Historians of the colonial era who are predominantly interested in social history, especially those who study the lives of children, set themselves a difficult task. With a thin trail of traditional historical documentation at [End Page 151] hand, they must reach for alternative sources, such as the literature of captivity narratives, or tricky methodologies, including the history of emotions. Jason Eden, a historian, and Naomi Eden, a gerontologist and marriage and family therapist, suggest that psychology, and, in particular, insights about the human life course, can shed light on the colonial past. Theirs may well be a fruitful avenue of interdisciplinary research, but unfortunately, the Edens’ monograph does little to move the conversation forward.
Age Norms and Intercultural Interactions in Colonial North America is largely an overview of secondary scholarship about the life course as experienced by Europeans, African slaves, and Native Americans in the colonial period. Although the Edens incorporate some historical primary sources into their text, they offer little evidence of the interdisciplinary perspective suggested by their diverse backgrounds. They divided their work into six relatively short chapters that examine age norms in Native American communities, both before and after European contact, and the age norms of enslaved African Americans. Three other chapters review European age norms in the southern, middle, and New England colonies.
In Chapter 1, the Edens paint a portrait of a protected Native American childhood growing into a respected old age—an understanding of the life course that clashes with the less sympathetic understandings of many Europeans in Chapter 5. The text’s middle chapters attempt to detail the similarities and differences between European colonists regarding their understanding of the life course. The chapter about New England is arguably the most successful of the three, integrating a richer diversity of sources than the others. In contrast, the middle-colonies chapter relies heavily on the diary of Elizabeth Drinker, a well-known and oft-cited text. Yet even in the New England chapter, the Edens’ aspirations—“Perhaps a careful consideration of age-related paradoxes in human history will lead us to a deeper understanding of age-related contradictions in our own time”—outpace what they deliver (74).
Readers of this journal may well come away from this book with the sense of a missed opportunity. Except for a few footnotes—about depictions of unruly teens in popular culture, generational effects of trauma, and the pitfalls of modernization theory—the Edens make no sustained efforts toward interdisciplinary analysis in this work. This failure is all the more disappointing given the intellectual groundwork for such an endeavor laid by Field and Syrett in their edited volume, Age in America.1 Field and Syrett draw attention to the “arbitrary but necessary” category of age as a force that shaped, and continues to shape, human experience. The “necessary” aspect is straightforward; for administrative ease and political equality, governments must attach a specific age to suffrage, draft eligibility, and other civic obligations and rights. “Arbitrary,” however, opens the analytical door to complex discussions about unequal [End Page 152] power among diverse groups of people. Unequal ages of consent, for example, have roots in the vagaries of gender politics as well as shifting understandings of presumed childhood innocence. Ages attached to apprenticeship and the gradual manumission of slaves help to sketch out the borders of class mobility and racial prejudice in colonial America. Current scholarship in the psychology of aging and development would reveal how arbitrary age limits were delineated in the colonial period, but the text’s tentative conclusions about the “various ways” that beliefs about age shaped policy and behavior are not satisfying.
The Edens are, however, correct that age as a category of historical analysis does not yet command the same attention as does historians’ familiar triumvirate of race, class, and gender. But even though the authors make occasional efforts to illuminate how “contemporary knowledge about human development can promote a deeper comprehension of historical events and human interactions,” their worthy goal is more...