Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America

Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America

Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America

Reading Children: Literacy, Property, and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

What does it mean for a child to be a "reader" and how did American culture come to place such a high value on this identity? Reading Children offers a history of the relationship between children and books in Anglo-American modernity, exploring long-lived but now forgotten early children's literature, discredited yet highly influential pedagogical practices, the property lessons inherent in children's book ownership, and the emergence of childhood itself as a literary property.

The nursery and schoolroom version of the social contract, Crain argues, underwrote children's entry not only into reading and writing but also into a world of commodity and property relations. Increasingly positioned as an indispensable form of cultural capital by the end of the eighteenth century, literacy became both the means and the symbol of children's newly recognized self-possession and autonomy. At the same time, as children's legal and economic status was changing, "childhood" emerged as an object of nostalgia for adults. Literature for children enacted the terms of children's self-possession, often with explicit references to property, contracts, or inheritances, and yet also framed adult longing for an imagined past called "childhood."

Dozens of colorful illustrations chart the ways in which early literature for children was transformed into spectacle through new image technologies and a burgeoning marketplace that capitalized on nostalgic fantasies of childhood conflated with bowdlerized fantasies of history. Reading Children offers new terms for thinking about the imbricated and mutually constitutive histories of literacy, property, and childhood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that ground current anxieties and long-held beliefs about childhood and reading.

Excerpt

THIS IS a book about children and books, about children’s reading practices and the discourses and narratives surrounding them, and about the way in which the so-called invention of childhood was also an invention of a new relation to books and reading. It has emerged from a long engagement with and skeptical interest in how children’s reading and children’s relationship to textuality has historically been represented. I’ve especially been struck by the ways in which, when new media or genres of textuality emerge and reading practices naturally transform with them, an alarm goes up about the menace to children or to the very concept of modern childhood that such shifts seem to threaten. Our contemporary concerns over screen reading might remind us of reactions against novels in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, against comic books and television in the twentieth, and worried debates over all sorts of genres of digital media today. And yet, notwithstanding the cultural gravity of childhood reading, histories and theories of reading as well as histories and theories of childhood have tended to gloss children’s relationship to books as a history of schoolroom practices alone. The immersive reading practice that has long been the desideratum for middle-class reading in the United States emerged in an icon of a reading child at the end of the nineteenth century. But the literacy campaigns and the literature directed toward children in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries first promoted quite different relationships between children and books. In the following chapters I explore this long and complex modern history through a series of texts and images, sites and pathways where we can observe aspects of these relationships unfold. Later in this Introduction, I will describe these diverse portals for thinking about children and books, children and reading. For starters, though, I’ll begin with an image. For not only does everyone agree, it seems, that children should learn to read, but, for the past two hundred years, a scopophilic cultural imperative dictates that they should be seen reading.

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