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Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. By Steven Mintz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. v plus 445 pp. $29.95).

The blurbs on the back of the book jacket come from commanding figures in the field, and they all converge on one point: Huck's Raft is the best synthesis we have of the history of youth in America.

I do not dispute their concurrence. Mintz's mastery of the secondary literature of American childhood across the sweep of four centuries is unsurpassed. His extensive reading of the primary sources is subtle and sure. His prose is graceful and even, on occasion, eloquent.

He rarely mistakes a favored part for the whole. He rarely loses sight of the vast variety of American children. He cares about the poor as well as the privileged, girls as well as boys, blacks and Indians as well as whites, immigrants as well as the native-born, farm kids as well as suburban mall rats.

His rich rendering of the complexity of childhood past demolishes the still-conventional sense that children have no history. In comprehensive reconnaissances, he demonstrates that childhood has been neither perennial nor given by nature. In telling vignettes and powerful particulars, he shows that it has always been socially and culturally constructed, that those constructions have always been contested, and that those contestations have always changed over time.

Two tropes have governed our tracings of the trajectory of such change. One is the lugubrious narrative of declension. The other is the facile, faintly whiggish tale of little adults becoming angels becoming rascals becoming consumers. Mintz has no patience with the one and little with the other.

In dense, delicious detail, he dispels our myths of an idyllic olden time. American youth have never known an age of innocence. The great mass of them have always had it hard, one way or another. And to this day they still do. They do not face the bitter demographic and economic realities that those who came before them did. But they do have to deal with consignment to an alienated consumerism devoid of all opportunity to contribute to their communities. Their disconnectedness from adult society and their consequent sense of meaninglessness is, he argues, as debilitating as early orphanhood and dire working conditions ever were.

If it is easy to admire the large architectonic of Mintz's work, it is even easier to admire the small touches. Huck's Raft teems with trenchant insights, vivifying anecdotes, and shrewdly observed paradoxes, Its stories are fresh, its tales to the point. They bring to life the gritty realities of city tenements and pioneer farms and the texture of travail that conditioned so many young lives. At every turn, they surprise--discussing the early extinction of childhood on the frontier, to take just one instance among dozens, Mintz sets before us two-year-olds who fetched oxen from the stock fields, five-year-olds who smoked cigarettes, nine-year-old girls who broke wild horses, and a boy of thirteen who headed the public library of Helena, Montana--and always they evoke the pathos and the poignancy of coming of age in America.

But it is hard not to notice that synthesis on such a scale poses problems. Some of them are inherent in the integrative endeavor. Others are distinctive to the history of childhood and to Mintz's conception of that history.

Every overview such as this one depends on the literature it aims to tie together. Inevitably, it reflects the shortcomings of that literature. In the case of colonial childhood, for example, Mintz goes where the scholarship has gone and ends up advancing a singularly unpersuasive argument for the formative influence of Puritan child-rearing. Inevitably too, such an overview reproduces the failings of that literature. In the case of 1920s "modern youth," for example, Mintz portrays them as less dependent and deferential than the generation before and thereby ends up presenting them exactly as he presents Revolutionary youth. A survey that aims at fidelity to regnant treatments of each era--a synthesis of syntheses--is bound to be captive to summaries that all make sense on their own terms but taken all together do not make sense at all.

Beyond these generic dilemmas that attend any enterprise such as this, there are specific difficulties that afflict this particular enterprise. Mintz means to acknowledge a multitude of American childhoods and privilege none. Because he does, he cannot identify an interpretive center of his account without violating his own essential premise. More than that, he means to connect the history of American childhood to the history of America. Because he does, he ends up making the history of American childhood a mere caboose on a train whose direction it is powerless to affect. He ends up taking on unnecessary freight--puritanism, patriarchy, republican motherhood, and every other controlling cliche of that larger history--and disallowing the intriguing possibility that family and childlife ran on different tracks than the political engines did.

And beyond all of these dilemmas of synthesis, both general and specific, there is, I think, an even larger difficulty that afflicts Mintz's analysis. The core of his conception--the universalization of protected childhood--seems to me inadequate to carry the narrative. Indeed, it seems to me quite incoherent.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, as Mintz observes, the path to adulthood was far from fixed or routinized. A period of innocence and irresponsibility was a privilege that few could claim after the age of five or six. School played a minimal part in most young lives, and the intense age-grading we take for granted was inconceivable. Parents cherished their children, perhaps, but they did not exempt them from harsh work-discipline on that account. Child labor was very nearly universal, but it did not announce the onset of maturity. There were, in truth, no determinate sequences of schooling, work, and marriage that were widely seen as markers of the advent of adulthood.

