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  • Childhood, Power, and “Symbolic Plenitude”
  • Richard Flynn

The articles in this issue concern themselves with what Leslie Frost, in her article "Shadows of War," calls "children's symbolic plenitude." Frost's assertion that children and the concept of childhood may be employed in the service of ideologies ranging from the leftist to the fascist is not surprising. However, the nature of this symbolism and the ideological uses to which it is put are both slippery and subject to social and historical forces. The authors in this issue understand the intensity of our investment in childhood as a symbolic center and recognize childhood as a site for enacting both our idealism and disciplinary practices, often simultaneously—and usually uneasily.

Ken Parille's "'What Our Boys Are Reading'" reveals the limitations of our received view of boys' reading as reinforcing "notions of male authority and privilege," in contrast to the disciplinary function of girls' reading. By examining Lydia Sigourney's writings about boyhood literacy alongside her biography of her son, Andrew, who died at the age of nineteen, Parille investigates Sigourney's critique of the "harmful norms" of "boyhood masculinity" perpetuated by the idea of "heroic imitation" in antebellum literary culture. Parille demonstrates that Sigourney's insistence that reading should cultivate boys' "domestic virtues" is echoed in later fiction for boys, such as Francis Forrester's Dick Duncan. Modern critics' tendency to divide nineteenth-century children's literature into "boys' books" (Twain) and "girls' books" (Alcott) obscures the complexity of both boys' reading and authors' attitudes toward the young. By questioning our reliance on "familiar classification of authors . . . by gender or perceived literary seriousness," Parille asks us to re-examine our "long-held beliefs" about boyhood.

Daniel Greenstone presents a witty and cogent account of the ways in which Ian Falconer's Olivia books comment on the "unfulfilled promises of feminism." Greenstone reads Falconer as a satirist and social critic of contemporary gender relations, suggesting that the career of Gloria Steinem is emblematic of the ways in which feminism as a political movement has been subsumed (some might [End Page 1] say co-opted) by parenting styles that put the child at the center of a (largely upper-middle-class) world. In "The Sow in the House" Greenstone argues that the raising of a "fully actualized child" occurs mostly at the mother's expense, since it is usually she and not her husband who does most of the parenting, even in our more "enlightened" times. It is not surprising that Steinem praises Olivia's "self-esteem" in her jacket blurb for the book since the pop-psych Steinem—the "self-help feminist" author of the problematic Revolution from Within—has almost entirely supplanted the feminist who believed in political action. Making the child the center of the universe—a star like Olivia—often happens at the expense of the mother's autonomy. And as Greenstone notes, since Falconer has no plans to allow the six-year-old, "bratty and willful" Olivia to mature, we are not privy in the fiction to the results of such childrearing techniques, even as in real life the costs of "helicopter parenting" are becoming annoyingly clear.

Perhaps the roots of Olivia's need to be center stage may become apparent when we turn to Joe Sutliff Sanders's examination of the changing role of sympathy in orphan girl novels. Sympathy, which Sanders describes as an "emotion . . . made up of a potent concoction of guilt, affection, and admiration," is depicted as "centrifugal" in novels such as What Katy Did and Uncle Tom's Cabin in which the weak characters use their position as the "heart of the house" to change the powerful. But while "radiat[ing] influence outward constitutes a kind of power, it does not alter the subservient status of the child." As the emphasis shifts from the centrifugal to the centripetal in Progressive Era novels like Pollyanna, the weaker character, rather than acting as a moral influence, becomes the recipient of adult attention. Having spread the glad game before her car accident, Pollyanna is now able to receive and "consum[e] the fruits of her labor: adult attention."

In "'Saving the World Before Bedtime,'" Lisa Hager...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-1201
Print ISSN
0885-0429
Pages
pp. 1-3
Launched on MUSE
2008-02-13
Open Access
No
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