From Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel.
Definitions of the "child" differ based on varied and diverse circumstances and the myriad of disciplinary perspectives, especially the ever-evolving psychological mappings of human development. Although the definitions for "child" and "childhood" have widespread cultural and political implications, these definitions often draw from cultural narratives driven by fantasy notions produced by mainstream culture. In literature the child remains ill-defined, complicated by the effort to represent the child's voice through adult perspectives. Holly Blackford's From Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel works to bridge gaps between psychological and literary definitions of the child by drawing together the various ways child consciousness has been represented and defined. Situated within the developments of psychology, anthropology, sexology, and sociology, Blackford's argument asserts that the novel's use of child protagonists tends to reflect psychology's efforts to understand the human psyche.
According to Blackford, child studies is both a detached object of scientific contemplation and a study of interiority apart from moral judgments. Her definition broadens possibilities for an ambitious project examining American and British literature to consider the contributions of modern novels' comprehension of the "wonders and limits" of child consciousness (4). Blackford's primary claim isolates the unique nineteenth-century novel's child consciousness in texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Peter Pan--novels featuring characters with a "growing sense of the child as an intellectual, developmental, and artistic being"--to expose how the child characters "express modernity by expressing 'alienated perspective[s]"' (23). Rather than highlighting the moral qualities of the characters' experiences, the novels in her study use child's play, imagination, and moral reasoning to reveal the child's experience and parody of the modern world, and to inform adult understandings of the world (23). While grounded in late-nineteenth-century works, Blackford extends her argument to consider the comprehensive impacts of her definition for child consciousness, specifically concerning theories about queerness, criminology, and disability.
Blackford's key methodology pairs the literary tradition of the child consciousness as an "experimental site for the unstable concepts of evolution, civilization, and development" with the use of the child protagonist as a means for exploring adult behavior and psyche (5). The child's perspective explores the adult social environment in "alternative" geographies like Never-land, the Looking-Glass House, and the Unconscious, all of which project distortions, windows, and alternative surfaces to "pierce an aperture and offer a distorted lens on the social scene" (6). Blackford's work draws attention to new Darwinist evolution theories--no longer a tabula rasa--emphasizing the child as a remnant of ancestral memory, which is exemplified by child protagonists' capabilities, such as expressing jumbled collections of cultural knowledge in profound streams of consciousness.
In the first four chapters of the book Blackford pairs texts to follow the shifting landscape of the child's mind. In the first chapter, Blackford begins with Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Henry James's What Maisie Knew, novels influenced by the Victorian idea that the child is "pre-evolved" and alien to the adult world. The chapter explores how the protagonists, Huck and Maggie, articulate the evolution of human consciousness in climaxes dependent on expressing moral reasoning through exercising freedom of choice. In the next chapter, Blackford transitions to modernist novels, Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and Lewis Carrol's Through the Looking-Glass, to discuss newly pioneered methods for interpreting and displaying child consciousness--child stream of consciousness. Transforming the adult world, the novel, and novel theory, Alice's opening monologue establishes a metaphor for the margins of consciousness between internal and external worlds, which pass and mix in the permeable child imagination. In Chapter Three, Blackford introduces the child as increasingly queer, an alien to civilization both practically (as outside the workforce) and psychologically. Analyzing J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan alongside Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, Blackford examines characters queered because of their pursuit of pleasure and infantilized because of their queerness. The characters' arrested development and projected desires recapitulate the Western childhood of Greek antiquity through reverence of man-child relationships. Blackford then returns to Anne and adds Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness to discuss female queerness. Both female protagonists are born to families anticipating boys and live on estates separated from civilization; Blackford identifies the "inverted" child surfacing as the queer child by deconstructing "unnaturalness" in girls who act in accordance with their nature.
In chapters Five through Seven Blackford extends previous discussions of Montgomery's and Hall's works and adds Willa Cather's MyAntonia, Richard Wright's Native Son, Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon, and Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time to explore the impact of her study on twentieth-century novels. Chapter Five continues the arguments found in Chapter Four about the queer child entwined with the landscape, adding a discussion of primitivity and evolutionary perspective. Blackford contends that Cather's text uses a Freudian trope of childhood as an authentic, interior self forever altered by the forces of civilization, informed by the newer anthropological expression of childhood as a test for cultural adaptation. Blackford notes the importance of gender and sexuality, asserting that the "non-white masculine girl is fit to adapt whereas the feminine white boy is destined for extinction" (147). Blackford then moves on to Native Son, a book she says pushed an "artistic method of the novel into fear of environmental conditioning" without thinking about how the category of adolescence came to be a site of pervasive critical consciousness (179). The child minds on display in Native Son reveal the "social ills" that are "effectively diagnosed when they are represented as taking root in the intimate recesses of the formative mind" and materialize in "fractured, perverse, parodic, and alienating ways" (179). Closing the book, Chapter Seven draws from disability studies to explore the "rat"-like, animal behaviors of the protagonists in Flowers for Algernon and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; behaviors that, according to Blackford, interrogate human life, while satirizing and problematizing cultural norms. Blackford claims that the fields of Child Studies coalesce in Disability Studies, combining the long history of Child Study with increasing concerns about the "rights of the marginalized, the oppressed, the liminal, the non-normative" to grapple with issues of dependency, embodiment, technology, and authenticity (216).
The most admirable aspect of Blackford's text is found in its extensive scope; the breadth and expanse of the novels and interdisciplinary study cover much ground. However, the capacious argument makes it difficult to find fixed definitions for most terms--most importantly for the child. The extensive span doesn't always provide a smooth, unified claim, but rather a survey of topics thematically tied with a focus on child consciousness, and, despite the title, questions about how the form of the novel informs the book's thesis remain unanswered, perhaps as a result of the interdisciplinary focus. Additionally, it would have been interesting to see Blackford engage Kathryn Stockton's The Queer Child (2009) or James Kincaid's Erotic Innocence (1998) in her discussions of queer childhoods. Stockton's notion of "growing sideways" might have productively complicated Blackford's ideas about queer childhoods in Chapters Three and Four, while Kincaid's work tracing the historical roots of erotic childhoods might have offered interesting parallels to her analysis of Peter Pan in particular. The epilogue, adding a brief look at Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, opens the text up for further research that might acknowledge the exceptional experiences of Native American childhoods, rather than following the trend of coopting Native experiences to queer and unsettle cultural norms about all childhoods.
YVONNE HAMMOND, Rowan University
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
|Previous Article:||Approaches to Teaching the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt.|
|Next Article:||Noble Subjects: The Russian Novel and the Gentry, 1762-1861.|