Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale

By Kenneth B. Kidd | Go to book overview

4. Father Falnagan's Boys Town

But Billy came; and it was like a Catholic priest striking peace in an
Irish shindy. Not that he preached to them or said or did anything in
particular; but a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones.

—Herman Melville Billy Budd, Sailor

So far I've described boyology as a literary and institutional form of boy work and shown how boyology and the feral tale became virtually indistinguishable in and through particular genres of boys' popular literature as well as character-building organizations. At issue in my next chapter is the harmony of boyology and the feral tale within and beyond psychoanalysis. But first I want to address another important venue of American boy work, one overlooked in histories of character building: Boys Town, now known as Boys and Girls Town. Founded in 1917 by Father Edward Joseph Flanagan, an Irish immigrant priest, to provide safe haven for abandoned and abused boys, Boys Town quickly captured the American imagination, thanks to Flanagan's inventive outreach and especially the success of the 1938 film Boys Town, directed by Norman Taurog.1

Boys Town is ideologically more affiliated with ministerial child-saving efforts than with middle-class character building. Whereas Brace's Children's Aid Society and other such organizations were administered by Protestants and ministered primarily to Protestant children, Boys Town represents a Catholic tradition of boy work. Even so, Boys Town has always enjoyed a certain remove from the Catholic Church, and many of its programs are comparable to those sponsored by Protestant child care institutions. In fact, Flanagan, supported by the church but operating largely on his own, helped ease the tension between Protestant and Catholic child welfare work. As a result, Boys Town is one of the best-known child care institutions in the nation, and Father Flanagan is perhaps our most famous boy worker. By the 1940s, Flanagan was “internationally recognized as the world's foremost expert on boys' training and youth care” (Boys Town: Memories and Dreams, 11). He remains familiar long after the character builders are forgotten; even the flamboyant Baden-Powell is obscure by comparison.

That a priest should serve as a boy worker isn't surprising, since the priest is already institutionally presented as a “father.” Presumably the priest does not need an affiliation with boy work institutions (which are generally middle-class and Protestant in orientation). At the same time, as the recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have made painfully clear, the priest's authority as a boy worker is shaky at best, since his relationship to children is more paternal or avuncular than professional in the secular,

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Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Boyology or Boy Analysis ii
  • Making American Boys - Boyology and the Feral Tale iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Boyhood for Beginners: An Introduction 1
  • 1. Farming for Boys 23
  • 2. Bad Boys and Men of Culture 49
  • 3. Wolf-Boys, Street Rats, and the Vanishing Sioux 87
  • 4. Father Falnagan's Boys Town 111
  • 5. from Freud's Wolf Man to Teen Wolf 135
  • 6. Reinventing the Boy Problem 167
  • Notes 191
  • Works Cited 221
  • Index 237
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