Monday, May 30, 2016

Carol Wayne White's "Black Lives and Sacred Humanity"

Carol Wayne White is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Bucknell University. She is the author of Poststructuralism, Feminism, and Religion: Triangulating Positions and The Legacy of Anne Conway (1631–1679): Reverberations from a Mystical Naturalism.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism, and reported the following:
On page ninety-nine of Black Lives and Sacred Humanity, I discuss James Baldwin’s complex relationship with structured religion, exploring why he continued to be fascinated with it even as he remained a harsh critic of its perceived limitations.

One passage encapsulates this discussion:
In select writings, Baldwin targets both dominant white Christian culture and the black holiness tradition of his youth, which he saw as permeated by problematic ideological aspects of the former. In both systems of meaning, Baldwin identified a root problem, manifest in various ways and on different levels: systematic vilification of blackness. Key religious ideas functioned (either explicitly or implicitly) in a racist culture essentially to devalue black bodies as unworthy and inherently inferior to white ones, and they generated deeply embedded black self-loathing among many African Americans. In To Crush a Serpent (1987), one of his final published essays, Baldwin sums up a theme that he had addressed throughout many earlier ones: “Race and religion, it has been remarked, are fearfully entangled in the guts of this nation, so profoundly that to speak of the one is to conjure up the other. One cannot speak of sin without referring to blackness, and blackness stalks our history and our streets.”
Ford Madox Ford’s maxim that in reading page ninety-nine of a book, the quality of the whole will be revealed to one, remains enigmatic to me. What is clear to me, however, is that my discussion on page ninety-nine is neither representative of the fuller chapter on Baldwin, nor the book as a whole. First, the chapter illustrates Baldwin’s efforts during the mid-twentieth century to enhance race relations in the United States with an expanded view of humanity and our capacity to love each other.

Second, Black Lives and Sacred Humanity explores a new religious ideal within African-American culture that emerges from humanistic assumptions and is grounded in religious naturalism. Identifying African-American religiosity as the ingenuity of a people constantly striving to inhabit their humanity and eke out a meaningful existence for themselves amid culturally coded racist rhetoric and practices, it constructs a concept of sacred humanity and grounds it in existing hagiographic and iconic African-American writings.

The first part of the book argues for a concept of sacred humanity that is supported by the best available knowledge emerging from science studies, philosophy of religion, and the tenets of religious naturalism. With this concept, the book features capacious views of humans as dynamic, evolving, social organisms having the capacity to transform ourselves and create nobler worlds where all sentient creatures flourish, and as aspiring lovers of life and of each other. Within the context of African-American history and culture, the sacred humanity concept also offers new ways of grasping an ongoing theme of traditional African-American religiosity: the necessity of establishing and valuing blacks’ full humanity. In the second part, the book traces indications of the sacred humanity concept within select works of three major African-American intellectuals of the early and mid-twentieth century: Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Dubois, and James Baldwin. The theoretical linkage of select ideas and themes in their writings with the concept of sacred humanity marks the emergence of an African-American religious naturalism.

As an alternative to theistic models of African American religiosity and spirituality, this study is an unabashed celebration of religious humanism.
Learn more about Black Lives and Sacred Humanity at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Cathryn J. Prince's "American Daredevil"

Cathryn J. Prince is the author of several nonfiction history books, including Death in the Baltic: The WWII Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff and A Professor, a President, and a Meteor: The Birth of American Science.

Prince applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, American Daredevil: The Extraordinary Life of Richard Halliburton, the World's First Celebrity Travel Writer, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Halliburton agreeably posed for pictures, granted some more interviews, and mailed copies of the Peruvian newspaper articles to Chambers, who loved the stamps and the “picture of yourself surrounded with dignitaries at whose top-hats I’ve gazed with admiration and awe. I don’t quite make out what’s happened to your hair unless that’s the latest Peruvian style of cut and the beard seems so far to be a moustache–otherwise it’s fine!”

