Robert Coles Essay - Critical Essays

Coles, Robert


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."

Principal Works

Children of Crisis 5 volumes (nonfiction) 1967–1978
Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work (biography) 1970
William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America (biography) 1975
Walker Percy: An American Search (biography) 1978
The Moral Life of Children (nonfiction) 1986
The Political Life (nonfiction) 1986
Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (biography) 1987
Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage (biography) 1987
The Call of Stories (nonfiction) 1989
The Spiritual Life of Children (nonfiction) 1990
Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis (biography) 1992
The Moral Intelligence of Children (nonfiction) 1997


Melvin J. Friedman (review date Fall 1982)

SOURCE: "Robert Coles's South and Other Approaches to Flannery O'Connor," in The Southern Literary Journal, Vol. XV, No. 1, Fall 1982, pp. 120-129.

[In the following review of several publications on Flannery O'Connor, Friedman explains the critical approaches that Coles takes in his Flannery O'Connor's South.]

Robert Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard Medical School. This unorthodox title helps characterize an unconventional career, which has brought Dr. Coles from spirited civil rights marcher in the company of Martin Luther King to author of an overflowing shelf of books which may one day extend in length to Charles W. Eliot's magical...

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Neil Postman (review date 19 January 1986)

SOURCE: "A Singer of Their Tales," in New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1986, pp. 1, 28.

[In the following review of The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children, Postman demontrates how Coles goes beyond theory and facts to reveal the truth of his subjects.]

When I was in grade school, Christmas time was a problem. We were always made to sing those mysterious carols, and although "Jingle Bells" was a piece of cake, most of the canon was fraught with danger for a Jewish boy. Harold Goldstein and I figured out a way to defend ourselves. We turned the line "Deck the halls with boughs of holly" into "Deck the halls with rows of...

(The entire section is 1973 words.)

Katherine Paterson (review date 2 February 1986)

SOURCE: "Out of the Mouths of Babes," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVI, No. 5, February 2, 1986, pp. 1, 14.

[In the following review, Paterson considers the methods Coles uses to reveal the moral and political lives of children.]

One of Jimmy Carter's unforgiveable mistakes as president was his revelation that he thought his 12-year-old had opinions worth listening to. The public hoot that greeted this earnest statement still echoes in negative assessments of the Carter presidency. We are a nation, you see, that sentimentalizes children or dismisses them, but we do not take them seriously. Nor do we have much regard for people who do.


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Jonathan Kellerman (review date 9 February 1986)

SOURCE: Review of The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 9, 1986, pp. 2, 12.

[In the following review, Kellerman looks at Coles' individual approach to child psychology and the insights it yields.]

Trained as a pediatrician and child psychoanalyst, Robert Coles has spent his professional life exploring and illuminating the inner world of the child. In the process, he has created an impressive body of work, crowned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, multivolume Children of Crisis series.

In his writings, Coles has seemingly ignored the delineation between the academic...

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New Yorker (review date 10 February 1986)

SOURCE: Review of The Political Life of Children and The Moral Life of Children, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXI, No. 51, February 10, 1986, p. 115.

[The following brief review offers a concise statement of Coles' observations on the political and moral development in children.]

These two volumes report the results of long-term surveys in the United States and nine other countries by the noted psychiatrist. Dr. Coles mentions that previous investigations of the ways in which values are transmitted through time have not been extensive, even though the subject is of considerable interest. Not surprisingly, he found that, for good or ill, children pick up...

(The entire section is 209 words.)

John Leo (review date 17 March 1986)

SOURCE: "Mysteries," in Time, Vol. 127, No. 11, March 17, 1986, p. 81.

[In the following review, Leo raises objections to Coles' methods of presenting his subjects and questions the importance of his findings.]

If the world offered Oscars for interviewing children, Anna Freud would win for lifetime achievement, Art Link-letter would walk off with the trophy for most tots questioned, and Harvard Psychiatrist Robert Coles would be handsdown, standing-ovation winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He might also win the Dino De Laurentiis plaque for epic production. To date, Coles has spent 28 years toting notebook, crayons and tape recorder around the world,...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Kenneth L. Woodward (review date 6 September 1987)

SOURCE: "Two Paradoxical Saints," in New York Times Book Review, September 6, 1987, p. 10.

[In the following review of Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion and Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage, Woodward discusses Coles' depiction of the "life of the spirit".]

Few of us really like saints. Admire them, yes, but the demands they make on themselves inspire us to keep our distance. Simone Weil and Dorothy Day aspired to the kind of intimacy with God that is typical of saints, and each tried "to live in such a way that," as Emmanuel Cardinal Sunard of Paris said, "one's life would not make sense if God did not exist." Both women lived and identified with the...

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Jeff Dietrich (review date 13 September 1987)

SOURCE: "Simone Fasted, Dorothy Fed," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, p. 23.

[In the following review, Dietrich examines the figures at the center of Coles' biographical studies Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage and Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.]

One woman spent her entire life feeding the hungry, while the other died a premature death of voluntary starvation. Though Dorothy Day and Simone Weil were Christian mystics who developed a remarkably similar critique of modern Western culture based upon their deep spiritual integrity, they were radically different personalities, representing radically different strains of Christian...

