- Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America by Patricia Crain
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
If you have read The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, a children’s book anonymously published by John Newbery in 1765 and popular in the early United States, it is unlikely that you paused to count exactly how many wooden letters the dispossessed orphan-turned-pedagogue carries in her bag for the majority of the narrative. Patricia Crain knows: she is carrying “some 420 pieces of wood,” which means that the seemingly prosaic heroine (who gave us the schoolyard slur for sickening straitlacedness) enters, in Crain’s beautifully turned phrase, “the realm of the mythic, like the blues singer who says a matchbox holds his clothes” (28).
Crain also knows why such books matter. Thus, Reading Children, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to her award-winning first book, The Secret of A (2000), speaks to the emerging field of early American childhood [End Page 511] studies Sara Schwebel wrote about in this journal, as well as to scholars interested in several facets of book history (publishing, readership, circulation, adaptation, and marginalia) and to a wider audience of Americanist scholars interested in topics related to economics, including economic metaphors for literature and the affective dimensions of capitalism. In her opening chapter, Crain identifies Goody Two Shoes as a character situated at the cusp of the Anglo-American transition from a land-based to a market-based economy, who catalyzes children’s literature’s thick inter-weaving of its central mythologies of reading with a fantasy of literacy as an inalienable property that will keep one afloat and a key to the phantasmagorical goal of self-possession. The disappearance of Goody’s heavy, numerous, material wooden letters into print is, by Crain’s account, a sign of the ways that letters are “psychotropic,” distorting reality by making absent things present (in this case, the physical property Goody’s family loses due to enclosure). The material alphabet transformed into paper forges “the fiction, or the lie, that . . . letters are sufficient, a fiction further abetted by the often food-associated words that Goody has her charges spell: beef, turnip, plumb pudding” (28). If we forget to wonder how Goody managed to heft the letters around, it means the spell is working.
The whole of this truly stunning book traces the largely unacknowledged history through which the American child came to be defined as a reader, and more specifically, by this specific mythology of reading as a way to shore up one’s property in the self, which Crain argues takes its final expression in the seemingly contradictory experience of self-loss. This loss is epitomized by the “genre of picture belonging to the turn of the twentieth century” Crain uses as her emblem, the child-in-a-window-seat-with-books (2). This ubiquitous image, she argues, illustrates the ideal of the child’s complete absorption in text. I’ll note here that it is tempting to strike just such a pose with Crain’s book. Where The Story of A was a feast for the eyes with its illustrations of ABC books, Reading Children is similarly lush, with a banquet of eighty illustrations and delectable writing. Even its larger-than-usual folio size invites a deep dive into its pages. As Crain points out, this ideal of self-loss through readerly absorption is mainly available to those who have secured the worldly trappings of self-possession, though not necessarily its essential or actionable reality, which has always been tenuous for children.
Indeed, it makes sense given children’s socially marginal status and legal [End Page 512] disenfranchisement that the story of children’s self-possession through reading would also be the story of their self-loss and their possession by others. And it is the story of these contradictions Crain is ultimately telling, even if this is not immediately clear in her introduction in which she insists that “children during this period were increasingly regarded as self-possessing...