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Reviewed by:
  • Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century American Children's Literature
  • Antoinette Tadolini (bio)
Elbert, Monika M., ed. Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century American Children's Literature. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Monika Elbert's ambitiously titled essay collection features sixteen excellent scholarly works taking varied approaches to a wide range of children's literature, educational developments, and child psychology in the late nineteenth century. Elbert's introduction distinguishes this collection by emphasizing its focus on "nineteenth-century American children's literature and education" (xix), and particularly on "writing specifically addressed to children . . . and intended for children" (xx). The essays focus on works written for children of the period, applying current literary theories and historical insights on the period to expose and discuss the unspoken as well as the occasionally subversive. The essays are organized into four "thematic clusters" (xxii) doing the work of examining "recent assessments of canon formations, gender studies, cultural studies, and psychological paradigms of the child's mind to show how concepts of public/private, male/female, and national/foreign are collapsed and thus to reveal a picture of American childhood and life that is expansive and constrictive at the same time" (xxii). This review considers these themes and constituent essays in turn.

Enterprising Youth's first section of essays concentrates on women authors' work in children's popular journals, carefully considering "Civic Duties and [End Page 262] Moral Pitfalls" around the "ideas of citizenship, ethics and methods of inclusion and exclusion" (xxiii). In the opening essay, "A Just, A Useful Part," Lorinda B. Cohoon examines the contributions of Lydia Huntley Sigourney and Catharine Maria Sedgwick to The Juvenile Miscellany and The Youth's Companion in the 1830s and 1840s. Cohoon discerns a tension between social critique and the reinforcement of the very cultural assumptions being critiqued in both authors' poetry. This embodied ambivalence is also explored by Monika Elbert in her insightful chapter on the consideration of poverty in Louisa May Alcott's Christmas stories. While personal experiences with poverty resonate in the texts, Alcott also reinforces contemporary middle-class sensibilities about the poor, implying that poverty is deserved because of character flaws and that the best role for the poor is to provide opportunities for the middle class to improve themselves through offering charity. In their coauthored " 'Hints Dropped Here and There': Constructing Exclusion in St. Nicholas, Volume 1," Janet Gray and Melissa Fowler share the fruits of a graduate seminar spent closely examining the first twelve monthly volumes of St. Nicholas: Scribner's Illustrated Magazine for Boys and Girls, which in 1873 was launched to change the tide of children's literature from direct moral instruction to what founder Mary Mapes Dodge called "hints dropped here and there" (39). Gray and Fowler turn this guidance to their ends, arguing that "the hinted messages . . . construct exclusionary boundaries around and through genteel white childhood" (41) and reinforce society's preconceived adult roles of gender, race, and class for the maturing child. The concluding essay in this section is Roxanne Harde's comprehensive consideration of how author Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's orphan characters, including, among others, "Mary Elizabeth," "Us Boys," and "Bobbit," "add a subversive voice to contemporary and divergent discourses of the period . . . and mak[e] children, destitute or privileged, active and public agents of social reform" (56). These four essays comprehensively explore the tension between the stated instructional goal of promoting civic activism and the validation of middle-class values. Elbert establishes Part 2, "Politicizing Children," to "explore children's agency with regard to race and class as national issues" (xxiii). In "A Is an Abolitionist," Martha L. Sledge persuasively argues that her close reading of The Anti-Slavery Alphabet, published in 1847 as part of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society's annual anti-slavery fair, actually "reinforces rather than challenges nineteenth century racial politics" (70). Sledge's essay is enriched by its brief history of children's abolitionist literature, which is contextualized as recognizing that literacy, the key to freedom, is denied to the slave child, reinforcing the white child's privilege at being provided literacy tools such as the Alphabet itself. Next, Jeanette Barnes...


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pp. 262-266
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