Dependent States, The Child’s Part in Nineteenth Century Culture by Karen Sanchez-Eppler 70’s This work provides a close, scholarly look at the role of the child in the American culture in the 1800’s. Karen sees children as both assimilators of cultural norms (since they are dependent on adults) and as agents, having their own impact on culture. Using a wealth of material both published and unpublished-- diaries, poetry, daguerreotypes, temperance flyers, primers, and Sunday School texts – Karen documents this tension. She shows how conventional a child might be in writing about, say, grief, having assimilated social expectations; on the other hand, the frank utterances in children’s diaries and poems indicate an impulse toward originality. I think of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It is a child who has the fresh vision to observe what no one else will admit as the unclothed emperor goes by. The tension between the child as vessel and agent of culture is what interests Karen as she examines the contending forces every child must somehow navigate.
In addition to these materials, Karen makes effective use of such major figures as Whitman and Emerson. Whitman’s poem “There was a child went forth every day” aptly introduces the child as a magical assimilator. And Emerson, having experienced the grief of the loss of a child, is a necessary voice in Karen’s discussion of the cultural norms of the era concerning mourning.
Karen’s position that children occupy an important and neglected place in cultural history cannot be denied. Her method of searching out the documents written by children or created for their indoctrination has provided her (and us) a treasure trove of new information and a path forward for scholarship.