20th Century English Essays For Children
The Twentieth-Century Child
Lori M. Campbell, University of Pittsburgh
By 1900, Romantic and Victorian efforts to improve and reinvent childhood had built upon similar movements of past centuries to solidify “The Child” as a figure of central importance to both the family and the nation. As the child’s value shifted from economic to emotional, the gains of nineteenth-century reform encouraged many to anticipate further improvements in welfare and education. In her famous book The Century of the Child (1900), for example, Swedish feminist Ellen Key imagined the twentieth century as a time when adults would embrace “the right of the child” as the central concern of modern society. She believed that “all morals, all laws, all social arrangements,” especially marriage and women’s roles, would be constructed out of concern for the health and education of all children. Although Key herself did not fully expect her vision to become reality, her principles continue to inform notions of what childhood and adult responsibility should be as we consider to what extent the twentieth century lived up to its promise. Although universal elementary education has become a reality in America and England, other anxieties have arisen, as people continue to struggle in their efforts to define, control, and protect that slippery being known as “The Child.”
The Persistence of Child Labor
During the nineteenth century, responsibility for improving and even enabling the child’s existence had shifted from the private to the public realm. As Hugh Cunningham explains, people began to believe that “only state action could secure a childhood for all children,” and the child began to occupy a position “somewhere close to the center of the political agenda of the modern state” (137). By 1900, nearly all Western countries had laws prohibiting or restricting child labor. Nevertheless, the United States census report from this year reveals that nearly two million children—one of every six between the ages of ten and fifteen—was gainfully employed. Moreover, the true number of child workers was probably much higher since many were under ten and/or would “help out” when not attending school.
Britain was a little ahead of the United States in terms of child labor reform; however, after the passage of the Employment of Children Act in 1903, legislation stalled until 1918, mainly due to increased demand created by World War I. In fact, according to one 1914 estimate, there were over half a million children under fourteen employed in the United Kingdom, although by this point the majority of these worked part-time. One reason that legislation on both sides of the Atlantic failed to ease the problem of child labor was the lack of local enforcement. In the U.S., the National Child Labor Committee was established in the early twentieth century, but met with considerable opposition in state compliance until the 1920s, particularly in the south where farming and textile industries created special demand for child labor.
As activists campaigned to free children from appalling working conditions—and from working in general—they also called upon people to pay more attention to the general health and welfare of the young. Despite declines in infant and child mortality rates in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, children continued to die at an alarming rate. Touted in newspapers as “the great benefactress of childhood,” British educational pioneer Margaret McMillan (1860-1931) was one of the most vocal advocates for reform aimed at improving quality of life for all children. In her widely read book, Early Childhood (1900), McMillan identified young people, particularly poor ones, as “a constituency in need of rescue” (Steedman 9). A committed socialist, McMillan fought to ensure that working-class children could enjoy the same benefits as their more privileged peers: freedom from labor, education from an early age, medical attention, and contact with nature. Simultaneously, numerous agencies in Britain and in America targeted various other aspects of child welfare, from educating parents (particularly women) on hygiene and child-rearing, to raising the age for compulsory schooling, instituting school nutrition programs, and recognizing child rights.
The Useless Child
Falling infant mortality rates during the early decades of the twentieth century indicated that such efforts on behalf of the child were bearing fruit, especially as science allowed for improved sanitation and more attention to health issues before, during, and after maternity. Unfortunately, other problems emerged, bound up with economic instability and increasing freedom for women and children. Now that the child lived but did not work, how was his family to provide the means to make him happy and to ensure his future? This question led to heated debate. On one side stood opponents of child labor legislation, including poor families whose living depended upon children earning their bread in the economic downturn of 1929, which lasted roughly until the start of World War II about ten years later. The state had no right, they argued, to prevent children from helping to support their families as they had always done.
On the other side, advocates of child labor legislation argued “true parental love could only exist if the child was defined exclusively as an object of sentiment and not as an agent of production” (Zelizer 72). Obviously this group won, but it took decades of work to persuade the majority of the population that children (long considered an economic asset) should be allowed to become useless—a drain on the family resources rather than a contributor to its survival. A variety of factors, including rising real income, increased demand for educated workers, and stricter compulsory education laws all helped ensure that more and more children began to receive significant schooling. As sociologist Viviana Zelizer has pointed out, the acceptance of the idea of the economically worthless child went hand-in-hand with a growing tendency to conceive of children as emotionally priceless.
