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Reviewed by:
  • Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood
  • Michael Zuckerman
Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. By Steven Mintz ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. v plus 445 pp. $29.95).

The blurbs on the back of the book jacket come from commanding figures in the field, and they all converge on one point: Huck's Raft is the best synthesis we have of the history of youth in America.

I do not dispute their concurrence. Mintz's mastery of the secondary literature of American childhood across the sweep of four centuries is unsurpassed. His extensive reading of the primary sources is subtle and sure. His prose is graceful and even, on occasion, eloquent.

He rarely mistakes a favored part for the whole. He rarely loses sight of the vast variety of American children. He cares about the poor as well as the privileged, girls as well as boys, blacks and Indians as well as whites, immigrants as well as the native-born, farm kids as well as suburban mall rats.

His rich rendering of the complexity of childhood past demolishes the still-conventional sense that children have no history. In comprehensive reconnaissances, he demonstrates that childhood has been neither perennial nor given by nature. In telling vignettes and powerful particulars, he shows that it has always been socially and culturally constructed, that those constructions have always been contested, and that those contestations have always changed over time.

Two tropes have governed our tracings of the trajectory of such change. One is the lugubrious narrative of declension. The other is the facile, faintly whiggish tale of little adults becoming angels becoming rascals becoming consumers. Mintz has no patience with the one and little with the other.

In dense, delicious detail, he dispels our myths of an idyllic olden time. American youth have never known an age of innocence. The great mass of them have always had it hard, one way or another. And to this day they still do. They do not face the bitter demographic and economic realities that those who came before them did. But they do have to deal with consignment to an alienated consumerism devoid of all opportunity to contribute to their communities. Their disconnectedness from adult society and their consequent sense of meaninglessness is, he argues, as debilitating as early orphanhood and dire working conditions ever were.

If it is easy to admire the large architectonic of Mintz's work, it is even easier to admire the small touches. Huck's Raft teems with trenchant insights, vivifying anecdotes, and shrewdly observed paradoxes, Its stories are fresh, its tales to the point. They bring to life the gritty realities of city tenements and pioneer farms and the texture of travail that conditioned so many young lives. At every turn, they surprise—discussing the early extinction of childhood on the frontier, to take just one instance among dozens, Mintz sets before us two-year-olds who fetched oxen from the stock fields, five-year-olds who smoked cigarettes, [End Page 219] nine-year-old girls who broke wild horses, and a boy of thirteen who headed the public library of Helena, Montana—and always they evoke the pathos and the poignancy of coming of age in America.

But it is hard not to notice that synthesis on such a scale poses problems. Some of them are inherent in the integrative endeavor. Others are distinctive to the history of childhood and to Mintz's conception of that history.

Every overview such as this one depends on the literature it aims to tie together. Inevitably, it reflects the shortcomings of that literature. In the case of colonial childhood, for example, Mintz goes where the scholarship has gone and ends up advancing a singularly unpersuasive argument for the formative influence of Puritan child-rearing. Inevitably too, such an overview reproduces the failings of that literature. In the case of 1920s "modern youth," for example, Mintz portrays them as less dependent and deferential than the generation before and thereby ends up presenting them exactly as he presents Revolutionary youth. A survey that aims at fidelity to regnant treatments of each era—a synthesis of syntheses—is bound...


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pp. 219-222
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