(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Coles 1929–

American psychiatrist, biographer, social commentator, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Coles's career.

Robert Coles' work is marked by a conception of the craft of writing as a blend of poetry, fiction, psychoanalysis, sociology, ethnography and political commentary. Trained as a psychiatrist, Coles has nurtured a life-long interest in literature and the wide range of experience for which it is often a vehicle. An equally pronounced early interest in matters of morality and spirituality have also found expression in his work, which is often based on extensive one-on-one encounters, primarily with children. In his writing his subjects do the talking, and Coles tries to bring out the inherent stories which reveal truths and realities that simple clinical facts could not. In this original manner he deals with themes rooted in concrete experience having to do with childhood, politics, ethics, spirituality and altruism. Of his work with children, Coles has said "What I do is listen … and try to make sense of the various contradictions and inconsistencies in their struggle for coherence." Walker Percy—an early influence, who was also a doctor and writer—has said of Coles: "Like Freud he is humble before the facts," and he "keeps his ideological spectacles in his pocket and spends his time listening to people and trying to understand them." His books are accounts of that understanding.

Biographical Information

Robert Coles was Born on October 12, 1929 in Boston, son of Sandra Young Coles and Philip Winston Coles, an engineer. His early career ambition was to be a high school English teacher and to combine literature and religion; he was influenced in this regard by Perry Miller who taught English and American literature at Harvard College and was one of Coles' thesis supervisors when he wrote on William Carlos Williams' long poem Paterson. Meeting Williams was a turning point. From Williams, a poet and pediatrician who would, on his house calls, sit with the children on the floor and play with them, Coles learned "how much medicine can give both moral and intellectual shape to a particular life." He subsequently completed his education at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1954. After residencies in several hospitals and holding the post of chief of neuropsychiatric service at Biloxi Mississippi Air Force Base (1958–60), he married Jane Hallowell, a high-school teacher. She was a motivating force in Coles' project of recording children's reflections on social and political issues during the troubled period of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s; a period that proved to be a crucible for the work for which he has gained fame and recognition. This resulted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear (1967–1978). Around this time, he began his association with Harvard as a staff member, beginning as a clinical assistant 1960–62, then as a research psychiatrist in 1963, a Lecturer in General Education in 1966, and Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities from 1978. In 1981, a grant from the MacArthur Foundation led to work on an international scale with The Political Life of Children (1986) and The Moral Life of Children (1986). As a professor his curriculum includes literature classes for students of medicine, law and architecture. Coles is also the author of articles, stories and poems.

Major Works

Story-telling is at the heart of Robert Coles' method, which involves finding in the words of his subjects stories that display prominent elements of human nature. This approach is first seen in his books on childhood from the Children of Crisis series to The Moral Intelligence of Children (1997), and is equally present in his biographical studies such as Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (1987), Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (1987) and Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis (1992). Rather than presenting ideas via an analysis based on a theoretical or ideological framework, he prefers to let the ideas arise out of the people. Coles has commented on his method, saying it entails "pulling together … the recurrent themes and topics that [his interview subjects] bring up." What he finally presents is "a distillation and a condensation, a 'reading' of a particular life." He adds: "What a novelist does is try to highlight a certain moment. That's what I try to do too." His models are creative works of literature in which he satisfies an interest in "stories, as moral moments conveyed through the suggestive power of language," a phenomenon he explored in detail in The Call of Stories (1989). In his books on children, where some might find economic, social, or racial problems, Coles sees instead, "moral problems and family problems of a deep and disturbing nature." And he sees a need for a spiritual solution. As he points out, the children affected need not only economic and political support but "a moral and spiritual life they don't have … that can help give them a certain kind of strength they otherwise will lack." His mentors, whether literary or in the field of psychology have also become subjects of his writing, notably Walker Percy: An American Search (1978), William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America (1975) and Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (1970).

Critical Reception

Critics of Coles' work have been sympathetic to the humanity with which he treats subjects that are often handled with clinical detachment. Reviewing The Moral life of Children, Neil Postman portrayed Coles in heroic terms: "He is to the stories that children have to tell what Homer was to the tale of the Trojan War," suggesting that Coles' strength is that he transforms his material "into a kind of narrative poetry". Jonathan Kellerman, reviewing The Political Life of Children, described Coles' narrative gifts as "Dickensian," adding that he is "a master chronicler, providing few answers but asking his questions so eloquently that his writings emerge as classic portrayals of social upheaval and its effect upon the young." Unlike Dickens, however, Coles avoids sentimentality in his social realism. Katherine Paterson remarked: "a reading of The Political Life of Children should cure any adult of a sentimental view of childhood." There have been objections to a noted tendency for whitewashing. Laura Sessions Stepp, considering The Spiritual Life of Children (1990), objects to Coles' approach on the grounds that "he spends relatively little time on religion's darker side, the shame and guilt too many children suffer at the hands of know-it-all preachers and Sunday School teachers," and identifies in Coles' book what may be considered "a skewed, Pollyanna vision." In the same vein, Richard Bernstein complained that The Moral Intelligence of Children (1997) "is weakened by nebulousness, wordiness, by Dr. Coles's tendency to circle the issue so that he raises interesting questions but then answers them with not much more than earnest truisms." He concedes that Coles is "certainly an insightful and sensitive man," but complains that Coles is often at the center of the book, with characteristics of "strenuous modesty and self-effacement that one suspects it is a form of egoism," and he doubts that one learns anything from Coles' approach. This indeterminacy in his style has been recognized by other critics; however, some see in this a positive feature. The lack of specific and overt answers in his books, the idea that Coles poses questions remarkably well and that Coles is not prescriptive, that he doesn't offer us "pediatric prescriptions," is an admired quality. The naiveté of the Coles approach, although irritating to some, is refreshing for most critics. Francis X. Rocca, for example, praises Coles' work for being free from "the constraints of the psychoanalytic vocabulary, which cannot convey ambiguity and irony."