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Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel

Roberta S. Trites

Publication Year: 2007

Trites argues that Twain and Alcott wrote on similar topics because they were so deeply affected by the Civil War, by cataclysmic emotional and financial losses in their families, by their cultural immersion in the tenets of Protestant philosophy, and by sexual tensions that may have stimulated their interest in writing for adolescents, Trites demonstrates how the authors participated in a cultural dynamic that marked the changing nature of adolescence in America, provoking a literary sentiment that continues to inform young adult literature. Both intuited that the transitory nature of adolescence makes it ripe for expression about human potential for change and reform.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xviii

What do Caddie Woodlawn and Laura Ingalls and Holden Caulfield and Ponyboy Curtis all have in common? Obviously, they are all adolescent protagonists—and independent rebels who refuse to adhere to social conventions. Furthermore, for the purposes of literary history, their nonconformity can be read as a shared form of cultural critique in that their rebelliousness results from negatively portrayed societal...


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p. xix

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1. Fantasy of Self-Reliance: An Introductory Biography

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pp. 1-30

The central irony of the relationship between Samuel Clemens and Louisa May Alcott lies not in the authors’ differences, but in their frequently ignored similarities. Of specific interest are the social, economic, and psychological factors that led both of them to use adolescence as a platform from which to write about reform. With Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, these two authors...

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2. The Metaphor of the Adolescent Reformer: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women

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pp. 31-53

The novels Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women were published seventeen years apart, which is almost a generation in terms of the readership of the juvenile market. But they are two of the most studied nineteenth-century American novels with adolescent protagonists. Neither book has ever been out of print, and both of them are the most canonical novel of their respective authors. The differences...

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3. Historical Interlude: Vita Religiosa and Romantic Evangelism

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pp. 54-69

Huck Finn and Jo March are the two most enduring adolescent figures in the canon of American literature. But how did it happen that authors such as Clemens and Alcott seized on the concept of adolescence as the nexus of moral choice and reform? Before moving on to analyses of the reformist adolescents that populate the rest of the Twain and Alcott canon, I would like to explore...

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4. Education and Reform: Victorian Progressivism in Youth Literature

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pp. 70-91

Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott demonstrate repeatedly their shared belief that education is the most powerful tool for reform available to the American public. Their belief was such a widely held ideology that it was seldom questioned in the nineteenth century—or since. Henry J. Perkinson identifies Americans’ faith in education as having its roots in both Puritanism and the rationalist...

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5. Gender and Reform: New Women and True Womanhood

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pp. 92-113

Alcott’s efforts to reconcile coeducation, careers, and choices about marriage in her novels Little Men and Jo’s Boys reflect one of the central debates of postbellum America about the role of what would eventually be called the “New Woman.”1 The debate would also engage Twain, especially later in his career. Emerging as a result of the suffrage movement, the New Woman was the antithesis of the woman immersed...

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6. Historical Interlude: Authors, Authority, and Publication

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pp. 114-142

Examining Samuel Clemens’s and Louisa May Alcott’s publication status provides another angle from which to examine the history of children’s and adolescent literature in the United States. Comparing the two not only demonstrates an arena in which they shared similar experiences— publishing—but it also provides a sense of what authors who were publishing...

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7. Adolescent Reform Novels: The Legacy of Twain and Alcott

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pp. 143-162

Up to this point, I have discussed novels that might easily be identified as adolescent reform novels. Novels that admit the possibility of reform tend to have hopeful ideologies. Many of Alcott’s and Twain’s novels for youth imply that social change is possible: Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and The Prince and the Pauper are the most notable examples. The legacies of these novels are a body of literature...

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pp. 163-164

Two forces propelled me to undertake this project: my concern that critics of youth literature spuriously separate Mark Twain’s and Louisa May Alcott’s writings as existing in the separate spheres of boys’ and girls’ stories, and my belief that the history of ideas influenced the two authors in similar ways that are still being rehearsed in twenty-first-century adolescent literature. In 1995, when I first taught a seminar...


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pp. 165-182


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pp. 183-195


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pp. 197-209

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297700
E-ISBN-10: 1587297701
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296222
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296225

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 609628753
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Twain, Alcott, and the Birth of the Adolescent Reform Novel

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Adolescence in literature.
  • Young adult fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • Alcott, Louisa May, 1832-1888 -- Influence.
  • Twain, Mark, -- 1835-1910 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Twain, Mark, 1835-1910 -- Influence.
  • Alcott, Louisa May, -- 1832-1888 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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