The Companionate Family
Other structural and societal changes also helped to heighten the emotional intensity of family bonds. By the 1920s, women had the vote and were working in greater numbers, which meant new ways of thinking about marriage and parenting. The Victorian household in which the husband reigned supreme gave way to a more democratic ideal, which scholars refer to as “the companionate family.” The term comes from “companionate marriage,” which first appeared in Revolt of Modern Youth (1925) by Denver Juvenile Court Judge Ben B. Lindsay and Wainright Evans. Although in the first decades of the twentieth century, marriage still hinged upon money, religion, and social status, especially for immigrants, couples with the luxury to do so increasingly counted love as a key motivator.
Yet even as family was coalescing into an affectionate, close-knit unit, social scientists and educators advocated that the child should be given “greater freedom from parental control, greater latitude in expressing their feelings, and increased interaction of adolescents with peers” (Mintz and Kellogg 114). After World War I, it became increasingly common for children to spend their days at school, with peers, or on their own rather than with parents. For some, the financial hardship of the 1930s somewhat counteracted this tendency, since a lack of money and space required households to include extended family members, encouraging intimacy and giving children numerous adult caretakers at home. A Second World War complicated matters, though; sending fathers to the Front and mothers to work, or at home tending younger children while those siblings who could were required to support the family. Fathers unable to provide because of war casualty, injury, or lack of work, and mothers who enjoyed the autonomy of earning, often left children unattended. Character-shaping influences increasingly came from outside the home, creating new questions and concerns.
Juveniles on Trial
By the 1930s, decreased parental supervision was already causing anxiety about moral development. Essentially an American creation, the juvenile court system emerged in response to “adult concerns about the threats posed by the very adolescent peer cultures that public policy’s separations of children into age-specific categories encourage[d]” (Sealander 20). With most children attending school at least until sixteen, age-based grade levels defined stages of maturation. The law responded to the perceived threat of the “juvenile delinquent” by following education to expand the chronological definition of childhood according to age-based levels of accountability and punishment, depending on the crime. On a more positive note, legislation at this time also built upon past reform “to extend and elaborate on children’s property rights and apply new principles that cushioned children from the common law” (Kline 47).
The juvenile court system was founded on the belief that a child would not be inherently capable of committing a crime, so that the few who did would receive treatment rather than punishment. Thus, the courts became a venue for protection as well as for punishment, fulfilling what was once thought of as a parental role. In Britain, The Children and Young Persons Act of 1933 amended the procedures of the juvenile court system and endorsed detention centers based on the idea that child offenders required special care and protection. However, as the century progressed, especially in the United States—where access to guns still today remains much less restricted than in Britain—the scope and seriousness of crimes by adolescents meant that more and more prison inmates were under eighteen. While the law did start to distinguish between children and adults in terms of punishment, debate continues to rage today over the age and circumstances for trying an adolescent as an adult. Around mid-century rates of confinement for teenagers decreased, despite the fact that adult suspicion about the potential for misbehavior intensified.
Post-War Optimism and the TV Generation
In the mid-1940s, the birth rate rose to an unprecedented height, creating the famous “Baby Boom” generation, and making “The Child” even more central to Anglo-American society. Parents and educators encouraged children to express their own individuality through creative play. At the same time, mechanization, improved in wartime, made toy production inventive, plentiful, and profitable. Generally speaking, the standard of living for most families rose in the aftermath of World War II. More money allowed parents to indulge children with material possessions and to focus more attention on emotional needs and cognitive development. Neil Postman sees this period as a “high watermark of childhood . . . in which parents developed the psychic mechanisms that allow for a full measure of empathy, tenderness, and responsibility toward their children” (67).
For Postman and others, the arrival of television seriously undermined this positive relationship. Common in American homes by the 1950s, television was at first praised for promoting family “togetherness,” a term coined by McCall’s magazine in 1954 (Spigel 37). Yet it also came under fire for a variety of reasons. People worried that viewing was a completely passive process that would turn children into mindless drones; that irresponsible mothers would use the box as a babysitter; that seductive commercials for everything from sugary cereal to dolls and fire trucks would undermine children’s health and transform them into greedy materialists. Initially, TV programmers and advertisers saw the adult as the one responsible for making viewing and purchasing choices, but they soon recognized the value of appealing directly to children. As early as the 1930s, government committees and parenting magazines in America had recommended that children receive a regular allowance, and as the century progressed young people became an increasingly prized consumer group.
