- Reading Age Beyond Childhood
Why have scholars of American literature neglected age, broadly defined, as a critical lens and as an explicit subject of nineteenth-century culture? The blossoming field of childhood studies masks a larger reticence about age. Indeed, humanities scholars’ nearly exclusive attention to children has limited our focus to a single stage of life, the period fetishized by conservative investments in reproductive futurity and heteronormativity. This uneven focus on children and children’s cultures seemingly privileges young people’s lives as the most politically significant and worthy of historical and literary recovery.
Even as critics may dismantle what Lauren Berlant called the “idealization of the child as citizen,” there is nonetheless an ideological problem when we fail to complement projects on American youth by considering age more broadly.1 In other words, childhood studies’ increasing prominence creates the illusion that we are discussing age, but in fact, the disproportionate attention to youth risks reifying childhood as the most appealing and meaningful site of inquiry. Moreover, this scholarship tends to demarcate development and vulnerability as particular to childhood when such conceptual terms may be usefully applied to any age.
My goal here is not simply to urge scholars to add age to the standard list of identity categories that have attracted our attention. Rather, I argue that these other measures of social location (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability) are largely legible through the seemingly more natural and essential identity defined by age.2 That is, age ideology operates in tandem with discourses of power and naturalizes existing hierarchies. For example, the discourse of age conditions how we conventionally understand gender, enshrining old men as sources of wisdom while women are instructed in what critic [End Page 122] Kathleen Woodward calls the “pedagogy of mortification,” which teaches them invisibility after their reproductive years have passed.3 Similarly, quantitative, numerical age provides an ostensibly objective basis for the false binary between disabled and able bodies, as it is largely through age that mainstream science measures whether individuals are bodily appropriate and developmentally on schedule.
During the nineteenth century, numerical age became a primary identity coordinate. The 1850 census was the first to ask respondents to include numerical age, and it was also the first census to render the pseudo-scientific taxonomy of race even more complex, suggesting how age and race simultaneously became crucial sites in a regime centered on bodily classification. Additionally, universal white male suffrage gradually became linked with the age of twenty-one rather than with property ownership. Alongside the state’s obvious biopolitical investment in numerical age as a relevant quantifier of political maturity and a key statistic for assessing the national population, numerous institutions, including schools and hospitals, were organizing around age. Age categories also became markets; publishers catered to specific age groups, and periodical culture increasingly interpolated readers within specific age demographics. Collectively, these developments signal how chronological age was integral to what Judith Treas calls a “stratification regime,” which standardized the course of American lives.4
Historians offer conflicting explanations for why age acquired heightened significance. Some link this shift to rising market capitalism, which devalued older people’s wisdom and instead favored the efficiency typically associated with youth. George Miller Beard’s American Nervousness (1881), for example, links aging not only to declining productivity but also to diminished creativity. He laments, “I find no record of any very important invention conceived and developed after the age of 60. Edison, with his three hundred patents, is not the only young inventor. All inventors are young.”5 Others [End Page 123] read the increased attention to age as a response to basic demographic changes; there were more people over sixty-five at the end of the nineteenth century than the nation had ever seen before.
Whatever the explanation, we should recognize and study the nineteenth century’s second half as the moment that gave rise to our modern culture of age. In its insistence on age benchmarks and its disdain for aging itself, nineteenth-century culture laid the groundwork for contemporary concerns about the physiological, aesthetic, and economic costs of growing older. Moreover, anxieties about inappropriate aging permeated periodical culture and...