- The Child as (Potential) Citizen
Lorinda Cohoon's Serialized Citizenships focuses on the relationship between childhood (specifically, boyhood) and American political identity, a topic that has particular resonance due to both recent and long-standing metaphors of the nation and its citizens as infantile. Children are fascinating as political subjects because they represent the values, expectations, and futurity of citizenship, while simultaneously being denied the explicit rights and privileges afforded to adult citizens. They embody the nation's most sacred ideals, but also mark its boundaries, limitations, and exclusions. Some of the more noteworthy recent studies of the child-citizen, such as those by Karen Sanchez Eppler, Lauren Berlant, and Caroline Levander, have addressed this very contradiction, demonstrating how marginalized figures such as the girl-citizen and the slave child have both profoundly influenced and complicated American ideas of citizenship. Next to these studies, the relationship between boyhood and citizenship can seem like a deceptively straightforward affair. After all, the fact that boys do not yet possess the full rights of citizenship is often represented culturally as a mere technicality that will be resolved when manhood is (naturally and rightfully) attained.
Yet, as recent studies of boyhood by Kenneth Kidd, Troy Boone, and Annette Wannamaker have shown, boys can hold a much more contingent, unsettled, and even oppositional position in relation to citizenship than the relative "ease" of white men's political participation might initially suggest. Accounts of queer childhood, such as those by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Moon, and Kathryn Bond Stockton, have also called into question boys' easy transition into fully grown adult citizens by focusing on the precarious status and even perceived death of gay children. Cohoon's significant contribution to this conversation is her attention to neglected "boyhoods" of the past. Building upon the growing body of work on the slipperiness, adaptability, and transience of the boy-citizen, she offers a pluralistic account of the multiple positions that nineteenth-century boys held with regard to civic identity, as well as a nuanced relation of the national, local, and collective models [End Page 214] of belonging that asserted themselves in serials for boys. In doing so, she further complicates the concepts of autonomy, self-sufficiency, and independence that have figured so centrally in the critical lexicons of masculinity, of nation, and (often inversely) of childhood itself.
Cohoon draws on an impressively vast and mostly unstudied archive of popular nineteenth-century children's materials, devoting a chapter each to Jacob Abbott, George Light, Oliver Optic, Thomas Aldrich, and Frances Burnett. By bringing attention to these authors, who are often neglected due to misguided assumptions about the narrow and formulaic nature of their works, Cohoon effectively expands the terrain of study for scholars of American children's literature. Even more exceptionally, she studies these works in serial and periodical format, contributing to the growing interest in how material features, publication histories, and reading conditions shaped the ways in which children encountered their books. In addition to making the case for a broader definition of children's literature studies, this work is valuable in helping scholars interested in book history continue to imagine and particularize the experiences of readers.
Cohoon's large popular archive, as well as her use of the plural "citizenships," communicates her primary critical intervention into the study of nineteenth-century boyhood, which was brought on by her dissatisfaction with the totalizing narratives told about American boys. In particular, Cohoon challenges what Leslie Fiedler and others have identified as the definitive literary version of boyhood, where defiance, rebellion, and "lighting out for the territory" are claimed as "an inherent part of Americanness" (xv). She explains that she is not interested in replacing one version of canonical boyhood with another, preferring to focus instead on citizenship's multiplicities, ruptures, gaps, and conflicts. American political identity, she asserts, is in fact "defined by permutations of boyhood and manhood" rather than by archetypal accounts (xxiii).
Given her distaste for dominant cultural narratives, it is both surprising and interesting that Cohoon's project of complicating the canonical narrative frequently...