Although this recognition turned the child into a target for manipulation, many viewed television as a positive factor in development. Educational programming, which greatly expanded in the 1960s and 70s, supplemented classroom learning, making the time spent in front of “the tube” relatively productive. Indeed, the first large-scale study of North American children and television—conducted from 1958 to 1960—revealed that preschool children who watched television started school with bigger vocabularies and more knowledge about the world around them than their TV-deprived peers. Moreover, cultural commentators like Ellen Seiter have insisted that it is a mistake to view marketers as evil brainwashers and children as naïve innocents, since young people often function as active recipients of consumer goods and media, appropriating material from a variety of sources and using it as the basis for conversation and creative play.
Controversy about television and other new media raged on, despite the lack of evidence that they had harmful effects on children. Indeed, according to Peter N. Stearns, irrational anxiety of this kind was the hallmark of twentieth-century parenting. Although children were statistically far less likely to die or be orphaned in this period than in ages past, levels of parental anxiety soared. A parade of (mostly male) experts caused parents to question their own child-rearing techniques, even as the popular press whipped up concern about statistically insignificant problems. For example, the century was marked by frequent outbursts of panic that children were being abducted and molested by strangers. In fact, the odds of this happening were tiny; children were far more likely to be abused by their own family members.
As Paula Fass points out, our continued willingness to focus attention on such comparatively rare risks is problematic considering that other more pressing and preventable problems remain unsolved. While the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s struck down segregation, many poor and minority students even now have no choice but to attend under-funded and unsuccessful schools. Politicians who spout rhetoric about “saving the children” are often the very ones who cut money from programs like Head Start or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Poverty and lack of adequate health care, issues that became especially prominent in the 1980s with decreases in government funding, affect millions of children. Globally, many young people are starving, dying of AIDS, or succumbing to preventable diseases. With major crises like these, it seems especially absurd that politicians continue to focus on non-issues like whether or not video games promote violence.
Milestones of Children’s Literature
Despite these problems, the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements of the 1960s and 70s had positive effects on children’s lives, widening options open to them. Changes in children’s literature and culture reflected these gains. A century that began with Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1900), L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz (1900), L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908), and P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins (1934), gave birth to Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret (1970), Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), and, of course, J.K. Rowling’s stories of the boy wizard, Harry Potter.
Two major trends emerged as the century unfolded. First, children’s books more realistically represented and spoke to a more diverse audience, often about previously “taboo” topics, including death, divorce, race, and religion. Gender roles became less suffocating for both sexes, and children of color saw themselves represented in other than stereotypical or condescending ways. Even the Walt Disney Company, known for turning classic folktales into musicals with doe-eyed princesses and blonde prince charmings, began to portray a wider range of characters in films like Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998). Second, authors experimented with language, characterization, and plot. Resisting the tendency to adopt an idealized picture of children as naïve innocents, writers like Roald Dahl, Virginia Hamilton, Jon Scieszka, and Lemony Snicket pushed the envelope with their irreverent, dark, and linguistically sophisticated stories.
Definitions in Flux
Although perhaps not in the way she might have hoped, Ellen Key’s predictions for a “Century of the Child” have come true to an extent, in that most people today fully support programs aimed toward improving children’s lives and helping them to become productive, happy adults. Yet even after centuries of efforts to define and protect childhood, the dividing line between child and adult still seems remarkably fuzzy. Many worry that children in contemporary culture are being pushed into acting like adults too soon, whether by donning make-up and high heels to compete in a beauty contests, or achieving academically from an early age while juggling countless extracurricular activities. At the same time, adults in our youth-obsessed culture take extreme measures—plastic surgery, anorexia—in an effort to appear younger. When does childhood end? What constitutes a family? Should we continue to define childhood in terms of innocence, as our Romantic predecessors did? Is the state doing enough to protect the rights of children, locally and globally? These questions remain as pressing now as they have in ages past.
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. New York: Basic Books, 1992.
Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500. New York: Longman, 1995.
Fass, Paula. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.
Hendrick, Harry. Children, Childhood, and English Society: 1880-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Kline, Stephen. Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing. New York: Verso, 1993.
Mintz, Steven and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: The Free Press/Collier Macmillan, 1988.
