Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Huck's Raft

From Joyce Carol Oates' review of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz:

Huck's Raft is an inspired title for a book that deconstructs images, prejudices, "wisdom." On the jacket is what appears to be an illustration of Huckleberry Finn alone and blissfully carefree on his raft on the fabled Mississippi, some time in the mid-nineteenth century; in fact, the photograph is of Charles Lindbergh as a boy rafting on the Mississippi c1912. It is Professor Mintz's argument that American fantasies about childhood are most succinctly (and erroneously) bound up with such idyllic images: the romance of a neverland in which children and young adolescents enjoyed unlimited freedom and were not exploited and abused by their elders. It may have been that Mark Twain shared something of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idealization of childhood, as he valued nature over the hypocrisy of society, yet the painful evidence of Huckleberry Finn is that its boy-hero is "an abused child, whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read." In Hannibal, Missouri, in Huck's time, before the Civil War destroyed Southern slavery, life for many Americans was likely to be nasty, brutish and short: even among the middle class, approximately one child in four died in infancy, and one individual in two before his or her twenty-first birthday. The notion of a lengthy childhood, "devoted to education and free from adult responsibilities, is a very recent invention, and one that became a reality for a majority of children only after World War II."
You can read the entire review by clicking here.

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