- Incorrigibles and Innocents: Constructing Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive Era Comics by Lara Saguisag
The title of a 1906 Buster Brown strip by R. F. Outcault, "What Would You Do with a Boy Like This?," poses a question that might well serve as a metaphor for the cultural work of many Progressive Era comics. In the strip, Buster invites a penniless black boy into his white middle class home to carry out a prank on his mother—a classic The Prince and the Pauper switcheroo where children exchange clothes and impersonate one another. When the black child enters the parlor in Buster's frilly outfit and a blonde Dutch-boy wig, Buster's mother panics and rushes to scrub dirt from the child's face, lamenting that "it wont [sic] come off" (qtd. in Saguisag 52). Ostensibly, the strip's title refers to how an adult might deal with the disruptions posed by a child's rambunctious mischief. However, as we might suspect, it speaks to a deeper set of questions about the enforcement of racial and ethnic boundaries. Apart from just childish fun, the question "What would you do with a boy like this?" asks white middle-class readers to consider how they would confront their own encounters with racial and social Others in an America where traditional boundaries were breaking down. "Who gets to enter the parlor?" and "Who gets to join Buster in his pranks?" were intimately linked to broader questions about citizenship and belonging.
In her excellent new book, Lara Saguisag points out that Outcault's Buster Brown was hardly alone in using comic strips to initiate these types of questions. Saguisag's Incorrigibles and Innocents: Childhood and Citizenship in Progressive Era Comics reveals how images of children in newspaper comics served as an outlet for deliberations about citizenship and national identity. Classic works like The Katzenjammer Kids and Little Nemo in [End Page 216] Slumberland, Saguisag argues, were more than just slapstick gags or flights of fancy. Rather, they were important sites for conversations about citizenship and national belonging.
In tracing this story through Progressive Era print culture, Saguisag draws up an appealing image of families gathering around each week to laugh at the antics of turn-of-the-century newspaper comics, even as they turned their attention towards more serious matters. These works, she writes, "became spaces in which children's citizenship was defined and debated" (5). How one defined the figure of the child subject was thus wrapped up with the broader issue of how "notions of race, ethnicity, gender, and class were used to sort and resort children into categories of 'future citizen' and 'non-citizen'" (5). The comic artists themselves meanwhile reemerge as more than just entertainers, but also savvy commentators, well aware of the power of their medium. Outcault, for instance, observed that the naughtiness depicted in his Buster Brown and Yellow Kid strips served "'to entertain, not only youngsters, but as well the grown-up people, and to teach them things that they could never have otherwise acquired'" (qtd. in Saguisag 93).
Each chapter of Incorrigibles is organized around a case study of a different character-type that acted as a disruptive force for Progressive Era newspaper-buying audiences. Readers, we learn, were repeatedly confronted with child characters who disrupted widespread assumptions about identity and thus implicitly directed the question "What would you do with a boy [or girl] like this?" toward an array of topics ranging from immigration and class to gender, domesticity, and child psychology. The book opens with a chapter that highlights the anxieties and hopes for immigrants through the debates that implicitly took place within Clarence Rigby's Little Ah Sid, the Chinese Kid and Rudolph Dirks' The Katzenjammer Kids. Next, it moves on to a pair of chapters loosely centered on the most popular strip of the period, Outcault's Buster Brown. Saguisag explains how nonwhite characters like Pore Lil' Mose functioned as important templates for the mischievous disruptions that Buster would come to embody...