California State University Long Beach, Department of History
"Never will I ill use a dumb animal, or tamely see another do it": Modeling Proper Spectatorship and Feeling in Early Nineteenth-Century Children's Literature
This paper explores how relationships between children and animals were conceived in early nineteenth century America by concentrating upon the ways children's literature, in words and in pictures, encouraged proper ways of seeing, interacting with and thinking about non-human animals.
Proper spectatorship was a specific concern of many children's books, which drew a distinction between legitimate and problematic displays of animals, between exhibitions of exotic creatures that provided "instructive amusement" and those animal acts that did not. These texts reinforced the educational and moral lessons of natural history while castigating the circus and other animal acts for attracting an "idle and worthless" audience.
Many of these children's books also condemned animal exhibitions for the cruelty supposedly involved. English writer Priscilla Wakefield most clearly articulated this critique when she attacked proprietors of performing animals for the "cruel discipline" used to produce these "ridiculous accomplishments." Other English works reprinted in America, along with native works condemning cruelty to pets, livestock and birds, serve to highlight the transatlantic circulation and creation of a culture of sentiment that was central to emerging conceptions of childhood.
In addition to furthering our understanding of the visual and textual worlds of children in America, this paper also calls attention to the broader role of ideas about animals in early nineteenth century culture. For these debates about proper spectatorship and feeling reveal other significant transformations in American culture—including the segmentation of American audiences, the division of culture into high and low, and the place of ideas about animals in defining the individual, social groups and the nation—while both reflecting and helping to produce the modern divide between humans as subjects and animals as objects.
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