Robert Coles Criticism - Essay

Melvin J. Friedman (review date Fall 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 political attitudes at home. Where the political scene is one of violent division, as in Northern Ireland, the child's identity is fused with group hatred. Other children—American Indians, for example—early see the political deck stacked against them. The sense of national identity is very strong in young Poles but varies with economic class among young Brazilians. Although the sources of political opinions are comparatively easy to trace, goodness—the most fascinating of qualities—seems as unaccountable among children as it does among adults, and Dr. Coles found young people of every class and nationality whose stalwart loving-kindness is inexplicable by any system he knows.

John Leo (review date 17 March 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Kenneth L. Woodward (review date 6 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Helen Bevington (review date 26 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The New Yorker (review date 7 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)

Robert A. Sirico (review date 15 November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ed Walraven (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)