(The entire section is 1189 words.)

Fitzhugh Mullan (review date 8 May 1988)

SOURCE: Review of Times of Surrender in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XVIII, May 8, 1988, p. 11.

[In the following review, Mullan identifies the central themes and approaches found in the essays collected in Times of Surrender.]

In 1967 a group of medical students at the University of Chicago, hungry for relevance and frustrated with the tidy complacency of their educations, invited Robert Coles to speak to them. The young psychiatrist, already established as a writer, civil rights activist and social critic, told the students he was anxious to visit because only eight years earlier he had done his internship at the University of Chicago. He had left it for...

(The entire section is 935 words.)

Helen Bevington (review date 26 February 1989)

SOURCE: "You Tell Me Yours, I'll Tell You Mine," in New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1989, p. 38.

[In the following review, Bevington situates The Call of Stories in relation to Coles' oeuvre and interests that have marked his career.]

By now most people know Robert Coles. Or for their own sake they ought to. Becoming his patient or his student is, I suppose, the best way to go about it, though to read his books, notably the famous five-volume Children of Crisis, is to make him a lasting friend.

That work, which represents some 20 years Dr. Coles spent in the rural South—in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Appalachia, New...

(The entire section is 979 words.)

Francis X. Rocca (review date March 1989)

SOURCE: Review of Harvard Diary and That Red Wheelbarrow: Selected Literary Essays, in American Spectator, Vol. 22, No. 3, March 1989, pp. 40-41.

[In the following review, Rocca assesses Coles' style and approach to writing and thinking about issues covered in Harvard Diary and That Red Wheelbarrow.]

A few years ago, before starting a lecture on the "Literature of Social Reflection" (a course for Harvard undergraduates that dwells on suffering and sacrifice in life and literature), Robert Coles was preempted by a prankster from the Harvard Lampoon. The Phool (an initiate into the Lampoon) walked to the front of the class and performed...

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Iain Bamforth (review date 7-13 July 1989)

SOURCE: "Clinical Humanitities," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4501, July 7-13, 1989, p. 752.

[In the following review, Bamforth comments on Coles' combined concerns for medicine and literature.]

Times of Surrender is a collection of reviews, addresses and reminiscences from the past twenty years which attests to Robert Coles's conviction that appreciation of literature is a useful adjunct to the study of medicine. Coles is Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities at Harvard; literary texts have thus been his chosen means of guiding a generation of over-achieving medical students towards the ethical dilemmas awaiting them in their professional lives....

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: "'After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?': The Rise of Ethical Criticism," in Georgia Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 2, Summer 1989, pp. 395-405.

[In the following essay, Pinsker considers Coles' The Call of Stories in the context of ethical criticism and moral responses to literature.]

On Moral Fiction (1978), John Gardner's idiosyncratic, often downright cranky musing about contemporary fiction was so roundly hooted out of academe's groves that one began to wonder if he had not, in fact, hit a raw nerve. It was not only that his detractors protested far more about the book's self-serving, self-righteous moral posturing than the occasion required, but...

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Herbert Mitgang (review date 21 November 1990)

SOURCE: "Thoughts on Religion From Children," in The New York Times, Vol. CXL, No. 48426, November 21, 1990, p. C20.

[In the following essay, Mitgang delves into the subject of spirituality and moral questioning in children, as explored by Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children.]

In the boldest and the most challenging of his series of books that probe the minds of children, Dr. Robert Coles turns on his tape recorder and listens to what they say about religion. It's an unchoate subject for adults and children. In The Spiritual Life of Children the answers are not particularly enlightening and for good reason it is hard to elicit original thoughts from the very...

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Laura Sessions Stepp (review date 23 December 1990)

SOURCE: "Faith of Our Children," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XX, No. 51, December 23, 1990, p. 5.

[In the following review, Stepp considers some of the observations on spirituality Coles elicited from children in his study of the subject in The Spiritual Life of Children.]

During his first 25 years of interviewing and writing about children, Robert Coles managed to sidestep their persistent religious questions.

Despite hints from his young subjects that they would like to travel that road of inquiry with him, Coles focused on topics more in line with his secular training in psychiatry at Harvard. In books including the five-volume Children...

(The entire section is 971 words.)

The New Yorker (review date 7 January 1991)

SOURCE: Review of The Spiritual Life of Children, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVI, No. 47, January 7, 1991, p. 76.

[The following brief review characterizes the method and scope of Coles' work in The Spiritual Life of Children.]

The noted child psychiatrist, social researcher, and writer recalls that in his earlier investigations he found that children often spoke spontaneously of religion, but he didn't pursue the subject until Anna Freud suggested that he review the research he had accumulated over thirty years. Coles didn't just rework his old material. He undertook new interviews; sessions in which children drew; and group discussions on several continents,...

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Virginia C. Hoch (review date 26 August-2 September 1992)

SOURCE: Review of Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis, in The Christian Century, Vol. 109, No. 25, August 26-September 2, 1992, pp. 782-84

[In the following review, Hoch outlines the portrait of Anna Freud that emerges in Coles' biographical study.]

