- Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence, 1640–1868 by Courtney Weikle-Mills
I never imagined a book on early American children’s literature could so inform the course I teach on contemporary American popular culture. The argument sustained throughout the discussion of early American texts in Imaginary Citizens substantiates my contention that our nation is founded on contradictions that have to be accepted as such. Courtney Weikle-Mills deftly balances existing scholarship with unique historical insights, engages traditional theory (Locke, Rousseau) as well as contemporary thought (Foucault, Bhabha), and maintains a lucid objectivity that encourages the reader’s own subjective response. Yet, at the same time, she argues for blurriness; from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth, the distinction between adult and child waxes, wanes, and at times overlaps. The comparison between children and citizens—between freedom and subjection—became one of the primary anxieties about American citizenship. According to Weikle-Mills, the nation’s most lasting preoccupation is “the simultaneous fantasy and fear that American citizenship might be naive, immature, and juvenile at its heart” (94). Currently, scholars from various disciplines debate the infantilization of American society, with fingers often pointed at visual media. Imaginary Citizens enters into the conversation by providing historical context for this concern, revealing an elemental conflict at the root of the American mindset.
The title connotes Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities”: people without face-to-face contact who imagine themselves as part of a collective social unit due to shared ideologies disseminated by print capitalism. Like Anderson, Weikle-Mills does not use the term “imagined” to mean unreal or illusory; instead, imagination is a way of seeing or understanding. As seventeenth-century colonists transitioned from subjects to citizens, children presented a problem of political identification. As inheritors of the new nation, it was imperative that they envision themselves as part of the collective pronoun in “We the [End Page 275] People”: “early American texts placed pressure on private relationships and public printed materials to produce citizens who would consent imaginatively to that contract and would understand themselves as participating even when they could not do so directly” (66). Weikle-Mills argues that literary texts designed for and read by children were fundamental in creating “imaginary citizens” at a time when actual citizenship had not yet been defined.
The Puritans of the New England colonies were more concerned about their children’s religious affiliation than their political allegiance, although the two were related. Considered too young to have had a conversion experience, children were barred from church membership, and thus from civic participation. Yet the roles of adults and children often overlapped, as the latter who held property were allowed to vote. Laws passed in the early 1640s required children to learn to read the Bible; in Massachusetts, they were required to learn the common laws of the state. Even while civic membership was still rooted in religion, these laws gave rise to imaginary citizenship in its nascent form. It was not until 1868 and the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that a formal definition was instituted: all who are born in the nation are American citizens. Instead of ameliorating confusion, however, the amendment established a contradiction that the nation has attempted to balance ever since. It reflects Locke’s philosophy that children are born with the right to independence; however, Locke also maintained that children must submit to the governance of their parents until they are old enough to have developed the capacity for Reason. The amendment also reflects the spirit of the Revolution, during which British newspapers portrayed the American colonies as unruly children rebelling against their parents, the patriarchal monarchy. Since the nation’s inception, the child has metaphorically represented the American citizen—both are free, but necessarily subjected to governance. This contradiction can only be overcome in the mind: “[i] maginary citizenship is what happens when political ideals come up against their practical limitations, causing crises of legitimization” (25).
As the infant nation grew, it met challenges...