The standardization of such stages and the universalization of protected childhood were the ideals of the elite reformers we have come to call child savers. The assumptions and the agenda of the child savers have set the terms for much of the history of modern youth, and in their own way they set the terms for Mintz's history too. He devotes a large part of the second half of Huck's Raft to showing how slowly the child savers achieved their ends and how long most youngsters continued to be exposed to the demands, dangers, and privations of the adult work world.

According to Mintz, it was only after World War II that most American families could provide children a haven in a heartless world. It was only in the mid-twentieth century that, for the first time, most American infants could look forward to growing up in affectionate, child-centered households that would foster their freedom and self-fulfillment.

But according to Mintz, the game was lost by the time it was finally won. As early as the 1920s, "modern youth" were breaking away from adults, establishing their own customs regulated by their own peers. The home that the reformers idealized as a safe harbor had no such appeal for the young themselves. More and more, adolescents spent their leisure apart from their parents. Child-rearing advice urged a child-centered family, but real children thought they had better things to do. They were simply not at home very much. And they were not at home psychologically even when they were home physically. Study after study showed that teen-agers--girls as well as boys--resented parental authority and often expressed contempt for it.

Mintz exposes the evidence for this refusal of familial protection without ever quite appreciating its implications. He sees astutely that the production of teddy bears, Raggedy Ann dolls, and other cuddly stuffed creatures was a twentieth-century way of comforting babes left to sleep alone in their own room as they had never been before. But he does not notice that the emergence of an ethos of separate rooms meant that even the littlest kids experienced an unprecedented abandonment in the very homes that were supposed to be refuges for them. He quotes a contemporary that "the modern child from the age of ten is almost his own 'boss'" and chafed under the tutelage of adults, "nominal though it is." But he does not seem to see that such an observation suggests that protection was neither provided by parents nor desired by their offspring.

The construction of protected childhood was dissolving before it was ever accomplished on any substantial scale. The youngsters who watched the 87 movies made by the Dead End Kids, or the 221 made by the Little Rascals, had no relish for loving surveillance. As Mintz notes, all those films featured hellions who did their mischief free of adult supervision. As he adds, Shirley Temple also acted without maternal or any other domestic constraint.

During World War II, psychologists, social workers, and political leaders all registered their distress at parental neglect of their charges. After the war, a Gallup poll that asked for people's opinions on the reason that youth were out of control found that a preponderance of those polled blamed poor parenting. Mintz reports all that, but he does not draw the ineluctable inference that, even at mid-century, adults knew that they were not sheltering their children and that the protected child was a hollow fantasy.

Worse, Mintz misses the force of some of his most delectable data. In one penetrating discussion after another, he details parents' horrified encounter with material that their youngsters were reading and seeing in the media. In the Fifties, the elders panicked when they finally figured out what their kids had been devouring for decades in comic books. Later, they panicked all over again over television. In both cases, Mintz catches the import of their belated (and largely ineffectual) campaigns for censorship. But in neither case does he see that parents' implicit confession that they had not been shielding their young from media corruption undermines any claim that they were in earnest about protecting children.

Kids were no keener to have parental protection than parents were to provide it. Mintz counts at least sixty movies, in the Fifties alone, that portrayed alienated and depraved teens rejecting their parents and searching elsewhere for love and security. In the Sixties, domestic disaffection deepened and even acquired a name: the generation gap. And all through the second half of the twentieth century, an insatiable consumer culture peeled youngsters away from their families and toward their peers. The protected childhood that provides Mintz the impulsion of his analysis was no more pervasive at its alleged zenith than it had been before.

Mintz knows, and yet he does not know what he knows. When he discusses the parental panics of the Eighties and Nineties--the frenzy over sexual abuse in daycare centers, over abductions, over Halloween trick-or-treating, and more--he raises the right question: why did so many parents believe such preposterous tales? And he offers a provocative answer: that their readiness to swallow such absurdities arose from displaced anxiety and guilt at leaving their little ones at daycare and otherwise failing to provide them the attentiveness protected children require. But he does not ask the question and advance the answer that come next. Why were parents so vulnerable to such a sense of failure? Because, in the final analysis, they are and have been since the Fifties more self-centered than child-centered.

Huck's Raft is indeed the best synthesis we have of the history of American childhood. But it is not the synthesis we need. Beyond clearing up some misconceptions and debunking some myths that may be invincible anyway, it will not accomplish any of the loftiest, loveliest ambitions Mintz holds for it. In its acceptance of the prevailing paradigms, it will not integrate the history of children into American history in a way with which American history itself will have to conjure. And in its confused and confusing conceptualization, it will not and cannot contribute either to social scientific theorizing or to the making of public policy.

Michael Zuckerman

University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 2006 Journal of Social History
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Author:Zuckerman, Michael
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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