Halliburton led Chambers to believe everything was fine. However, he ended up staying in Lima for three weeks…although not for pleasure. Rather “one blasted thing after another had held me here. I had to go to the hospital for a week for another damned hemorrhoid operation–had been getting worse for months–and decided I’d best get it over with where there was a hospital. Halliburton’s father later deleted Halliburton’s explanation for his extended stay.
Page 99 of American Daredevil finds Richard Halliburton recently arrived in Peru after becoming the first person to swim the length of the Panama Canal (locks included).

At first blush page 99 doesn’t seem to be, as Ford Madox Ford said, “qualitative of the whole.” However, closer scrutiny of the page’s two middle paragraphs actually reveal a great deal about Halliburton’s character, his relationships with those close to him, and the life he led.

These two paragraphs show readers how skillfully Halliburton navigated the fine line between his public persona and private life. It shows how Halliburton managed to wear a smiling, carefree face in public, it was a face and attitude his fans had come to expect and adore. This was the face he presented to the journalists who by now were following him at every turn.

In the letter quoted in the first paragraph readers hear from Halliburton’s long-time editor David Laurence Chambers. His remarks speak Halliburton’s ease with politicians and diplomats. Indeed Halliburton could converse as easily with famous people as he could with ordinary, everyday people. Possessing a great deal of charm, he was as interested in people–no matter their background–as they were in him.

Readers see how Halliburton never gave those outside his intimate circle any inkling of the discomforts he endured while trekking around the globe in search of adventure. He knew his public expected their hero to be attired in neatly pressed trousers, polished walking stick in hand. Halliburton revealed little of his private self to the public for whom he served as an intrepid globetrotting guide during the period in the inter-war period.

The second paragraph contains a letter from Halliburton to his father Wesley. It’s important because it reveals how Halliburton allowed himself to be vulnerable with those closest to him. Yet, it’s important to note this paragraph was not included in a posthumous book of Halliburton’s letters. Wesley Halliburton went to great lengths to hide anything that (from his perspective) might taint his son’s image, be it his son’s occasional health issues or his son’s homosexuality. Indeed as a media darling of the 1920s and ‘30s Halliburton had to hide his homosexuality and continuously burnish his image as a masculine trailblazer.

As I write in American Daredevil, Halliburton was adept at harnessing the media of his day to gain and maintain a widespread following long before our age of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and thus became the first adventure journalist. He inspired generations of authors, journalists, and everyday people who dreamed of fame and glory to explore the world.
Learn more about the book and author at Cathryn J. Prince's website.

The Page 99 Test: Death in the Baltic.

Coffee with a Canine: Cathryn J. Prince & Hershey and Juno.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Robert Elder's "The Sacred Mirror"

Robert Elder is assistant professor of history at Valparaiso University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Sacred Mirror, I wrote:
In the South words were powerful, part of a broader and deeper ‘language’ of symbols and meaning that southerners used to order their world. Outside observers marveled, and some southerners lamented, that in the South the wrong words could end friendships, provoke violence, and even lead to the loss of life, evidence of the close relationship between speech, honor, and identity.... For those who did not understand the thick context that surrounded the act of speaking in the South, the reactions provoked by a veiled implication or a petty slight could seem disproportionate. But to southerners these were vital matters that threatened their control over their very identities.

Women held a special place in such a culture. While a woman’s words could do as much damage as a man’s, women were neither subject to direct reprisal nor permitted to engage in violent defense of their own reputations. This mix of power and powerlessness gave rise to an atmosphere in which women were both lauded and feared. Because of their association with moral virtue, women’s words generally held credence on certain matters of honor and reputation, making a woman with a loose tongue a particularly vexing problem from a male point of view.

