Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer History In The Making

By Leonard Gill

DECEMBER 21, 1998: 

On college campuses and across disciplines, what’s shaping up to be today’s hot topic isn’t only gender and it isn’t only race. It isn’t transgressive texts and it isn’t all subtext. It’s something historians until recently have largely ignored, and it’s something about which all of us already think we know a thing or two since all of us have been there: childhood.

As an area ripe for research, it sounds simple enough until you realize that history’s traditional sources and methods aren’t necessarily of much help. So you go to an untraditional source that does help, say, children’s literature, but it’s not so simple. How, for example, did 17th-century New Englanders actually view children? What did the Puritans perceive childhood itself to be? What, in short, in prerevolutionary America was a child? Answer: an original sinner, to judge from the first children’s book written in the colonies, lovingly titled in 1646 by Reverend John Cotton Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes; in either England: Drawn out of the breasts of both Testaments for their Souls nourishment: But may be of like use to any Children.

This information comes by way of a detailed, 10-year study by Gail Murray, an associate professor of history at Rhodes College, in a book commissioned for a series on child history by Joseph Hawes of the University of Memphis and N. Ray Hiner of the University of Kansas. The book is called American Children’s Literature and the Construction of Childhood (Twayne Publishers, 264 pp., $29.95).

The key word here is “construction.” As many cultural historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators believe (and a look at children’s literature they believe shows), childhood is an invention, a social construct rooted in the prevailing values of a given society at a given time, which makes our understanding of it anything but a given. The revelation is that our notions of childhood, which continue to evolve, have said and say more about us as adults than they do about kids. How and why is this so? Hit the books.

What you’ll find is that children went, very roughly, from being born sinners to empty vessels in the late 18th century (vessels into which to pour Republican virtues), to paragons of goodness and innocence in the 19th century (excepting the subversive, double case of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), to carefree, middle-class, protected (and white) adventurers in the first half of our own century (Nancy Drew), and to alienated, post-war, crisis-bearers with Catcher in the Rye. (Fall outside these narrow parameters, and you very likely didn’t see yourself portrayed or portrayed in a very kindly light in children’s books.)

But beginning in the 1960s, Murray writes, “the social construction of childhood ... reveals a different purpose,” one that, in her view, brings us full circle and face to face with those Puritans: “Firmly steeped in contemporary therapy and self-help philosophies, adults believed that children had the inner resources to handle emotional pain; they believed that some suffering would prove helpful in adulthood. In this construction, children are neither sinful nor innocent but survivors. As in...colonial America, the lines between what children know and do, and what adults experience, have been considerably blurred.”

Blurred is right, if you consider that what we got during the 1970s and ’80s were books for early and adolescent readers on menstruation, pregnancy, masturbation, homosexuality, racism, sexism, alcoholism, drug abuse, gang violence, and thank God in all this there was still Dr. Seuss.

That was then, however, this is now, and that means Goosebumps and movie tie-ins and childhood again as vessel: for market share or, increasingly, family investment. In an interview with the author, Murray spoke of this latest twist to the childhood construct, one that reasons “I can reflect my income by virtue of my children.”

William Bennet and his anthologies may be doing what he thinks can stem the tide of consumerism, but if parents and grandparents are buying into Bennet, are children reading him? Murray is a historian, not a book editor, and diplomatically held off pronouncing on what the literature we offer our children should be. “Having today’s children read Pollyanna,” she did allow, “is not going to make them sweet.”

Having today’s college students and a general audience take a fresh look at Pollyanna could, however, alert them and us to this unfixed thing we call childhood. Don’t let the academic ring of Gail Murray’s title dampen your interest. The book is as thought-provoking as it is thorough, in spite of missing at least a mention of A Separate Peace.

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