Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911

By Fisher, Leona | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), December 2007 | Go to article overview

Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911


Fisher, Leona, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911 Lorinda B. Cohoon. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2006.

It is extremely rare that a book designed for specialists-in this case, historical critics of nineteenth-century American literature for boys-can be read with delight and edification by all. Serialized Citizenships is such a book.

Meticulously researched, compactly and often elegantly written, it covers new material, revisits traditional topics, and achieves its goal: to establish "expanded concepts of United States citizenships" (xvii). Focusing on the specific ways in which periodicals defined and constructed "boy-ness" as well as "Americanness," Cohoon succeeds in proving that "Americanness is partially defined by permutations of boyhood and manhood" (xxiii)-and vice versa-during this period, specifically through the various educational and imaginative uses of the periodical press.

Cohoon claims "a cultural studies approach informed by feminist and poststructuralist theory" (xiii) and her description of her study's interdisciplinarity does hold up throughout as she combines far-ranging historical research with close readings of texts and succeeds in sustaining a very complex (and gendered) argument. Cohoon's knowledge of theory is impressively broad, and rather than adhering to one type of critical maneuver, she combines them seamlessly-including reader response criticism and feminist theories, as well as recent works in queer and masculinity studies, historical and psychoanalytic criticism of children's literature, and political scientists' explorations of citizenship. Cohoon thus resists a grand narrative but establishes a compelling trajectory through boys' magazines from Youth's Companion through St. Nicholas (for girls as well) to Boys' Life. The double focus-on the serialized fiction in these magazines as well as on the magazines themselves-provides a more direct line through her topic than a more dispersed analysis would do. The result is an extension of the possibilities of an interrogative historical approach-an original contribution to the burgeoning field of "childhood studies" as well as a persuasive reading of individual (both canonical and noncanonical) texts.

The six chapters proceed in chronological order, but each of them could also stand alone as a "reading" of a text or group of texts. Publishing history is interlaced with changing constructions of boyhood across classes as well as the shifting needs of the developing republic. The historical details are always relevant, never merely backdrop but imbedded in the argument. For example, in Chapter I, on Jacob Abbott's serializations in the Youth's Companion, Cohoon makes the argument that Abbott's Jonas a Judge, "In its treatment of demands and forced labor, ... resonates with references to national political and social issues, particularly slavery and women's rights. The argument Jonas makes about claims and the right to make claims on other persons could be easily extended to apply to the injustices that boys and men of the 1840s inflicted on slaves, all women, and other oppressed groups" (23). She then makes a brilliant connection between this text's themes and issues of property rights: "The 1840s was a decade obsessed with boundaries and ownership, partly because the United States was still trying to define itself and its relationship to other nations. ... John O'Sullivan coined the term Manifest Destiny. ... In the 1830s, the Indian Removal Acts taught the American people that property rules and boundary lines could be redrawn through legislation .... A final example from Jonas a Judge reveals that laws of property ... also emerge in Abbott's constructions of boyhood" (23-24). Cohoon even complicates Dana Nelson's generally accepted emphasis on "whiteness and masculinity" as stabilizing concepts in the previous century, instead demonstrating that "there are places where boyhood and Americanness construct themselves in 'fraternal' orders that ignore whiteness or even boy-ness in their emphasis on citizenship through order and citizenship through internal improvement" (25). …

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