove most helpful to those brand new to children’s studies, children’s literature, or the history of children.

Another regrettable aspect of this text may be found in the editorial tendency to decry the ways various oppressed fictive child populations—the poor, the orphan, the working class, the racially disadvantaged or suspect—suffer under the machinations of unfeeling or ambivalent middle-class writers. Roxanne Harde and the team of Jeannette Barnes Lessels and Eric Sterling provide refreshing reminders that some authors created oppressed characters who are not stereotypical victims. The orphans in Harde’s essay and the African-American protagonist in Lessels and Sterling’s chapter often act with ingenuity, heart, and common sense. These studies help strike a tonal balance that ameliorates the volume’s prevailing tendency to moan mistily for the fictive children whom it constructs as maimed social dupes (see xxiv).

The strength of this collection lies in the editor’s attempt to assemble noteworthy studies on cutting-edge topics. Martha L. Sledge’s investigation of The Anti-Slavery Alphabet (1846/47) and the politics of literacy, Joan Menefer’s examination of child-animal relationships, and Holly Blackford’s analysis of child consciousness clearly stand out in this regard. Each writer handles her ubject with rigor and subtlety, two increasingly rare elements in scholarship today.

Unfortunately, this volume has little else to recommend it. The title itself is misleading, for the essays primarily cover the late nineteenth century; only the chapter on Sigourney and Sedgwick tackles texts published well before 1850. The collection also contains a few chapters that either offer unbalanced arguments or do not fit well within the book’s design. For example, the chapter concerning Realists’ sentimental depictions of their childhoods within their otherwise Realist memoirs, while interesting as a study in contrasting writing styles, sits awkwardly here, as if it were merely filling pages. Perhaps most egregious is the essay examining inventor biographies. The author spoils it by wasting three pages trying to convince his audience that children’s literature is culturally relevant (!) and by including lazy scholarship. His assumptions about the biographical subjects’ religions are hasty and easily disproved, an odd problem in an age when a five-minute Google search, at the least, would have provided the facts he lacked. Richard Lovell Edgeworth, for instance, was Church of Ireland, not Roman Catholic. Haphazard editing and poor copyediting also detract from what could have been a solid contribution to children’s literary studies.

Sandra Burr
Northern Michigan University, USA