Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale

Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale

Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale

Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale


Will boys be boys? What are little boys made of? Kenneth B. Kidd responds to these familiar questions with a thorough review of boy culture in America since the late nineteenth century. From the "boy work" promoted by character-building organizations such as Scouting and 4-H to current therapeutic and pop psychological obsessions with children's self-esteem, Kidd presents the great variety of cultural influences on the changing notion of boyhood. Analyzing icons of boyhood and maleness from Huck Finn and The Jungle Book's Mowgli to Father Flanagan's Boys Town and even Michael Jackson, Kidd surveys films, psychoanalytic case studies, parenting manuals, historical accounts of the discoveries of "wolf-boys," and self-help books to provide a rigorous history of what it has meant to be an all-American boy.


No earthly object is so attractive as a well-built, growing boy.

——H. W. Gibson, Boyology or Boy Analysis

This is a book about discourses of boyhood. I argue that the ideological and practical work of boy education and supervision in America has been shaped by two main discourses: boyology, comprising descriptive and prescriptive writing on boyhood across a variety of genres, and what I call the feral tale, a narrative form derived from mythology and folklore that dramatizes but also manages the “wildness” of boys. Both boyology and the feral tale are implicated in larger historical narratives about human and cultural development. Boyology is primarily an American phenomenon, while the feral tale is international and interdisciplinary in scope even as it has helped shape boyology. My focus on boyology is thus Americanist, whereas I trace the feral tale's Anglo-European lineage to better understand its American forms and effects. Taken together, these discourses—especially through the shifts they undergo from the mid–nineteenth century to the late twentieth— help mark the momentous changes by which we recognize modernity. Boyology and the feral tale are necessarily theoretical as well as descriptive terms; they suggest patterns of representation that are otherwise difficult to tackle, especially since boyhood seems self-evident.

An allusion to biology, boyology first designated the American pseudoscience of boy analysis that flourished in the early twentieth century. I borrow the term from Henry William Gibson, ymca leader and author of the handbook Boyology or Boy Analysis (1916). Designed for readers “who are short in psychology, physiology, pedagogy, and sociology, but who are long in common sense and 'heartology'” (x), Boyology serves as a handbook for “boy workers” and as a literature review of the handbooks that precede it, beginning with William Byron Forbush's influential The Boy Problem (1901). Gibson's text provides an overview of the nature and nurture of boys, indulging in not a little boyologist trivia. We learn, for instance, that the “slanguage” of the typical fifteen-year-old boy includes “Oh lu lu! “, “Glory be!”, “Do you feel like fruit? have an onion!”, and “Rats, go to grass!” (48–49). So extensive was this advice literature by 1916 that the book concludes with an annotated “Six Foot Shelf” of 103 books and pamphlets “about boys or subjects analogous to boy life” (260).

Gibson was only one of the more visible boyologists, men usually affiliated with agencies such as Scouting and the ymca. the character-building movement, as David I. Macleod explains, was the last major type of boy work to develop in America, following 4-H programs for farm boys and . . .

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