The Radcliff Biographical Series highlights the contributions of women to American life and culture. Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard Medical School and author of, among others, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Children of Crisis series, organizes his text around particular aspects of Anna Freud's life: Anna as teacher, theorist, healer, leader, idealist and writer.


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A. J. S. (review date 1993)

SOURCE: Review of The Spiritual Life of Children, in Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 63, No. 1, 1993, pp. 121-22.

[The following review looks at the successes of The Spiritual Life of Children at presenting its subject.]

In the beginning of The Spiritual Life of Children, Robert Coles shares with us the difficulty he had in talking to Hopi children about matters of Hopi spirituality and theology. He attempted to interview the children during school hours, but was continually frustrated by their reluctance to discuss the subject at hand. Coles was about to give up and pack his bags when he happened to meet a Hopi mother who took the time to...

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Michelle Huneven (essay date 3 October 1993)

SOURCE: "Why Ask Why Some People Do Good?" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 3, 1993, p. 2.

[In the following essay Huneven applies a critical eye to Coles' writing methods while citing some of the strengths of The Call of Service.]

Robert Coles is a man of dazzling, if not overwhelming accomplishment. A pediatrician and child psychiatrist, he has published over a thousand essays and more than 50 books including biographies of Dorothy Day, Anna Freud, Simone Weil; a five-volume series on "Children in Crisis," plus one book each on the political, moral and spiritual lives of children. His latest work, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism, is a...

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Robert A. Sirico (review date 15 November 1993)

SOURCE: "A Tribute to Altruism," in Wall Street Journal, November 15, 1993, p. A10.

[In the following review, Sirico identifies Coles' "liberal political agenda" and comments on its manifestation in The Call of Service.]

If it is true that much of what we do for others is for self-serving reasons, it is also true that we perform authentic acts of charity. The motivation that gives rise to charity is sometimes called idealism, or altruism; or, more picturesquely, the tug of transcendence. It is with us today as the "politics of meaning." But it has an ancient history that can clarify our current sense of charity.

When Jesus commanded his followers to...

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Gail Russell Chaddock (review date 9 December 1993)

SOURCE: "Helping Others, Helping Ourselves," in The Christian Science Monitor, December 9, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review, Chaddock provides a brief inventory of the insights to be found in The Call to Service.]

Robert Coles has written more than 50 books, prompting the question, does any writer have 50 books worth of wisdom to share with the world?

His latest, The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism, reads less like a new venture than a gleaning through a lifetime of interviews, notebooks, and tapes for an answer to the question: Why do people serve others?

The reasons people give are as diverse as the voices in...

(The entire section is 547 words.)

Ed Walraven (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Folklore in the Writings of Robert Coles, M.D." in Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin, Vol. LVI, No. 4, 1994, pp. 134-144.

[In the following essay, Walraven examines Coles' writings for elements of folklore and shows how some of his methods and concerns resemble those of ethnography.]

More than 30 years ago, Richard M. Dorson outlined a method of studying genuine folklore in the printed texts of American literature, a method scholars employ as an identify-and-interpret approach, with emphasis on first identifying the folklore (Dorson 1957; Stahl 1983). Dorson referred to creative writing, specifically novels, short stories, poems and/or plays. This is an...

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Paulina F. Kernberg (review date October 1994)

SOURCE: "A Child Analyst for All Seasons: Anna Freud," in Contemporary Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 1994, p. 946.

[The following review briefly evaluates Coles' biography of Anna Freud and compares it to another work on the subject.]

In this work, Robert Coles has undertaken to write about his experience with Anna Freud and about Anna Freud. With a sense of timing and tact, Coles sketches Anna Freud's life and work as a series of developmental profiles.

Parallels occur in the structure of this book; namely, as Anna Freud formulated her developmental lines so did Coles formulate Anna Freud's biography in various lines of development: her life...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Richard Bernstein (review date 27 January 1997)

SOURCE: "Making Morality a Part of Growing Up," in New York Times Book Review, January 27, 1997, pp. 88-9.

[In the following review, Bernstein takes account of the qualities and failings of The Moral Intelligence of Children.]

Robert Coles, whose voluminous writings and positions as professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at the Harvard Medical School have made his name synonymous with wisdom about children, promises to render an important service in this latest of his many books. The dust jacket phrase puts it simply: "How to raise a moral child." And Dr. Coles asserts early on that his new book deals with "how we as adults, as mothers and fathers and...

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Further Reading


Review of The Red Wheelbarrow: Selected Literary Essays, by Robert Coles. The Virginia Quarterly Review 65, No. 2 (Spring 1989): 46-47.

A short review commenting on Coles' treatment of William Carlos Williams and other literary figures.

Rochman, Hazel. Review of The Story of Ruby Bridges, by Robert Coles and George Ford, Booklist (January 15 1995): 931.

An informative review of a children's book written by Coles about Ruby Bridges, a 6-year-old whose courage inspired Coles' early work.

(The entire section is 103 words.)