Postman, Neil. The Disappearance of the Child. New York: Delacorte P, 1982.
Seiter, Ellen. Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1993.
Sealander, Judith. The Failed Century of the Child: Governing America’s Young in the Twentieth Century. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.
Spigel, Lynn. Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Stearns, Peter N. Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America. New York: New York UP, 2003.
Steedman, Carolyn. Childhood, Culture, and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931. London: Virago, 1990.
Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: HarperCollins, 1985.
Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, picks the 10 best essays of the postwar period. Links to the essays are provided when available.
Fortunately, when I worked with Joyce Carol Oates on The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the last century, by the way), we weren’t restricted to ten selections. So to make my list of the top ten essays since 1950 less impossible, I decided to exclude all the great examples of New Journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Michael Herr, and many others can be reserved for another list. I also decided to include only American writers, so such outstanding English-language essayists as Chris Arthur and Tim Robinson are missing, though they have appeared in The Best American Essays series. And I selected essays, not essayists. A list of the top ten essayists since 1950 would feature some different writers.
To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process--reflecting, trying-out, essaying.
James Baldwin, "Notes of a Native Son" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1955)
“I had never thought of myself as an essayist,” wrote James Baldwin, who was finishing his novel Giovanni’s Room while he worked on what would become one of the great American essays. Against a violent historical background, Baldwin recalls his deeply troubled relationship with his father and explores his growing awareness of himself as a black American. Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency. Langston Hughes nailed it when he described Baldwin’s “illuminating intensity.” The essay was collected in Notes of a Native Son courageously (at the time) published by Beacon Press in 1955.
Norman Mailer, "The White Negro" (originally appeared in Dissent, 1957)
An essay that packed an enormous wallop at the time may make some of us cringe today with its hyperbolic dialectics and hyperventilated metaphysics. But Mailer’s attempt to define the “hipster”–in what reads in part like a prose version of Ginsberg’s “Howl”–is suddenly relevant again, as new essays keep appearing with a similar definitional purpose, though no one would mistake Mailer’s hipster (“a philosophical psychopath”) for the ones we now find in Mailer’s old Brooklyn neighborhoods. Odd, how terms can bounce back into life with an entirely different set of connotations. What might Mailer call the new hipsters? Squares?
Read the essay here.
Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'" (originally appeared in Partisan Review, 1964)
Like Mailer’s “White Negro,” Sontag’s groundbreaking essay was an ambitious attempt to define a modern sensibility, in this case “camp,” a word that was then almost exclusively associated with the gay world. I was familiar with it as an undergraduate, hearing it used often by a set of friends, department store window decorators in Manhattan. Before I heard Sontag—thirty-one, glamorous, dressed entirely in black-- read the essay on publication at a Partisan Review gathering, I had simply interpreted “campy” as an exaggerated style or over-the-top behavior. But after Sontag unpacked the concept, with the help of Oscar Wilde, I began to see the cultural world in a different light. “The whole point of camp,” she writes, “is to dethrone the serious.” Her essay, collected in Against Interpretation (1966), is not in itself an example of camp.
Read the essay here.
John McPhee, "The Search for Marvin Gardens" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1972)
“Go. I roll the dice—a six and a two. Through the air I move my token, the flatiron, to Vermont Avenue, where dog packs range.” And so we move, in this brilliantly conceived essay, from a series of Monopoly games to a decaying Atlantic City, the once renowned resort town that inspired America’s most popular board game. As the games progress and as properties are rapidly snapped up, McPhee juxtaposes the well-known sites on the board—Atlantic Avenue, Park Place—with actual visits to their crumbling locations. He goes to jail, not just in the game but in fact, portraying what life has now become in a city that in better days was a Boardwalk Empire. At essay’s end, he finds the elusive Marvin Gardens. The essay was collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975).
Read the essay here (subscription required).
Joan Didion, "The White Album" (originally appeared in New West, 1979)
Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and the Black Panthers, a recording session with Jim Morrison and the Doors, the San Francisco State riots, the Manson murders—all of these, and much more, figure prominently in Didion’s brilliant mosaic distillation (or phantasmagoric album) of California life in the late 1960s. Yet despite a cast of characters larger than most Hollywood epics, “The White Album” is a highly personal essay, right down to Didion’s report of her psychiatric tests as an outpatient in a Santa Monica hospital in the summer of 1968. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay famously begins, and as it progresses nervously through cuts and flashes of reportage, with transcripts, interviews, and testimonies, we realize that all of our stories are questionable, “the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.” Portions of the essay appeared in installments in 1968-69 but it wasn’t until 1979 that Didion published the complete essay in New West magazine; it then became the lead essay of her book, The White Album (1979).
