Suffering childhood in early America: Race, nation and the disciplined body

Anna Mae Duane, Fordham University


One of the best known strategies deployed to demean and dehumanize oppressed peoples is to cast those people as children. Yet while critics have written eloquently about how dominant classes have infantilized native people, women, African Americans and others, scholars have paid little attention to the specific ways in which this process was affected by evolving notions of childhood itself. In my dissertation, I explore representations of childhood in colonial texts such as the Journal of John Winthrop, early national works such as popular seduction novels, and antebellum works such as novels, memoirs and school records. In doing so, I build upon the work of Jay Fliegelman, Shirley Samuels, Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Gillian Brown, and others who have argued that early American anxieties about familial reproduction were intimately entangled with the work of imagining a national body. However, while many of these earlier critiques focused on the child as a national metaphor deployed by the powerful, I attend to the other side of the equation by focusing on the effects of infantilization on both actual children and on various populations categorized as children. My attention to representations and experiences of children—a perspective that requires searching for voices that are often overlooked and overwhelmed by more dominant speakers—allows for new ways of listening for, and interpreting, other suppressed voices in early American culture. In each chapter, I examine a different pairing of child-and-Other to explore the reciprocal process through which notions of childhood and notions of the non-citizen were mutually constitutive: representations of children worked to shape conceptions of ethnic, racial and gendered others, and representations of these infantilized populations worked to shape conceptions about childhood and childrearing. Rather than creating a master narrative about what the child-figure “means” in early America, I seek to articulate the diverse cultural tasks the suffering child performed at several key junctures in the early national period.

Subject Area

American literature|American studies

Recommended Citation

Duane, Anna Mae, "Suffering childhood in early America: Race, nation and the disciplined body" (2004). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3125008.