- Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture
When Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) died in 1991, I was teaching at a Quaker school that gathered weekly for Meeting for Worship. Aware of his recent death, students [End Page 201] stood one after another to speak—reverentially, sometimes tearfully—of their feelings for Geisel's books. I was struck by how aware they were of the precarious pleasures of youthful reading; the students' spontaneous eulogies provided a startling glimpse of their nostalgia for their own, still-unfolding childhoods.
It is precisely the precariousness and the productivity of childhood that Karen Sánchez-Eppler deftly examines in her remarkable new book, Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. In recent years, literary critics have turned increasingly to the figure of the child as "a rich and varied site of cultural inscription," as the editors of The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader (Rutgers University Press, 2003) have noted (3). Yet in Sánchez-Eppler's subtle account, children do not merely provide a metonym for culture (of which they are a "part"), they also actively "play a part"—practical as well as rhetorical—in the construction of child experience in antebellum America. "For children, too," Sánchez-Eppler observes, "childhood can be an object of desire" (xxvi).
While the five chapters of Dependent States provide a fresh look at some familiar literary figures—Hawthorne, Stowe, Alcott, Whitman—Sánchez-Eppler's study is distinguished by its consideration of a treasure trove of archival sources. In making her case for the centrality of children to nineteenth-century culture, Sánchez-Eppler looks at drawings by children as well as daguerreotypes of children; youthful journals and notebooks alongside child-rearing manuals; stories penned by children in addition to adult fiction with child protagonists; pre-adolescent diaries along with parents' transcriptions of precocious conversations; and children's compositions as well as public school song lyrics. The book's erudite introduction provides a conceptual and historical framework for approaching childhood, which Sánchez-Eppler notes is a productively liminal "status defined by its mutability" (xxv). Indeed, her introduction, titled "The Child's Part in the Making of American Culture," will be essential reading for anyone interested in the growing field of child studies, as much for its capacious and generous footnotes as for its elegant framing of the book's concerns.
For Sánchez-Eppler, "the status of the partial subject" becomes the occasion for thinking through a series of complex, invigorating entanglements: between disciplinary practices such as the moral education of children and the potentially disruptive pleasures of play, between the affiliations and rituals of home life and the cultural circulation of affect through market culture, and between the local cultivation of virtuous children and the inculcation of national and religious affiliations (xxv). Sánchez-Eppler carefully examines a wide range of antebellum cultural practices in which children play a central part, from religious education, to domestic reform movements, to the circulation and consumption of death-bed images. She admirably avoids casting children as wholly resistant to societal norms or as puppets of them: in the case of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, "the voice of the child becomes a tool of social critique," whereas Christian missionaries, Sánchez-Eppler persuasively argues in another chapter, were committed to "depicting the child as a world evangelizer" (45, 189). In the case of temperance fiction the redemptive power of a child's unflinching love for her parent paradoxically reaffirms "a bourgeois patriarchal order that leaves the child as vulnerable as ever" (72).
The readings of texts and cultural events are invariably illuminating, and the writing, lucid throughout, includes lovely turns of phrase. The diary of a twelve-year-old named Louis Gratacap is described as "a marvel of disjunctions: the self-assessment and introspection expected of a New Year's entry pivot effortlessly into the pleasures of jokes and narration" (37). Indeed, Sánchez-Eppler herself...