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Andrew O'Malley Releases New Book 'Literary Cultures and Eighteenth-Century Childhoods'

March 13, 2019

In 2018 English Department Chair, Andrew O'Malley, released a book of collected essays by scholars discussing the relationship between children and literature in the eighteenth century, Literary Cultures and Eighteenth-Century Childhoods, external link

Describe your edited collection: Literary Cultures and Eighteenth-Century Childhoods.

I was asked to edit this volume about four years ago, by Lynne Vallone at Rutgers University, who is the series editor for the five-volume “Literary Cultures and Childhoods” series of which my volume is a part of. Each volume covers a different period, looking at not only children’s literature, but how childhood as a trope or idea circulates in the broader literary culture of the period. The idea was to extend the conversations around books for children into other kinds of discourse in which either the real or imagined child features prominently. The eighteenth century was a real watershed moment for the development of both ideas of and practices around childhood, and the main goal of the volume is to demonstrate the extent to which this was the case.

Why did the childhood trope become a subject of intensified interest in the eighteenth-century?

Big question! There are a lot of contributing factors: the rise of a middle class with greater disposable income to spend on children; dropping infant mortality rates; higher literacy rates – these are some of the standard social and material conditions recited in histories of childhood. But for me, a key change is what childhood comes to represent in the period, especially toward the end of the century. The Enlightenment ethos of progress and improvement, the idea that the future represented the potential for radical, positive change, made childhood a particularly important site symbolically and in practice. The child came to embody the idea of futurity itself. At the same time, with this turn toward a sense of modernity came a strong sense of loss – often articulated through the effect of nostalgia – over a simpler time that was receding in the face of tremendous social and technological change. Here again, the child became a valuable trope for expressing a sense of lost spontaneity and authenticity and ‘nature’ in the wake of such change. The child managed to embody, paradoxically, both the future and the past.

What lead you to work as an editor/writer on this essay collection? What was your research, writing, and editing process/experience like?

I had written two monographs on historical childhood and children’s literature, along with a number of articles, and I was approached on the basis of this previous work. I had never done any kind of editing work before, except of my own writing and of that of colleagues and friends in an informal way. Hopefully my lack of experience in this area is not too obvious in the volume!

How does the interdisciplinary background of this edited essay collection further the topic?

Too often academic work goes on in disciplinary silos, with research that could be really exciting for another field not always reaching that audience. This effect is compounded in what is now referred to as ‘child studies’ or ‘childhood studies’, because any area of academic research that takes up texts, experiences, or artefacts relating to childhood has tended automatically to be labelled (by the academy at large and by our culture generally) as less-than-serious. But those silos – between disciplines and between childhood subjects and ‘serious’ adult subjects – are wholly artificial; indeed they weren’t particularly recognized in the period the volume covers, as most of the major political, scientific, and philosophical writers of the period were very comfortable writing across disciplines and ages.

Did your previous works (The Making of the Modern Child: Children’s Literature and Childhood in the Late Eighteenth Century and Children’s Literature, Popular Culture, and Robinson Crusoe) inspire and shape this most recent publication? If so, how?

It certainly did, even though I tried not to pre-shape my ideas about what the volume should contain. My own earlier work in the field has tried to take an interdisciplinary approach, so that remained a commitment with this volume, but I really tried to cast a very wide net and get as many new takes on the subject as possible.

How does researching the variety of literary cultures (e.g. novels, poetry, personal letters, periodicals...) showcase the ideology of childhood and young readers in the eighteenth-century?

Well, first and foremost, it makes clear the extent to which the child and the idea of childhood had permeated many if not most of the period’s literary cultures and discourses. The period saw an amazing proliferation of writing for children in many different genres, not just fiction and poetry. It was also fascinated with ideas of origins: where does poetry come from? Or language? Or law and social arrangements? All of these questions tended to look to ideas of childhood for their answers because the child had become a kind of ‘originary’ myth unto itself: it embodied the idea of beginnings.

How does this essay collection further the research opportunities for those who want to learn more about the eighteenth-century childhood in terms of literary cultures?

In my introduction, I tried to make clear the limitations of the volume; I recognize there were a lot of areas that should have been covered but weren’t, in large part because I was unable to find contributors who could (or were available) to write about those topics. For example, I would have loved to have included essays about Indigenous childhoods (or Indigeneity and childhood), childhoods in lower-class or plebeian literary cultures, American literary cultures of childhood, and others. If anything, I hope the book sparks more conversations in areas that have been understudies and childhoods that have been underrepresented – I hope future work fills in gaps I was not able to address with this volume.