Huck’s Raft

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Steven Mintz, Professor of History at the University of Houston, has undertaken a monumental task in researching the history of childhood in America. His scholarship is impeccable, his book a triumph of careful and thoughtful investigation. Besides this, it is a well-written, compelling study. Parents, teachers, and general readers will benefit greatly from reading it.

Mintz examines childhood in colonial times, when the Puritans considered children adults-in-progress bearing the tell-tale marks of Original Sin. He then focuses on childhood as it was affected by the Civil War, when large numbers of orphans were produced, some twelve thousand of whom had to be cared for in New York City alone. Finally, he considers more recent times, considering society’s inadequacy in meeting children’s health, welfare, and educational needs.

The Industrial Revolution spawned the establishment of public schools designed to train compliant workers. After minimal schooling, impoverished pre- adolescent children were drawn into the labor force to work long hours under appalling conditions. Social reformers had minimal success controlling the exploitation of such children.

Mintz is at his best in providing cogent overviews that illustrate changing attitudes toward young people. He notes that Booth Tarkington dealt condescendingly with adolescents whereas post-World War II “writers focused on weightier subjects, such as adolescents’ sexual initiation or juvenile delinquency (Amboy Dukes) or a girl’s sadistic pleasure in her sexual power over men (East of Eden), Lesbianism (The Wayward Ones), homosexuality (Compulsion), and rape (Entry E).” The scope of Mintz’s coverage is impressive.