- "Exercises of their own invention":Reading Age and Disability in Nineteenth-Century Children's Fiction
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868/9) ends by looking forward, proposing a comical developmental timeline in the form of Demi and Daisy Brooke, newest members of the March family. The precocious twins "walked at eight months" and "talked fluently at twelve months," and, by age three, Demi had learned the alphabet "by forming the letters with his arms and legs,—thus uniting gymnastics for head and heels."1 In contrast, Alcott's sequel Little Men begins with the orphaned, illiterate—and well past three years old—Nat. When Nat, recalling his itinerant life as a street musician, admits that "I can't read very well; I never had any time," fellow Plumfield student Tommy Banks reacts sympathetically but betrays a face of shock and pity that "said as plainly as words, 'A boy twelve years old and can't read!'" (552). Tommy's face and words suggest that Plumfield's educational and developmental timelines are constructed and monitored by the students themselves.
These brief scenes also reveal the social dimensions of education as developmental timelines are constructed and monitored by adults and children alike at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States. Numerical age intersects with these timelines, merging into what the final decades of the century would describe as "literacy."2 Literacy, in Alcott's world, may mark precociousness, as in Daisy's and Demi's case, or delay, as in Nat's. Literacy—or illiteracy—may also serve as an index of an individual's inclusion in or exclusion from the registers of student and childhood development. Alcott's Billy Ward, for instance, was once an "unusually intelligent boy" but has become a "feeble idiot," thanks to his father's rushing him through strenuous lessons considered unrealistic for [End Page 195] his age. His timeline contrasts with those of other boys at Plumfield. "Though thirteen years old," Billy, according to the narrator, "was like a child of six." He "poured over the alphabet" daily, "proudly said A and B, and thought that he knew them, but on the morrow they were gone, and all the work was to be done over again" (542), seemingly destined to repeat the same exercises that twins had mastered with physical and mental ease when they were but three. Plumfield's overly constructed model that links literacy and "appropriately" paced childhood development is one in which not all nineteenth-century children fit, and it is a model that other nineteenth-century children's texts challenged and transformed. Recovering similar examples of individual children's relationships to socially inflected educational and developmental timelines in texts less familiar than Alcott's, this essay examines representations of literacy acquisition immediately after the mid-nineteenth-century rise of age-graded schooling to show how nontypical aging and embodiment may challenge or resist the ideologies behind this new standard of education. Through the lens of critical age studies, I examine two noncanonical stories of childhood development and literacy to show how nonnormative embodiment offers models for rethinking social and educational models of childhood development, as well as the critical practice of reading children's fiction.
In his account of the nineteenth-century trend of age-graded schooling, Howard Chudacoff demonstrates that matching age and ability within the classroom standardized children's developmental timelines according to a chronological, numerical age that ideally paralleled aptitudes like literacy acquisition.3 Age-graded schooling also functioned as social conditioning, intended to offset "outliers" by eliminating precocity and preventing older students from enrolling in the earliest grades.4 In this way, development and ability were both structured and standardized according to numerical age categories within a broader age concept of childhood.5 However, focusing solely on the influence of nineteenth-century age-graded schooling occludes the experiences of those students whose perceived "lack" of ability excluded them from Plumfield's fictional timelines, from the walls of the common school, and from the age-regulated developmental timelines that all sought to standardize. Individual children's experiences in mid-nineteenth-century fiction challenge this "match" between age and ability, and defy linear...