Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sympathetic Childhoods: Girl Orphans, Adoptions, and Reimagined Families in Sentimental Literature

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Sympathetic Childhoods: Girl Orphans, Adoptions, and Reimagined Families in Sentimental Literature

Article excerpt

Carol J. Singley's Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Joe Sutliff Sanders's Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

Carol J. Singley's Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature and Joe Sutliff Sanders's Disciplining Girls: Understanding the Origins of the Classic Orphan Girl Story present substantial new insights into the proliferation of "orphaned, homeless, destitute, and neglected" children in American literature (Singley, l). As Singley notes, orphaned children appear throughout the pages of Western literature, but their American counterparts display some distinctive characteristics, in part because American literature is structured around themes of youthfulness (3). As Cindy Weinstein, Singley, and others have revealed, sentimental writers often portray orphaned children who create nontraditional families based upon spiritual and emotional kinship rather than biological ties. On a metaphorical level, these nontraditional familial configurations offer social commentary on the limits and possibilities of national community formation. As orphan and adoption narratives evolve throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they reflect historical shifts in racial, gender, and class hierarchies.

In recent years, scholars of nineteenth-century American literature, such as Elizabeth Barnes, Richard Brodhead, and Marianne Noble, have explored the reciprocal relationship between discipline and love in sentimental literature. Americans in the mid-nineteenth century became increasingly invested in the use of affective discipline, that is, the application of moral suasion rather than corporal punishment as a disciplinary force. In their coming-of-age narratives about girlhood, popular women writers, among them Susan Warner and Louisa May Alcott, portray and even promote the use of emotion as a disciplinary tool. Previous gener- ations of scholars, Sanders explains, believed that literary debates about love and discipline declined with the fall of the sentimental novel from best-seller lists. To the contrary, Sanders claims that affective discipline remained a vital subject in womens popular literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but switched domains to focus on the childrens novel and orphan narrative (2). Sanders covers a diverse array of texts in his study, including The Wide, Wide World, The Hidden Hand, Eight Cousins, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Anne of Green Gables, and The Secret Garden.

Disciplining Girls explores how several mid-nineteenth-century sentimental classics, such as Warner's The Wide, Wide World and E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand, help to establish the conventions of the orphan girl story. Sanders offers some intriguing examples of similarities between the two texts but also highlights their differences. The Hidden Hand, he suggests, is simultaneously sentimental and postsentimental (43). It "rewards only male characters who will forego the use of masculine privilege," whereas The Wide, Wide World "made room for physical coercion as a tool for men" (44). Warner and Southworth both advance the argument that masculine power and privilege are "less preferable than the power available through affect" and limited in contrast to feminine power (46). While men remain in power at the end of Warner's and Southworth s narratives, girl protagonists ultimately decide where patriarchal power is located and thereby destabilize it (46). Toward the end of these chapters and others in his study, Sanders connects his sophisticated analysis to the main threads of the book's argument and, in so doing, makes his study clear and accessible to readers.

Sanders proceeds to explore orphan narratives penned by several iconic authors of children's literature, such as Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and L. …

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