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American Literary History 16.2 (2004) 318-328
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Consenting Fictions, Fictions of Consent
Reading is political. As Jane H. Hunter, Gwen Athene Tarbox, and Lois Keith imply, girls' fiction constitutes as well as addresses girls as a distinct audience in order to facilitate the social changes reshaping late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century US culture. Although they differ on the social impact of the girlhood constructed through fiction, Hunter's How Young Ladies Became Girls, Tarbox's The Clubwomen's Daughters, and Keith's Take Up Thy Bed and Walk all assume that if "the process of reading," as Walt Whitman notes, requires "the reader" of the book as well as its author to "complete" the "text," the text to be completed in girls' fiction is girlhood itself (424-25). All three books share a concern with girls' fiction and social change, and yet what I find intriguing is what all assume but none explore—that is, the larger political and finally national significance of the girl that girls' fiction helps to constitute. Creating the very girls it presumes, girls' fiction, as Peter Stoneley has recently suggested, teaches both adult and child readers how to invest in girlhood as a way of either accepting or finding alternatives to consumer culture. The creation of this girl, therefore—whether she seems to facilitate or resist consumerism—is coincident with, and often complicit in, capitalism's rise.
This investment in the idea of the child—in this case the girl—as a pliable, inchoate subject created through collaborative textual engagement informs all three valuable studies and reflects an important current critical impulse to interrogate rather than assume child identity. Considering what is gained by a collective commitment to the child as "our most convincing essentialism," to quote Adam Phillips (155), the three books read together offer an extended analysis of the social functions that the child identity represented in fiction performs in US culture. As Sharon Stephens reminds us, the "'hardening' of the modern dichotomy of child/adult, like the modern distinction between female/male," precipitated the emergence of "modern capitalism and the modern nation-state" (6), and fiction, as the three books under review make clear, was crucial to this process, if not entirely coterminous with it. A quick tour of the Chicago-based [End Page 318] American Girl Place, where reading is prominently displayed as crucial to constituting the girl identity to which the store then successfully markets, makes clear the ongoing significance of girls' fiction and the girls it creates to US consumer culture—and therefore the urgent need for critical commentaries like those produced by the books under review. With its signature image of a girl reading to her doll and the American Girl Magazine that it publishes, American Girl Place uses girls' fiction to encourage the kind of pleasurable consumer "absorption" that, as Ann Douglas and Gillian Brown have suggested, distracted nineteenth-century readers of popular fiction from the pressing social problems coincident with the "realities of the advancing capitalist economy" (Brown 79). Keith concurs that popular fiction for girls brackets the questions of social reform and justice that capitalism makes immediate, while Tarbox and Hunter contend that such fiction offers readers "an increasingly radical view of American girlhood" (Tarbox 5) resulting in "Active Citizenship" (Hunter 382) and, more particularly, in Progressive Era reform (Tarbox 5). However, taken as a whole, these accounts of the genre's wide-ranging social effects urge us to consider the larger political function of girls' fiction. Because the emergence of the girls' novel was itself a response to social pressures facing the nation, these three critical studies collectively suggest the need for an assessment of how the girl identity, created in and through the pages...