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Seth Cotlar
Willamette University

“When I was your age….”: Nostalgic Representations of the Recent Past in the American Children’s Literature of the 1830s and 1840s

  In this paper I propose to explore how the American children’s literature of the 1830s and 1840s discussed the recent past, and more specifically how it made sense of the changing nature of work and technology in the era of the market revolution.  This literature--with its wistful tales of work parties to the sugar maples, memories of humming spinning wheels, lovingly crafted accounts of starting a fire in an open hearth fireplace, and other such stories about rapidly disappearing forms of work and technology—was, to a hitherto unrecognized extent, a melancholic literature of exile in which adult authors articulated a profound sense of temporal dislocation.  While children’s authors such as Samuel Goodrich (the primary focus of my research to this point) usually painted an optimistic picture of the future, their work also included many nostalgic lamentations for a past that was simultaneously appealing and irretrievably gone.  It is no coincidence that the nostalgic sentiments in these children’s stories almost always fixated on objects of material culture and forms of work that had been associated with household production and which had been rendered recently obsolete by the expansion of the market economy.  Such stories exemplify the extent to which the children’s literature of the ante-bellum era provided a space in which adult authors articulated a newly intensified sense of generational alienation that was a by-product of the particularly rapid economic and technological transformations of their age.  While today we are accustomed to the fact that each new generation will inhabit a material world profoundly different from that in which their parents were socialized, one could argue that the generation of the 1830s and 40s was one of the first to experience this phenomenon. As economic historian Stuart Bruchy has argued, 1815 was the high water mark of the household economy, yet by the 1840s that mode of production had been eclipsed by a more market-oriented system in which more and more goods were produced outside of the home.  This economic transformation had profound effects on the work that children did within the home and the material objects that they were surrounded with.  To the young readers of children’s literature, of course, this expanding world of the market was not new, but was rather the only way of being they knew.  The nostalgic facets of the stories they read, however, pushed them to consider important questions of historical change.  What were they to make of the “old-fashioned” (a term that first came into widespread popular usage at this historical moment) objects and modes of work they saw around them?  Were they symbols of a beneficently superceded past, or were they to be treasured as artifacts of a more virtuous era populated by people (perhaps like their parents or grandparents?) who were to be valued for how unsuited they were to the present age?  More broadly, how did stories of “the old days” teach the rising generation what it meant to live in a modern world of the incessantly new?  It is the paradoxical nature of antebellum children’s literature that is of most interest to me—the ways in which it simultaneously embraced an ever changing present yet also mourned the passing of the old.


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