Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Allegories of Childhood Gender: Hawthorne and the Material Boy

Academic journal article Nathaniel Hawthorne Review

Allegories of Childhood Gender: Hawthorne and the Material Boy

Article excerpt

Fan and Josie are always my darlings, and I am glad to see them at any time, and any where; but Bob, and Harry, and Ned are perfect torments. They annoy me and mortify me, and half the time disgust me. Yet when they were little, I loved them just as well as I did the girls.

--Cornelia Richards, aka Mrs. Manners, At Home and Abroad; or, How to Behave (1853)

In "Hawthorne and the Writing of Childhood," Karen Sanchez-Eppler observes that the "scene of a grown man entering the public sphere hand in hand with a young child is repeated throughout Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiction" (143). She points to scenes in The Scarlet Letter, "The Artist of the Beautiful," and "Little Annie's Ramble" as expressions of Hawthorne's desire "to make public ... his connection with childhood" (143). While these moments illustrate his investment in the figure of "the child," I want to suggest that they are complicated by issues of gender. It is no accident that the "sinless child" who can erase the male narrator's world-weariness in "Little Annie's Ramble"--the "materiality of daily life" that famously plagues Hawthorne in "The Custom House"--is not a boy, but sentimental culture's revered girl. (1) Only she is free from the materiality that marks, and indeed, defines the boy. (2)

Although critics have explored Hawthorne's ideas about girls at length, they have shown less interest in his fictional boys. (3) This critical emphasis on girls has drawn attention away from Hawthorne's tendency to categorize children into gender-based hierarchies that identify boyhood as a problem. Stories such as "The Snow-Image," "Little Annie's Ramble," "Little Daffydowndilly," and "The Gentle Boy" allegorize childhood gender difference and articulate a theory of "boy-nature" that echoes widespread antebellum beliefs about boys. Numerous cultural authorities argued that as boys entered boyhood from around age five to seven, they began to exhibit an increased concern for their bodily desires and were decidedly less moral, spiritual, and sympathetic than girls. (4) Hawthorne's beliefs about boy-girl difference are more fluid than those of his didactic contemporaries who wrote for and about children, but he shares their discomfort with boyhood masculinity. In his stories, the celebration of the spiritual girl is intimately tied to this unease with the material boy.

In Tanglewood Tales's "The Minotaur," Theseus proudly exclaims to his mother, "I am no longer a child, nor a boy, nor a mere youth! I feel myself a man!" (7:186). Theseus outlines the conventional stages of male development--typically called "infancy," "boyhood," "youth," and "manhood"--and Hawthorne's culture saw the male in the second stage as a pedagogical dilemma. (5) In The Evil Tendencies of Corporal Punishment, prominent educator and reformer Lyman Cobb characterizes boyhood as a space of moral contagion, arguing that young male children are essentially good but often in "boyhood become bad" (205; emphasis in original). (6) Since "many boys are rather unfeeling," he believes that they, unlike girls, "are not, at that time, suitable company for men, women, or children" (210-11; emphasis in original). Hawthorne's peer Bronson Alcott repeatedly critiques the coarse, material nature of boys, expressing disappointment that they "deemed thoughts to be unreal" and "outward things [to be] real" (77). To direct boys away from the material world and toward the spiritual abstractions that concern him, Alcott endorses a material form of discipline: he will "hurt the [boy's] body ... when it is necessary to reach the mind and put thoughts in it" (45). Throughout educational and maternal advice writing, the morally correct "feeling" of girls was set against the "unfeeling" nature of boyhood. (7) In an advice manual chapter titled "Bad Habits Peculiar to Boys," for example, a writer concisely articulates changes widely believed to occur in boyhood: "My boys are very loveable till they outgrow babyhood, and begin to show themselves to be boys, coarse, ungainly, and unloving" (Manners 40; emphasis in original). …

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