Blogs > Cliopatria > Joyce Carol Oates: Review of Steven Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Harvard Univewrsity Press)

Mar 10, 2005 6:37 pm


Joyce Carol Oates: Review of Steven Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Harvard Univewrsity Press)



Joyce Carol Oates in TLS (3-9-05):

Curious that, though we have all been children, we scarcely know what childhood “is”. A biological condition? A span of years? A social construct? An ever-evolving compendium of myths that represent society’s projections of its ideals and anxieties onto its youngest, most vulnerable members? As our personal recollections of childhood are likely to be highly unreliable, taken as much from family albums and photographs, family tales and obfuscations as from direct memory, so our collective history of childhood is likely to be sentimental and simplified, a kind of cartoon nostalgia for an idealized past that never was. As Steven Mintz argues in this often fascinating and massively documented exploration of four centuries of American childhood, “there has never been a time when the overwhelming majority of American children were well cared for and their experience idyllic. Nor has childhood ever been an age of innocence, for most children”.

Huck’s Raft is an inspired title for a book that deconstructs images, prejudices, “wisdom”. On the jacket is what appears to be an illustration of Huckleberry Finn alone and blissfully carefree on his raft on the fabled Mississippi, some time in the mid-nineteenth century; in fact, the photograph is of Charles Lindbergh as a boy rafting on the Mississippi c1912. It is Professor Mintz’s argument that American fantasies about childhood are most succinctly (and erroneously) bound up with such idyllic images: the romance of a neverland in which children and young adolescents enjoyed unlimited freedom and were not exploited and abused by their elders. It may have been that Mark Twain shared something of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idealization of childhood, as he valued nature over the hypocrisy of society, yet the painful evidence of Huckleberry Finn is that its boy-hero is “an abused child, whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read”. In Hannibal, Missouri, in Huck’s time, before the Civil War destroyed Southern slavery, life for many Americans was likely to be nasty, brutish and short: even among the middle class, approximately one child in four died in infancy, and one individual in two before his or her twenty-first birthday. The notion of a lengthy childhood, “devoted to education and free from adult responsibilities, is a very recent invention, and one that became a reality for a majority of children only after World War II”.

The chimera of “family values” was an adroitly manipulated issue in the 2004 Presidential election, and nostalgia for a lost Eden remains an obsessive American theme. Each generation is convinced that life was better, and certainly more “moral”, in the past, no matter what the actual conditions of the past. Contemporary diatribes such as the best-selling Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American children feel good about themselves but can’t read, write or add sound alarms previously sounded in such 1950s best-sellers as Why Johnny Can’t Read, whose author Rudolf Flesch, an “authority on literacy”, argued that the failure on the part of public school teachers to teach phonics was “gradually destroying democracy” in the United States. Adult anxiety about youthful literacy is the social conservative’s favoured mode of anxiety about other, more alarming predilections of youth, as “A Letter to the Rising Generation” by Cornelia Comer, which originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, makes clear:

“The younger generation, she grumbled, couldn’t spell, and its English was “slipshod.” Today’s youth were selfish, discourteous, lazy, and self-indulgent. Lacking respect for their elders or for common decency, the young were hedonistic, “shallow, amusement-seeking creatures” whose tastes had been “formed by the colored supplements of the Sunday paper” and “the moving-picture shows.” The boys were feeble, flippant, and “soft” intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Even worse were the girls, who were brash, loud, and promiscuous with young men.”

All this, in 1911!

Except for its length and the density of its documentation – drawn abundantly from letters, journals, speeches, reports, publications – Huck’s Raft reads like a textbook, moving forward through the decades (from 1704 to 2004) like a very large, sometimes unwieldly but unfailingly earnest marching band. Mintz’s point is perhaps not original, but it is altogether plausible:

“Childhood and adolescence as biological phases of human development have always existed. But the ways in which childhood and adolescence are conceptualized and experienced are social and cultural constructions that have changed dramatically over time.”...
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