The records of local churches reveal both the importance that attached to speech in the church and community as well as the way that the church provided an avenue for (mostly) men to address the problem of their female detractors.
This passage is actually a central and quite representative part of my argument in The Sacred Mirror. Most histories of evangelicalism in the early American South have argued that the South’s honor culture represented one of the primary obstacles to the spread of evangelical religion in the region, especially before 1830. But these histories don’t take into account the depth and complexity of honor as an ethical system that ordered southerners’ lives and shaped their identities in virtually every sphere of life, including their religion. In this passage, I describe how men in evangelical churches sometimes used the mechanism of church discipline to address various forms of (mostly female) speech circulating in their communities. Because it was public, especially so in the democratic Baptist churches, discipline could be remarkably effective in addressing rumors or other types of secret speech that men (and sometimes women) considered detrimental to their honor. At the same time, and again because it was public, church discipline was a fraught avenue to address these concerns due to the risk that an investigation might prove the rumor true and cement dishonor and shame, as indeed sometimes happened. Either way, church discipline was unavoidably part of the manufacture and maintenance of honor in local communities throughout the South, which is part of the The Sacred Mirror’s argument that honor and evangelicalism were intertwined in ways that we haven’t previously understood.

The Page 99 Test works!
Learn more about The Sacred Mirror at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Christine Gilbert's "Mother Tongue"

Christine Gilbert is a writer, photographer, and documentary filmmaker and is the creator of the popular blog Almostfearless.com.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Mother Tongue: My Family's Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish, and reported the following:
From page 99:
It only took a few days of sun and watermelon smoothies for the persistent throbbing in my forehead to go away. My sinuses cleared. The eight-hundred-pound gorilla that had been sitting on my chest for the last few months was gone. We took long walks on the Ping River, wearing flip-flops and T-shirts. Cole jumped at the opportunity to play with other kids, making friends with the guesthouse owner's toddler and playing happily in the dirt together with sticks.

At first we didn't talk about Beijing. We remained in a state of shock, making the motions of living - eating Thai food, reading books and playing with Cole - but an endless horizon of the unknown stretched out before us. Now what?

Childhood trauma is a wound that never heals. It scabs over, forms a scar. It fades to just a slivery thin line on your skin, a story you tell, the time that thing happened to you. But unlike physical wounds, it can break open again. I had packed away my childhood for a decade before having Cole. It was my origin story, but it didn't define me. I never used it as a crutch. In fact, I prided myself on most people never suspecting that I went through high school as a ward of the state, living in foster care. I got a little thrill if someone assumed I had an idyllic childhood. All I ever wanted was to fit in, to pass.
I loved this experiment. Page 99 in Mother Tongue caught a more serious tone than most of the rest of the book, which is about my family and I traveling in Beijing, Beirut and Mexico so I can learn to speak Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish. Page 99 hits us just as we are at a crossroads in our journey where we have to make a decision to keep trying this or call it quits and figure something else out entirely. At the time I was honestly ready to tell my publisher I quit. Thankfully I was given time to cool off, which I did.
Visit Christine Gilbert's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hugh B. Urban's "Zorba the Buddha"

Hugh B. Urban is Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at Ohio State University, where he studies comparative religion, religions of South Asia, and new religious movements.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Zorba the Buddha: Sex, Spirituality, and Capitalism in the Global Osho Movement, and reported the following:
Zorba the Buddha focuses on the life, teachings, and global religious following of the controversial Indian guru known in his early years as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and in his later years simply as Osho (1931-1990).

It is an interesting coincidence that page 99 of my book contains a long block quote from Rajneesh that was published in 1978 under the title “This is Not a Democracy.” In many ways, this quote strikes to the heart of my book. In this statement, Rajneesh was addressing the complaints of many followers of his community in Pune that violence and abuse had infected the encounter groups and meditation sessions at the ashram. After all, many young Europeans and Americans had come to the Pune ashram in search of a kind of anarchistic, free love utopia, and many found in the community a radically liberating and empowering form of spiritual practice – a “religionless religion” that creatively combined Indian meditation with elements of Western psychotherapy. Yet many were also disturbed to find forms of authoritarianism and violence at work in the community, which shocked even some who had been sympathetic to the group, such as Dick Price, the founder of the New Age spiritual center of Esalen in California. In response, Rajneesh stated quite clearly that “This is not going to be a democracy…Whatsoever I decide is absolute.” If anyone was not comfortable with the sort of boundary-breaking violence and sexual transgression in these encounter sessions, he concluded, they were “free to leave.”