Annie Dillard, "Total Eclipse" (originally appeared in Antaeus, 1982)
In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.” Her essay “Total Eclipse” easily makes her case for the imaginative power of a genre that is still undervalued as a branch of imaginative literature. “Total Eclipse” has it all—the climactic intensity of short fiction, the interwoven imagery of poetry, and the meditative dynamics of the personal essay: “This was the universe about which we have read so much and never before felt: the universe as a clockwork of loose spheres flung at stupefying, unauthorized speeds.” The essay, which first appeared in Antaeus in 1982 was collected in Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982), a slim volume that ranks among the best essay collections of the past fifty years.
Phillip Lopate, "Against Joie de Vivre" (originally appeared in Ploughshares, 1986)
This is an essay that made me glad I’d started The Best American Essays the year before. I’d been looking for essays that grew out of a vibrant Montaignean spirit—personal essays that were witty, conversational, reflective, confessional, and yet always about something worth discussing. And here was exactly what I’d been looking for. I might have found such writing several decades earlier but in the 80s it was relatively rare; Lopate had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world: “Over the years,” Lopate begins, “I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live.” He goes on to dissect in comic yet astute detail the rituals of the modern dinner party. The essay was selected by Gay Talese for The Best American Essays 1987 and collected in Against Joie de Vivre in 1989.
Read the essay here.
Edward Hoagland, "Heaven and Nature" (originally appeared in Harper’s, 1988)
“The best essayist of my generation,” is how John Updike described Edward Hoagland, who must be one of the most prolific essayists of our time as well. “Essays,” Hoagland wrote, “are how we speak to one another in print—caroming thoughts not merely in order to convey a certain packet of information, but with a special edge or bounce of personal character in a kind of public letter.” I could easily have selected many other Hoagland essays for this list (such as “The Courage of Turtles”), but I’m especially fond of “Heaven and Nature,” which shows Hoagland at his best, balancing the public and private, the well-crafted general observation with the clinching vivid example. The essay, selected by Geoffrey Wolff for The Best American Essays 1989 and collected in Heart’s Desire (1988), is an unforgettable meditation not so much on suicide as on how we remarkably manage to stay alive.
Jo Ann Beard, "The Fourth State of Matter" (originally appeared in The New Yorker, 1996)
A question for nonfiction writing students: When writing a true story based on actual events, how does the narrator create dramatic tension when most readers can be expected to know what happens in the end? To see how skillfully this can be done turn to Jo Ann Beard’s astonishing personal story about a graduate student’s murderous rampage on the University of Iowa campus in 1991. “Plasma is the fourth state of matter,” writes Beard, who worked in the U of I’s physics department at the time of the incident, “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and there’s your plasma. In outer space there’s the plasmasphere and the plasmapause.” Besides plasma, in this emotion-packed essay you will find entangled in all the tension a lovable, dying collie, invasive squirrels, an estranged husband, the seriously disturbed gunman, and his victims, one of them among the author’s dearest friends. Selected by Ian Frazier for The Best American Essays 1997, the essay was collected in Beard’s award-winning volume, The Boys of My Youth (1998).
Read the essay here.
David Foster Wallace, "Consider the Lobster" (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)
They may at first look like magazine articles—those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius. One of David Foster Wallace’s shortest and most essayistic is his “coverage” of the annual Maine Lobster Festival, “Consider the Lobster.” The Festival becomes much more than an occasion to observe “the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker” in action as Wallace poses an uncomfortable question to readers of the upscale food magazine: “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” Don’t gloss over the footnotes. Susan Orlean selected the essay for The Best American Essays 2004 and Wallace collected it in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (2005).
Read the essay here. (Note: the electronic version from Gourmet magazine’s archives differs from the essay that appears in The Best American Essays and in his book, Consider the Lobster.)
I wish I could include twenty more essays but these ten in themselves comprise a wonderful and wide-ranging mini-anthology, one that showcases some of the most outstanding literary voices of our time. Readers who’d like to see more of the best essays since 1950 should take a look at The Best American Essays of the Century (2000).