T his book is about orphans, real and imaginary, in early America and what their actual treatment and textual representation signify about cultural values. This book is also about how the past is the present, how the legacy of early America -- of the Puritans, the revolutionaries, the Founding Fathers, and the leaders of the new republic -- has shaped the "family values" that are a social and political touchstone in our culture today.
Images of orphanhood have pervaded the American imagination ever since the colonial period. The orphan appears in varying degrees of intensity -- sometimes as palpable presence, other times as mere shadow -- in every manner of text: fictional and nonfictional, religious and secular, poetical and polemical. But whatever shape the orphan assumes, the figure signals identity formation, not only individual but cultural.
In retrospect, I think I found orphans because I was looking for them. I am not an orphan, but I have always been fascinated by orphanhood as an existential predicament. Orphanhood, the loss of parents who represent the moorings of a child's identity, is the ultimate metaphor for identity issues. If a child never knew his or her parents, the loss entails personal history as well. Even when the parents are known the child is faced with the challenge of forging a new identity, a project complicated by the circumstances under which the loss occurred.