Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature

Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature

Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature

Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature

Synopsis

Includes bibliographical references (p. 175-213) index.

Excerpt

American literature abounds with orphaned, homeless, destitute, or neglected children. Many of these characters are either adopted or experience temporary placements that resemble adoption. These stories tell us that adoption matters. To construct a family in the literature of the United States frequently means adoption, and this book sets out to show the difference that adoption makes in the cultural ideology of the family.

Adoption, as a trope or narrative event, is notable in major American literary landmarks. Ishmael observes in Moby-Dick that “to any meditative Magian rover, this serene Pacific, once beheld, must ever be the sea of his adoption”; reflects existentially that “our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them”; and concludes with the Rachael’s adoptive rescue of “another orphan.” Huckleberry Finn’s celebrated flight down the Mississippi River is set in motion by his resistance to Widow Douglas’s efforts to adopt and “sivilize” him. in The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne fights off oppressive governmental officials who insist that her daughter, Pearl, would be better raised by adoptive parents than by a single birth mother. the close-knit family of Little Women dissolves into an adoptive family unit established in Little Men. Disrupted biological families and elective family units are a defining feature of American literature, in a way that is strikingly absent in other national literatures.

Although orphaned and adopted characters appear frequently in Western literature, they have distinctive qualities in American literature, which is persistently shaped around constructions of childhood and images of youthfulness. Historian Ellen Herman notes that since the United States passed the nation’s first adoption law in 1851, “observers have attributed curiosity about adoption to its compatibility with cherished national values and traditions,” such as migration and mobility. Barbara Melosh, also a historian, identifies a “vibrant optimism” that makes Americans positively inclined toward adoption. Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, declares the United States an “adoption nation,” naming a process by which adoption is accelerating . . .

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