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  • Drying the Orphan's Tear:Changing Representations of the Dependent Child in America, 1870-1930
  • Claudia Nelson (bio)

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep.

—James Whitcomb Riley, "Little Orphan Annie"

The 1885 poem "Little Orphant Annie," by Hoosier versifier James Whitcomb Riley, profiles an orphan "bound out" to earn her own way in the world. In return for room and board, young Annie (based on a child who worked for the Rileys) serves as maid-of-all-work for a large family; at night, she tells ghost stories to her employer's offspring. After recounting what befalls bad children who demonstrate their inadequate respect for authority by mocking adults or refusing to say their prayers, she concludes with a message at once attractive to the powers that be and calculated to serve her own interests:

You better mind yer parents, an' yer teachers fond an' dear,An' churish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphan's tear,An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,Er the Gobble-uns'll git you    Ef you        Don't            Watch                Out!

(ll. 41-48)

At once subservient and feisty, Riley's Annie uses oratory and imagination to convince her luckier peers of the existence of unseen powers who will avenge any unkindness offered her. Readers may notice, however, that these powers evidently see no reason to ameliorate her lot as a slavey. Ultimately, Annie is probably on her own.

Originally published (as "The Elf Child") in the Indianapolis Journal and later in considerable demand at verse recitations public and [End Page 52] private, Riley's poem may have lent its name to another popular text, Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie, which began its run in 1924. But the cartoon Annie is no bound-out girl. Despite a rocky start in a Dickensian orphanage and endless subsequent tribulations, she is always reunited with Daddy Warbucks, and her role in his household is not to care for chickens but to be cared for herself by the retinue consisting of Sandy, Punjab, the Asp, and especially Warbucks. Although the nouveau riche Mrs. Warbucks originally brings Annie into the mansion as a prop so that she herself can "impress her society friends with her charity" (Smith 11), the adoptive father's love for his new daughter is immediate and powerful. Bruce Smith proposes, indeed, that Warbucks—a self-made man whose fortune, as his name implies, comes from defense contracts awarded to him during World War I—is "a man with deeply hurt feelings who believed nobody liked him because he'd made money from the war"; thus "the orphan nobody wanted" becomes crucial to "the munitions maker nobody liked" because she is his connection to the world of feeling (13). And though his love attracts kidnappers and the jealousy of Mrs. Warbucks, it puts her at the family's center, not its margins.

The contrast between the situations of the two orphan Annies suggests the dramatic changes that took place over several decades in North American understandings of the function of the dependent (that is, adopted, foster, or institutionalized) child. Today's readers might find that dependent children of the 1870s and 1880s work to expose the limitations of domesticity in a day in which, as Ann Douglas has argued in The Feminization of American Culture, domesticity was next to godliness. For example, orphan novels such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) or Sara Crewe (1887, expanded as A Little Princess in 1905) consciously critique respectability, showing its narrowness, its drabness, and its lack of sympathy. Mark Twain's Tom and Huck, Frances Hodgson Burnett's Sara and Anne (Sara's foil Becky was added in 1905) serve on one level to illustrate the callousness with which a culture that sentimentalized children could treat the young, in that they show that social class rather than need is the key factor in a child's...