This tension between radical freedom and authoritarian control is central to the Osho-Rajneesh movement from its inception. Known throughout the media as “India’s most dangerous guru” and notorious for his iconoclastic attacks on established religious and political figures such as Gandhi and Nehru, Rajneesh established a remarkably progressive utopian movement that in many ways embodied a form of post-national sodality or global community. Yet, almost from the very beginning, the movement was also frequently criticized for its seeming authoritarian tendencies, its commercialism, and its embrace of capitalism. These tensions between utopian ideals and authoritarian impulses would later come to a head when the group relocated to the United States in the 1980s and established a huge community in the Oregon desert. While remarkably progressive and ahead of its time in terms of organic farming, recycling, and land reclamation, the Oregon community quickly descended into a series of increasingly bizarre criminal activities.

These tensions have resurfaced in recent debates surrounding the current Osho movement in India and around the globe, which has been divided by intense arguments over Osho’s legacy and rights to his name, writings, meditations, and properties.

It is precisely this tension between progressive utopian ambitions and disturbing authoritarian tendencies that I think runs throughout this complex movement; and it is this deep ambivalence within this and other charismatic religious movements that I tried to highlight in my book.
Learn more about Zorba the Buddha at the University of California Press.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, May 20, 2016

Katherine A. Mason's "Infectious Change"

Katherine A. Mason is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Infectious Change: Reinventing Chinese Public Health After an Epidemic, and reported the following:
Page 99 illustrates one of the central motifs that appears throughout my book: the generational split between the old guard of local Chinese public health bureaucrats who spend most of their time banqueting and doing sanitation inspections of highly questionable efficacy, and the young upstarts who seek to replace them by doing what they referred to as “real science.” It also includes a quite illustrative example of the ill-fated attempts of some of these young upstarts to interfere with the banqueting rituals that their older colleagues insisted on engaging in.

The story that begins the page actually starts on page 98. A measles vaccination team from a city public health institution in southeastern China is visiting a residents’ committee head at the local level to try to enlist her help in implementing a measles vaccination campaign. Despite the fact that the residents’ committee head is in charge of managing the health primarily of members of the so-called “floating population” of rural-to-urban migrants, who are nearly impossible to keep track of, she nevertheless promises her visitors that she will achieve a 100% vaccination rate. One of the younger members of the city vaccination team, whom I call Dr. Feng, then has the audacity to challenge this claim,. Page 99 begins with what happens afterwards to the unfortunate Dr. Feng:
At the banquet that followed, the department head made certain that Feng enthusiastically toasted those who would have to repair the relationship that he had threatened. The young man ended up drinking until he collapsed in the bathroom outside the banquet hall and had to be carried home.
This might sound a little extreme, especially for a bunch of officials who are supposed to be setting an example for good public health. But binge drinking was a pretty standard way for public health officials in China to both show their commitment to each other and ultimately to achieve public health goals.

I then go on:
Feng had threatened the guanxi ritual by trying to open the black box in which public health projects took place. For any given project, the procedures by which collaborating partners obtained the numbers they did were purposefully obscured. In fact, the nontransparency of the guanxi web was helpful in reaching campaign goals, because if city CDC leaders could not see how the numbers were produced, they could not verify that anything was not ‘true’…

To carry out any public health projects … my informants had to accept the numbers that the black box spit out and had to act as if they assumed that these numbers reflected what had actually been observed or completed – an assumption that Feng had refused to make. Although the older CDC members did not seem bothered by this disconnect, the younger ones found the obvious unreliability of the numbers immensely frustrating. They took the poor quality of the numbers as a personal affront to their status as scientists and an unethical rejection of their colleagues’ obligation to serve the interests of the professional common.
This last part gets at the heart of the generational split that is explored in this chapter and throughout the book – the newer, younger public health officials considered themselves to be scientists and were deeply dissatisfied with the seemingly unscientific numbers the old ways of doing things were producing. They were also in some cases deeply uncomfortable with the banqueting rituals that were used to produce these numbers. They instead wanted to establish a new set of professional norms that would do away with banqueting and insist that collaborators produce ‘true’ numbers, even if those numbers were not politically expedient. The book shows how these efforts, at least as of the time I was writing it, had largely failed. Without a new ethical system in place to replace guanxi, public health campaigns seemed to be even less capable of produced the ‘truth’ without banqueting rituals than they were with them.
Learn more about Infectious Change at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Nathan H. Lents's "Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals"

