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Sibling Pedagogy: The Brother-Sister Ideal in Domestic Advice and Children’s Periodical Literature

  • Emily E. VanDette
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Abstract

With his claim for the unsurpassed loveliness of sibling devotion in his 1850 book of advice for American boys, William Alcott, one of the most prolific American domestic educators of the nineteenth century, articulated a social fixation that predominated in advice literature, fiction, and the real lives and correspondence of brothers and sisters in nineteenth-century America. The tradition of American family values discourse that emerged with unprecedented emphasis throughout the nineteenth century placed a special spotlight on sibling dynamics. As the trope of tyrannical parents and rebellious children that dominated Revolutionary discourse wore out its salience in the era of national identity building, an era more conducive to the antipaternalism and egalitarianism of Enlightenment thinking, American discourse increasingly invoked the lateral dynamic of brothers and sisters to resolve crises of identities, attachments, obligations, and filial duties. At once evocative of sameness (generational, familial, biological, cultural, and hierarchical) and difference (namely, and significantly, gender), the opposite-sex sibling pair presents the richest potential within the family for interrogating the extent and boundaries of individual identities and their bonds and duties to others. It is the goal of this book to demonstrate how American writers, especially from the antebellum era through the movement of the African American nadir, seized upon that potential in their fiction.

Keywords

Young Reader Sister Pair Child Reader Advice Literature Conduct Book 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    William A. Alcott, Familiar Letters to Young Men on Various Subjects (Buffalo: Derby, 1850), 266.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Steven Mintz notes that “Nineteenth-century middle-class culture idealized the bond between sisters and brothers as purer and more innocent than any other social relationships, untouched by sexuality and selfishness.” Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004), 86.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In his study of American manhood, Rotundo points out that the brother– sister pair in the nineteenth century was nurtured to be a “trial run at marriage.” E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York: Harper, 1993), 96.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Steven Mintz, A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 150–151.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    See Gillian Brown, Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    In Siblings, Hemphill draws upon the example of Sedgwick’s attachment to her brothers: C. Dallett Hemphill, Siblings: Brothers and Sisters in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), see especially 108, 116, 129, and 172–173.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    William Aikman, Life at Home; or, The Family and Its Members (New York: Wells, 1870), 183.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Augustus Woodbury, Plain Words to Young Men (Concord, NH: E. C. Eastman, 1858), 36.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Richard Broadhead, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (1988): 67–96. Broadhead asserts the “disciplinary intimacy” of children’s literature, particularly of periodical literature, in which editors seek to shape child readers through the process of textual selection as well as explanatory insertions.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 14.
    Lorinda Cohoon, Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys 1840–1911 (Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2006) emphasizes the role that periodicals played in shaping model citizens.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    For more on the sense of community in St. Nicholas, see Suzanne Rahn, “St. Nicholas and Its Friends: The Magazine-Child Relationship” in St. Nicholas and Mary Maples Dodge: The Legacy of a Children’s Magazine, edited by Susan Gannon (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004). Also, Greta Little points out the ways in which nineteenth-century American children’s periodicals encouraged aspiring writers. In an especially valuable internet project, Pat Pflieger brings to life what she terms the “online community of the nineteenth-century” with an overview of readers’ correspondence that includes embedded links to full-text primary source examples from Robert Merry’s Museum (“An Online Community of the Nineteenth Century,” http://www.merrycoz.org/papers/online/online.htm).Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    See Gordon R. Kelly, Children’s Periodicals (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984), 508–509.Google Scholar
  13. 18.
    See James Marten, The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 31–32.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    For a discussion of the metaphor and actual history of the divided family during the Civil War, see Amy Murrell Taylor, The Divided Family in Civil War America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005). While Taylor’s chapter on “Brothers and Sisters” (63–91) sheds light on the history of sibling divisiveness and solidarity during the Civil War, her attention to the fictional representations of the divided family metaphor mostly centers upon the allegorical treatment of the Union as a marriage (see 123–153).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 20.
    Elizabeth Young contends that in Alcott’s Civil War fiction, “a reciprocal metaphor connects gender and nation: the national conflict symbolizes individual struggles against gender norms, while such internal civil wars alle-gorically reconstruct the warring nation”; Elizabeth Young, “A Wound of One’s Own: Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War Fiction,” American Quarterly 48.3 (1996): 439–474, 441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 22.
    Alcott’s success was largely associated with the children’s periodicals market. Besides contributing to Our Young Folks, she served as the editor for Merry’s Museum from 1868 to 1870, and eventually became a high-profile (and high-earning) contributor to the most prominent children’s magazines, St. Nicholas, in 1874. For a discussion of Alcott’s relationship with the famous editor of St. Nicholas, see Daniel Shealy, “Work Well Done: Louisa May Alcott and Mary Maples Dodge,” in St. Nicholas and Mary Maples Dodge: The Legacy of a Children’s Magazine, 1873–1905, edited by Susan Gannon, et al. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004): 171–191.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    See R. Gordon Kelly’s Children’s Periodicals of the United States (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984), 331.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    These academic differences between boys and girls were particularly coded into gender representations in children’s literature of the day. A St. Nicholas short story titled “How Cousin Marion Helped” (Vol. 24.2, May 1897) suggests how a pre-adolescent girl may restore harmony with her twin brother by allowing him to excel her in math performance. Pat Pflieger explains how readers engaged in vocal debates over the presumed intellectual superiority of men. Pat Pflieger, “A Visit to Merry’s Museum; Or, Social Values in a Nineteenth-Century American Periodical for Children” (Doctoral Dissertation: University of Minnesota, 1987); see especially Chapter II for a compelling analysis of the “algebra war” among readers of Merry’s Museum.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    For a discussion of Dodge’s interventions in hero-worship via her editorial practices in St. Nicholas, see Susan R. Gannon, “Heroism Reconsidered: Negotiating Autonomy in St. Nicholas Magazine (1873–1914)” in Culturing the Child, 1690–1914: Essays in Memory of Mitzi Myers, edited by Donelle Ruwe (Lanham, MD: The Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, 2005): 179–198.Google Scholar

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© Emily E. VanDette 2013

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  • Emily E. VanDette

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