Reading Children: Professor Crain’s New Book on Childhood and Literacy (By Andrew Schlager)

patcrainbiopic_optPatricia Crain, Professor of English, is an avid, voracious reader. Of course, this is expected, probably a prerequisite trait for literary scholars, but even among her colleagues Crain is an intensely devoted reader, and perhaps this devotion is responsible for or at least has a hand in the arguments and engagements of her second book, which came out on May 16th: Reading Children: Literacy, Property and the Dilemmas of Childhood in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press). The cover, quite unadorned in its design, features a young girl in a yellow dress, standing at attention with a book opened before her. Crain wondered if the design ought to be more abstract, citing the luck she had with the cover of her first book, The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter, the cover of which displays a large, blue, boxed in “A” (almost like a element on the periodic table) set against a bright green background. Crain’s fear that this new cover is perhaps “too cute or cutesy,” as she put it, might be contextualized or relieved by the content it announces—after all, maybe it’s not the worst thing that a book about childhood, specifically children’s literature, should be cute, but then again Crain’s treatment of nineteenth-century American childhood is not cutesy at all, nor are the childhoods Crain treats.

Patricia Crain Reading ChildrenCrain summed up the argument of her book as congealing into a couple of main strands: “You cannot think about the origins and the history of literacy in America without thinking about the history of childhood, and so the idea is that these two huge, galvanic cultural concepts, literacy, and childhood, both emerging in the 18th and 19th century, can only really be understood as mutually constitutive.” This linking of literacy and childhood, particularly in an American context, has, for Crain, major historical and phenomenological implications. “I see them both [literacy and childhood] as markers of modernity. Why or how do we think we’re modern? We think we’re modern because we had a childhood and because we’re literate. Each chapter looks at a slightly different site or, as I’ve been calling them, portal for looking at that relationship; it moves from an 18th century novel to the work of Henry James.”

In one philosophical thread that runs throughout the book, Crain concludes that reading can be conceived of, historically, as a mode of self-possession, of possessing oneself, and this, for Crain, is “a historical phenomenon, a circa 1800-1830 historical event, when that’s what reading becomes, reading as becoming a kind of a consenting individual. To become the Lockean subject, you have to become literate.” Methodologically speaking, Crain’s work in this new book is eclectic. She combines book history, literary history, close reading, histories of reading and childhood studies to make a breathtaking argument about the historical formation of the reading child and the invention of childhood itself as a kind of literary property.

I asked Crain (maybe because I’m a nostalgic senior) to what extent the book reflected on or argues about the schooling system and pedagogy, and she hesitated, observing that book history basically ignores children except in histories of schooling, so she felt that schooling, as a history, “didn’t need [her] to talk about it.” One chapter, however, centers on a lost but famous mode of schooling called the monitorial system. “It only operated from around 1800-1830, but its traces are everywhere in American schooling,” Crain claims. “It was used to teach poor children cheaply. It began in London, where Joseph Lancaster would have 500 poor children in the room. Student monitors would organize and oversee other students. In its English operations, this system was used to teach the urban poor, but when transported to America, it was used on the frontier to teach Native American children, who were, in some ways, regarded as the poor or the paupers of frontier society.” The Foucaultian dimensions of this system, Crain observed, endure in large public high schools.

This impetus for this new book came from Crain’s sense that her first book, The Story of A (also Crain’s dissertation), which came out in 2000, was somehow unfinished, or that there was more for her to consider about “a history of alphabetization, ideas about elementary literacy and the shift from rhetoric to alphabetization and narrative as the major mode of structure consciousness. In the first book I spent a lot of time in archives looking at early children’s material… I was the envy of everybody else poring over sermons while I had these adorable little books. But what I didn’t understand was the ways in which childhood or constructions of childhood were implicated or imbricated in literacy.” Crain joked about the usual feelings of regret or confusion that attend finishing a major project, but she realized that part of what she was experiencing after was a mourning or nostalgia for a certain kind or mode of childhood reading, dreamy, absorptive, that she was writing about. “This is something you see in undergraduates who recount the shift away from their love of books, their passion, the immersive, absorptive disappearance into a book’s world. Discovering one’s self in a book is very much not the program [of reading] in college. I’m interested in my own capacity for reading as self-loss. The book is partially a critique of that dreamy kind of reading-as-subject-formation, which is shown as a historical formation that starts at this date, and as a desire for an eternal return to that childlike place.” Crain’s work is clearly relevant to both specialists and non-specialists alike and generally seems as much about readers as it is for readers. Students, particularly those English majors with bookworm pasts, might be especially thrilled by Crain’s research.