Nathan H. Lents is professor of molecular biology and director of the biology and cell and molecular biology programs at John Jay College of the City University of New York. His work has been published in at least a dozen leading science journals, including the Journal of Biological Chemistry, Molecular Cell, and the American Journal of Physiology, as well as the science education journals the Journal of College Science Teaching and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is on the editorial board of The Journal of Phylogenetics and Evolutionary Biology and maintains The Human Evolution Blog.

Lents applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Not So Different, I discuss how some species of fish have three male genders, that is, three versions of the male body type with different markings, different size, different behaviors, and different strategies for being successful at their ultimate goal: reproduction. This is a perfect window into one the themes of the book: when it comes to how animals live, there is much more than meets the eye. As stated on page 99, "Experienced anglers can easily tell the difference between males and females [in bluegill sunfish]. Or so they think. Many of the fish they identify as females are actually helper males. In sunfish, the alliance-forming ritual between large [males] and helper males is a courtship dance that includes genital contact. Quite often, when a female joins the picture to contribute the eggs, the sex is a three-way affair."

At the same time, page 99 is not very representative because it speaks of fish, when most of the book is about birds and mammals, especially primates. Not So Different explores the emotional and social lives of other animal species to reveal how closely their behavioral programs mirror our own. Other animals understand fairness, feel love, grieve their dead, and communicate with rich vocabularies. The cognitive and emotional differences between humans and other animals are only in degree, not in kind.
Visit Nathan H. Lents's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, May 16, 2016

Manisha Sinha's "The Slave's Cause"

Manisha Sinha is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities among several others. She is the author of The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina.

Sinha applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Abolitionist pamphlets and images transformed the African Slave Trade from a cog in the imperial machine to an exemplary instance of cruelty and inhumanity. They sought to render the enslaved African visible to the widest possible audience. The plan of the “regulated” slave ship Brooks with its decks of packed humanity, first composed by William Elford and the Plymouth abolition committee and elaborated by the London Committee, became the most circulated broadside of British abolitionism. Mirabeau called it a living coffin. This single image evoked the Middle Passage as experienced by Africans and centered it in abolitionist discourse. In portraying the victimization of Africans by the slave trade and slavery, abolitionists did not render them passive. The iteration of it in 1794 included a shipboard rebellion. Abolitionist art blossomed in the nineteenth century from anonymous depictions to carefully delineated humanistic portraits. In the 1820s, the British Quaker abolitionist Elizabeth Heyrick transformed the the image of the kneeling slave to that of an upright black man with the emphatic statement, “I am a man and a brother.” The Brooks diagram lives on in the modern black artistic imagination.
This paragraph from page 99 of The Slave’s Cause captures well the central arguments of the book even though it presents a snapshot of the long history of abolition, from the colonial era to the Civil War, detailed in it. The book is a movement history of American abolition narrated in a transnational context. It tells the story of not only American abolition but also of British abolition, the Haitian Revolution, the European Revolutions of the 1830s and 1848, and African emigration schemes. In situating the history of abolition in an international context, it uncovers its wide ranging and eclectic radicalism. Recapitulating the history of abolition in the longue duree and told in the broadest setting possible, this book reveals aspects of the movement and its unknown members that remain hidden from history until today. A movement perspective also allows us to uncover the significance of the history of abolition for contemporary activists, who fight against various forms of racial and economic injustice.

