- Suspicion and Collaboration:Modes of Scholarly Reading
Scholarly book reviews typically focus on the content of the material presented in the volumes under review, weighing the significance of the arguments to the disciplinary discussions in which they are intervening. Perhaps because scholarly writing is governed by conventions well known to other scholars, the style of presentation is rarely considered. If such considerations are advanced, reviewers might speak to the organization of essays or chapters, to editing standards or choices, or to the fit with the series in which the volumes appear. In [End Page 152] the case of the two books I am reviewing here, however, the modes of their presentation—one a monograph, the other a collection of essays—were central to my experience of reading them and, so, to my eventual evaluation of the significance of their contributions to the current field of scholarship on young people's cultures.
Both books are good examples of their type. In Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction, American scholar Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues that the mobile urban child has been understood in terms of neglect in American film and fiction at least since the Depression era. Neglect has taken two forms, both of them "fantasies" in Wojcik's terms—the fantasy that an urban child is a figure of social or psychological neglect and the child's fantasy of mastery, which requires that it be "left alone" (29)—and Wojcik documents in detailed readings the ways in which these two images of neglect are conjoined and counterpoised in various groups of texts (some directed to children, some to adults, and some to mixed audiences) to register changing cultural attitudes to children's mobility and autonomy. In Children, Childhood and Youth in the British World, Shirleene Robinson and Simon Sleight bring together a collection of essays on the constructions and the experiences of childhood and youth across two centuries (the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries) in formal and informal sites of the British empire. Contributing scholars come from Australia, Britain, the United States, Canada, and South Africa, and from the disciplines of political history, art history, archaeology, cultural studies, the history of education, feminist studies, social history, the history of childhood, and literary studies. While the essays are as diverse in subject and style as these lists suggest, recurrent themes are mobility (both the circulation of ideas and the movements of groups and individuals) and the agency of young people within cultural systems. In a number of ways, then, the two volumes can be seen to be related projects despite addressing different historical and geographical contexts.
As reading experiences, however, they are quite dissimilar. Wojcik's single-authored study is a coherent and sustained argument demonstrating that, despite the dramatic restrictions of children's actual mobility in the city over the twentieth century, the fantasy of urban children's mobility endures in American culture, as that is expressed and produced through American filmic and fictional texts. The overall argument of Robinson and Sleight's multi-authored volume is that children were central "to the operation of the British world system" (16). The fifteen studies that point to this broad conclusion consider young people as they appear in diverse sources: laws, essays, novels, interviews, court records, museum exhibits, mothering manuals, sociological theory, archaeological studies, online memorial sites, media discourses, family portraits and letters, and documents from Guiding organizations and child-rescue campaigns. The actual and textual children and youth described in [End Page 153] the studies variously instantiate, endorse, enjoy, accept, shape, use, suffer, endure, challenge, subvert, and resist the roles in the imperial system they are offered or have thrust upon them, with their different responses inflected by differences in age, gender, race, sexuality, social position, class status, national citizenship...