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

  • Emily E. VanDette


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.


Young Reader Sister Pair Child Reader Advice Literature Conduct Book 
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  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
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    Steven Mintz, A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture (New York: New York University Press, 1985), 150–151.Google Scholar
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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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