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  • Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640–1868 by Courtney Weikle-Mills
  • Chris Nesmith (bio)
Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640–1868. By Courtney Weikle-Mills. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.

Imaginary Citizens traces the development of the concept of citizenship in the United States from colonial New England through the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the idea of citizenship during this formative period was in many respects shaped by the concomitant development in the understanding of childhood and of the changing meaning of the image of children in the national imaginary. Throughout the book, author Courtney Weikle-Mills draws upon a variety of primary sources and interdisciplinary research to bolster her argument that “metaphors and narratives associated with childhood . . . provided the imaginative foundations for the political identity of many citizens” (18), and that the American concepts of childhood and of citizenship are closely intertwined throughout our history. [End Page 489]

In the introduction, “From Subjects to Citizens,” Weikle-Mills lays out the foundation of her argument that both the act of children “imagining” their participation in citizenship as well as the image of the child as citizen functioned as powerful metaphors for the young republic as it struggled to understand both the power and the limits of political agency. Building upon Benedict Anderson’s now famous idea of the nation-state as an act of political imagination fostered through the agency of the printed word, she situates the development of the idea of citizenship within this “imagined community” alongside another fictive product—the “imaginary citizens” of (American) childhood—positing that “ideas about childhood significantly informed the nation that was created through language” (18). During this time of transition for the individual within the political paradigm, the nation’s children provided an ideal locus for situating both this shift and its conflicted nature. As the nation grappled with understanding the nature of citizenship and the individual, as well as the place and role of various others within its borders—such as women and slaves—the child as imaginary citizen “helped create the idea of a responsible, consenting citizen, while also highlighting the limitations of this concept” (26).

In the first chapter, “Youth as a Time of Choice,” Weikle-Mills focuses on children’s reading in colonial New England, pointing out how early ideas of citizenship focused on church and religious membership as prerequisites for full participation in the social and political order. As the old order of inherited rights and monarchical rule was increasingly called into question, anxieties arose over the younger generation’s obligation to follow in the roles prescribed by patriarchal-parental authority as well as ecclesiastical and political prerogative. Weikle-Mills argues that the somewhat well-known references to childhood wickedness or depravity in these early Puritan texts (such as Jonathan Edwards’s calling children “young vipers”) was not an expression of “hatred of children but rather a newfound belief in children’s importance and uncertainty about their loyalties” (32). Engaging in close readings of The New England Primer, works for children by Cotton Mather, as well as later colonial works, Weikle-Mills traces the development of a burgeoning idea of childhood citizenship from Puritan culture to the Revolution, arguing the importance of children in early Puritan New England arose not only because of religious views on the necessity of the individual’s immediate relationship to God, but also because ambivalences and uncertainties regarding religious membership for children spilled over into the political realm, as various ideas of American citizenship and rights were contested.

In chapter two, “Affectionate Citizenship,” the author turns her focus on child readership from religion to education, particularly the emphasis on developing an affection and love for reading among children, and noting that the “simultaneous rise of children’s affectionate reading and the assertion that citizens were free was not coincidental” (64). The notion that the child who would seek to be “good” should “learn to love his book” arose concomitantly with the political theories of free citizenship, for which children and the image of children were central. The idea of “affectionate” reading, Weikle-Mills argues, “was a crucial...


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pp. 489-492
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