- Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood
The task of writing a history of American childhood is daunting; few have attempted it.1 Part of the challenge lies in the vast scope of the project, the sheer number of primary and secondary sources that must be mastered. Another difficulty lies in its inherently interdisciplinary nature, requiring familiarity with sociology, social work, psychology, psychoanalysis, and the law. Finally, the scholar who takes up the challenge must come to grips with how to organize a mass of material that has no obvious chronological order or milestones; unlike the Civil War, which has a definite beginning and end, the periodization, watersheds, and interpretation of American childhood are truly the product of historical imagination.
Mintz's attempt is a tour de force. It is an original interpretive synthesis, grounded in a wide array of secondary and primary sources, that is both informative and provocative. Mintz divides the history of childhood into three overlapping historical eras: the colonial era (premodern childhood), when religious and secular authorities regarded childhood as a time of deficiency, and the young were seen as adults in training; the mid-1750s to the 1950s (modern childhood), when an increasing number of parents began to view children as innocent and malleable, and childhood became increasingly viewed as a separate stage of life, requiring special care and institutions to protect it; and the 1950s to the present (postmodern childhood), resembling premodern childhood, in that children are no longer considered innocent or naive, but differing radically from the earlier period in that children have become independent consumers and participate in a semi-autonomous youth culture.
Mintz complicates his periodization by skillfully emphasizing a [End Page 633] number of important themes, especially the diversity of American childhood, which depends on class, race, gender, ethnicity, or region. Mintz' other themes include the rise of children's rights, beginning as early as the Revolutionary War, and the emergence of a separate youth culture in the 1950s. In illustrating them, Mintz uses lively primary-source accounts of ten- and twelve-year-old indentured servants, apprentices, soldiers, cabin boys, female textile operatives, and teen-age "bobby-soxers."
Throughout Huck's Raft, Mintz successfully deflates numerous myths about the history of childhood and reveals that no "golden age" ever existed. In particular, he demonstrates that childhood was never carefree; instead, young white people suffered from child labor, neglect, and malnutrition while routinely undergoing protracted periods of doubt, confusion, and restlessness, especially in the early nineteenth century. Young African Americans suffered even worse, first under slavery and then, for a century thereafter, from harsh discrimination. Similarly, Mintz finds that throughout American history, the idea that families were stable is inaccurate: Secure family life was exceptional; one-third of the country's children lived in single-parent families at the beginning of the twentieth century. Nor has America ever been particularly child-friendly. Deeply ambivalent about their children, American parents envy them their youth and resent their intrusions on time and resources. Even the many late twentieth-century reforms that were designed to protect children from abuse were instituted to insulate adults from children.
Mintz lays to rest the notion that the history of childhood has been one of either unrelieved progress or declension. He demonstrates that such polar opposites as parental engagement replacing emotional distance, kindness and leniency supplanting strict and stern punishment, scientific enlightenment superseding superstition and misguided moralism are false dichotomies. Conversely, he rejects the idea that childhood has disappeared; children are not growing up too quickly or losing their malleability, innocence, or playfulness.
Behind Huck's Raft's broad themes and conclusions, its real value is its rich details, clever turns of phrase, balanced judgement, and nuanced argument. This book will become an instant classic.
1. Joseph E. Illick, American Childhoods(Philadelphia, 2002).