Reviewed by James Marten (Department of History, Marquette University)
Published on H-Childhood (April, 2000)
This is a book of breathtaking ambition: to provide documents that introduce the issues and experiences of four hundred years of childhood in the United States, while at the same reflecting the nation's ethnic, gender, and political diversity. Spread over seven hundred pages and divided into eleven chapters, the 178 selections vary in length from a few paragraphs to several pages, and range from verse to memoirs, from newspaper accounts to court documents, from fiction to advice books, from academic treatises to impressionistic reporting. Despite its intimidating size, this book should find an enthusiastic readership among professionals, activists, and the general public alike. There is literally something in this collection that speaks to the scholarly or personal interests of virtually anyone interested in the history and lives of children.
Compiling an anthology such as this is an art rather than a science; few people would choose exactly the same documents or organize them in exactly the same way. The selections in Childhood in America reflect its editors' interests. Fass in a historian, Mason is a professor of Social Welfare, both at Berkeley. Hence, the following suggestions should be treated merely as caveats rather than objections.
First of all, the brief introductions to each section and piece are, at times, a little bland. The authors, to their great credit, do not insert personal political or academic viewpoints, but they do miss a chance to create an even more helpful volume by also refusing to discuss the critical reception of even the academically oriented selections. One example is their introduction to an excerpt from Philippe Aries on the origins of the concept of childhood, which ignores recent criticisms of his paradigm.
Secondly, there is a curious shortage of sources about Native Americans, even though many of the experiences of young American Indians over the years certainly fit into several of the book's sections: their enforced matriculation to government boarding schools, their vulnerability to disease spread by and war waged by European conquerors, the hopelessness facing children on reservations, and the challenges of alcoholism and drug abuse within the Native American community.
Thirdly, some of the sections exhibit a lack of focus. For instance, the documents in "Children Without Parents," while offering troubling and enlightening information on such issues as slave children, "placing out," and foster parenting, among others, are more likely to talk about children's troubled relationships with their parents or care-givers than about orphans or children unattached to biological or adopted parents. It is also not always clear why certain articles appear in "Boys and Girls" rather than "Adolescence and Youth." Information on gender roles is certainly not lacking in the rest of the book, and the pieces on violence, sexuality, and psychology categorized here as "Boys and Girls" issues could easily have been incorporated into chapters with stronger unifying themes.
Finally, there is too little information on play. All children, even those facing the worst conditions, tend to "play through" their fears, doubts, and ambitions. In one of the news accounts included in the collection, a very young suspect in a headline-grabbing violent crime asks his jailers for toys, showing that even the most hardened and at one level "grown-up" children still need to express themselves through play. Another aspect of children's lives that is largely ignored is their participation in public life, as actors and as symbols. Children have participated in the home front efforts during each of our nation's wars, fought alongside adults for civil rights, and have been the stuff of patriotic rhetoric during times of crisis, from the Civil War through the depression to the Cold War. Yet this element of children's lives--central to the formative experiences of many generations--is largely missing.
These criticisms do not detract from the significant achievement and contribution of this anthology. The organization is shrewdly chaotic; although the editors sometimes sacrifice depth for breadth of coverage-this is especially true in the decision to include sometimes too-short excerpts from many sources-there is a certain kind of depth provided by the shifting angles and points of view that revolve around individual issues. For example, the unblinking section on "The Vulnerable Child"--which covers health, abuse, and poverty--includes documents produced by Jacob Riis, an early twentieth century White House conference, Geraldo Rivera, various newspapers and news magazines, professional historians, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The equally strong chapter on "Sexuality" features an even more diverse lineup, including Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov (an excerpt from Lolita), Margaret Mead and Albert Kinsey, and Sigmund Freud and Maris A. Vinovskis.
At times -- and this is part of the charm of the book -- Childhood in America resembles nothing so much as a thoughtful, well-planned web site. By "clicking" from one document to another, the reader is given an idiosyncratic but ultimately fascinating look at one topic from many points of views. Like a web site, the editors are less concerned with presenting material in a linear form than with offering combinations of complementary or sometimes conflicting approaches to an issue. "Surfing" the section on "Children and the State" leads a reader from Jacob Riis on the "Child-Saving Movement" to the historian Linda Gordon on Progressive efforts to extend government protection to children and on to Children's Bureau documents. Later in the same chapter, a brief scholarly account of the juvenile court system is followed by a bit of memoir from one of its pioneers, Judge Ben Lindsey. News magazine articles on various issues concerning children and adolescents--the First Amendment in the schools, contraception and abortion, lowering the voting age--are interspersed with extracts from the federal Constitution as well as U. S. Supreme Court and state appeals court decisions. The section ends rather poignantly with the 1989 "United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child," an international agreement not yet ratified by the United States.
This is not simply a book about children, although anyone who reads it will know far more about almost every aspect of children's lives than he or she knew before. In fact, this is a fascinating look at American society, politics, and economics through the lens of childhood. The presentation of these nearly 180 documents is sympathetic to children, but not sentimental; encyclopedic in scope, but not in format; serious, but not stuffy. Scholars in any number of disciplines and general readers interested in the challenges of growing up in the United States will profit from this immensely ambitious and ultimately successful collection for years to come.
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James Marten. Review of Fass, Paula S.; Mason, Mary Ann, eds., Childhood in America.
H-Childhood, H-Net Reviews.
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