The Slave’s Cause argues that slave resistance, rather than bourgeois liberalism, lay at the heart of the abolition movement and inspired black and white abolitionists alike. Abolitionists, pace conventional historical wisdom, were not racial paternalists and economic conservatives but men and women, black and white, free and enslaved who created a radical, interracial social movement that pushed at the boundaries of American democracy. They found common ground in causes ranging from feminism, utopian socialism, pacifism, and anti-imperialism to vindicating the rights of labor, Native Americans, and immigrants. Rather than single issue “monomaniacs” and “fanatics,” as their conservative critics called them, most abolitionists understood that the cause of the slave was linked to a host of other causes. The abolitionist vision, the book illustrates, ultimately linked the slave’s cause to the struggle to redefine American democracy and human rights across the globe.
Learn more about The Slave's Cause at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Janet M. Davis's "The Gospel of Kindness"

Janet M. Davis is Associate Professor of American Studies, History, and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top, as well as the editor of Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Life of Tiny Kline. Her opinion pieces have been published in the New York Times and Newsday.

Davis applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America includes a discussion of slaughter practices and a new section on the ways in which animal advocates participated in civil rights struggles. The page begins with journalist W. Joseph Grand praising the efficiency of modern livestock slaughter at Chicago’s Union Stock Yards in 1896. He glowingly describes the spectacular size and scale of the facility’s holding pens, the moving masses of animals, and the assembly-line process of slaughter as a form of modern spectacle, which captivated thousands of tourists who visited the Yards each year. By contrast, the next paragraph turns to muckraking journalists, animal advocates, and labor organizers, who condemned the Yards as a horrifying “colossus of cruelty.” George Angell, the president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, recounts how he disguised himself as a laborer to gain access to the inner regions of the Yards out of public view, where he could bear intimate witness “to the inhumane conditions, and plead for those who were dumb yet keenly suffered.” Upton Sinclair is also here, coupling the destruction of animal and laboring human bodies at Packingtown as a scathing indictment of capitalism.

Sinclair’s sentiments segue to the next section, “For Justice and Fair Play,” which explores how animal advocates extended their concern for “the least among us” to fight for human equality. They denounced race riots and lynching, as well as everyday instances of racism—from San Francisco’s Chinatown to the Deep South. They also built humane education programs in public schools, Sunday Schools, and youth groups, some of which were led by people of color during the Jim Crow era.

Page 99 of The Gospel of Kindness captures a fundamental goal of the animal protection movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: to promote a wholesale project of stewardship and compassion for animals and people alike. The page also acknowledges the movement’s tensions: in a pluralistic, animal-powered society, anticruelty laws often unwittingly targeted immigrants and laboring people whose livelihood and cultural rituals depended on animals. Consequently, Ford Madox Ford’s insights regarding the power of page 99 to reveal “the quality of the whole” apply beautifully here to a complex and far-reaching American social movement.
Learn more about The Gospel of Kindness at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Paula S. Fass's "The End of American Childhood"

Paula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World.

Fass applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, and reported the following:
Childhood and parenting have changed in significant ways in the United States over the course of the two hundred years examined in my new book on the subject, The End of American Childhood. Early in their history, Americans set a cultural norm that emphasized individualism and the autonomy of the young. Today, that belief has faded and is in retreat.

The change in attitudes was becoming evident by the turn of the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century one of the most dramatic and consequential sources for this change resulted from the demography of child survival. In the nineteenth century, almost every household could expect to lose one or several of its children and all American parents, including those as prominent as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, were familiar with the uncertainty and sorrow that accompanied this loss. These American parents never lived with the illusion that they could control their children’s future. By the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, child mortality was radically reduced with notable consequences for parenting.

On page 99, I discuss how this revised expectation profoundly influenced the nature of parenting advice. From providing advice aimed at child survival such as proper diet, sleep, bathing, etc., child-rearing advisers began to shift their attention to developmental and psychological matters and to enlist parents in a campaign for child improvement. Once children could be expected to survive, “the stage was set for the dramatic spike of interest in childrearing advice aimed at emotional health and sound personality development that came in the decade of the 1920s." Parents were now set on the path of becoming more self-conscious and self-critical. Over the course of a century, this has led to a rise in parental oversight, increased anxiety about children’s welfare, more medical interventions, and a gradual decline in an earlier American commitment to treating children as independent and resourceful beings. Parents today often emphasize control as the drive toward perfection has become a middle class obsession.
Learn more about The End of American Childhood at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue