- Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840–1911
In Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840–1911, Lorinda Cohoon claims that the study of American boyhood has suffered from a focus on a limited number of canonical texts, and her book does much to rectify this error by studying a wide archive of material. Cohoon examines at length periodical literature, which has been almost completely ignored in scholarship on boyhood, and makes a solid case for its prominent role (even more so than the novel, she argues) in creating and responding to notions of masculinity and citizenship. In particular, she explores how its "complex mixture of contributors, readers, and genres offers insights into links between adult constructions of boyhood citizenships, national literary and political conversations . . . and responses to the constraints and requirements of adult citizenship" (xiii).
Cohoon is at her strongest when she discusses literary texts; here her critical interventions are most clearly signaled and her claims are most important to scholars of children's literature. She argues, for example, that the boy's books of Oliver Optic have been continually neglected or misinterpreted. She persuasively reads his texts as complicated explorations of differing notions of citizenship and shows that as popular works deeply invested in forming the masculinity of readers they deserve a prominent place in critical conversations about childhood. Her examination of novelist and periodical contributor Jacob Abbott, too, is convincing. Like Optic's novels, Abbott's writings have been used as a foil against which to define (and celebrate) canonical works about boyhood and the kinds of boy characters created by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and others. Cohoon argues that critics often repeat a narrow set of simplifications about Abbott—namely, that he is an uninteresting author of "good boy" characters and his didactic books are unworthy of serious study. She demonstrates, by contrast, the ways in which he is an engaged and complex writer concerned with questions of national identity, citizenship, and commerce; his texts "resist and reinforce institutionalized notions of American boyhood," and he pays close attention to "marketing, periodical production, and the multiple audiences of the periodical" (2).
In addition to providing valuable readings of neglected works, Cohoon offers considerable insight into often discussed novels. Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy, for [End Page 385] example, has been considered an important text in critical studies of boyhood in general and Mark Twain in particular. It is typically seen as a nostalgic fiction about antebellum boyhood, an example of the prominent post–Civil War genre of the "bad boy," and as a source for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But rather than repeat such readings, Cohoon offers a new approach, seeing the novel as a dense political document about boyhood citizenship. She carefully explores scenes that dramatize social and property contracts, white/black relations, and North/South tensions, and she places all of these issues in the context of the political challenges of early reconstruction. Thus Aldrich's text becomes a story deeply invested in the debates of its social moment, not just one looking back with a national wistfulness for a simpler time.
Cohoon is less successful when she moves between texts and historical facts without offering either convincing connections between the two or interpretive claims about what these writings have to say to us about boyhood masculinity and political issues. For example, Cohoon reads a fictional scene about boys and "affiliation" as a reflection of the anti-immigrant policies of the Know-Nothing Party. But warnings to children about selecting companions (and the personal and social dangers of bad choices) are so prevalent in American fiction and conduct writing going back to the eighteenth century that her argument for a specific historical/political meaning to this scene is not persuasive. Similarly, she sometimes uses a notion of citizenship that is too broad to allow her to make either a compelling explanation of a text's concerns or a significant contribution to the study of citizenship as a political practice. She frequently...