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Teaching Eugenics to Children: Heredity and Reform in Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 28, Number 3, September 2004
pp. 363-389 | 10.1353/uni.2004.0032

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The Lion and the Unicorn 28.3 (2004) 363-389

Heredity and Reform in Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs and Dear Enemy

Karen A. Keely

Jean Webster may not be well known today, but her novel Daddy-Long-Legs is still beloved by women who read it when they were young. Although not as popular today as it once was, the novel about a spunky orphan who gets a college education has never been out of print since its initial publication in 1912 and has been widely translated. The 1915 sequel (and Webster's last novel before her death in 1916), Dear Enemy, has a smaller current audience, but was very popular when published; it was among the top ten best sellers of 1916 (Hackett 114). Although Daddy-Long-Legs is now considered a novel for girls, Webster wrote for, and was appreciated by, audiences of all ages. She complained in 1916 that "several publishers have included my books in the Juveniles in their fall fiction lists" (Moses 454). James D. Hart, placing both novels on his list of "books most widely read in America in the years immediately following publication" (301, 312), remarks that, on the eve of World War I, "the enemy that most people read about was Jean Webster's Dear Enemy" (226). In the years just after the earlier novel's publication, a generation of girls owned Daddy-Long-Legs dolls. Daddy-Long-Legs was also a hit on Broadway, starring first Ruth Chatterton, then Renée Kelley (Simpson et al. 8). Webster wrote the dramatization, which was the most popular comedy of the 1914-15 season (Simpson et al. 183). The novel has been made into three motion pictures—starring Mary Pickford in a 1919 silent film, Janet Gaynor in a 1931 "talkie," and finally Leslie Caron in a 1955 musical that costarred Fred Astaire. Other adaptations include a 1952 British stage musical comedy, Love from Judy, and a 1984 Japanese animated version with an English soundtrack (Bower 109-10). Dear Enemy has been less filmed, but in the early 1980s, the BBC aired a version (Simpson et al. 8).

Webster took an active role in the social and political conversations of her day and distilled those arguments into books readily accessible by the young, helping to mold a new generation to participate in these same debates. In her two popular novels, Webster tackles issues such as education of and the vote for women, and institutional reform, as well as the then-hot topic of heredity and eugenics. While the earlier Daddy-Long-Legs argues that anyone with enough spunk can make it in America if only given a hand up, the sequel Dear Enemy ultimately accepts that spunk is by no means a universal trait, and that many people cannot even recognize the opportunity for a hand up when it arrives. The Publisher's Weekly, commending the later novel, noted that:

The person who is afraid of frivolous fiction will find beneath all the nonsense of the story a really serious study of orphan asylum problems from the eugenic as well as the psychological and practical viewpoints, while the person who fears instruction may be sure that the narrative is so gaily told that its nonsense will make up for its undeniable sense.

Webster became increasingly convinced by hereditarian reasoning and used her novels as a medium for didacticism on the subject, explicitly teaching her readers about eugenic family studies and implicitly supporting laws mandating the involuntary sterilization or segregation of the mentally disabled and some classes of criminals, legislation that began appearing at state levels in 1907. Nevertheless, as the literary, historical, and biographical evidence makes clear, Webster's eugenics is decisively moderate; she insists on the importance of improving environments as well as limiting reproduction for society's poorest and least healthy members.

Daddy-Long-Legs is the story of Judy Abbot, an orphan of unknown parentage who has lived in the John Grier Home until she writes an essay that catches the attention of a wealthy trustee, who decides to send her to college. After a short, third-person-narrated section set in the orphanage, the novel consists of Judy...

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