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Courtney A. Weikle-Mills
University of Pittsburgh

‘How Art Thou Affected, Poor Child, in the Reading of this Book?’: Cotton Mather’s Children’s Books and the Making of Closet Readers

    Even though the phrases “skeletons in the closet” and “coming out of the closet” did not become widespread until the mid-twentieth century, the closet—signifying both a “secret place in the house” (English Secretary, 1625) and the interior recesses of the heart—has long been a space that orients private activities and identities to public scrutiny and purpose. This paper focuses on a moment closer to the beginning of the closet’s history of concealment, publication, and exposure. In 1705, Cotton Mather presented a set of reading practices, which he called “the religion of the closet,” to a new class of readers perfectly sized to fit the closet’s diminutive sphere: children. Using Mather’s frequently reprinted children’s classic, A Token for the Children of New England (1700), as well as his lesser-known children’s sermons and manuals, I argue that he imagines the child reader as a figure through which to conceive the very process of forming and maintaining a “closeted self,” at once autonomous and individualized, and fundamentally contained and shaped by social expectations.
While the reading of the closet is unsupervised, and therefore contains a surprising amount of room for child readers’ improvisations on pious behaviors, the emerging technology of print (which Mather explored relentlessly in his over 400 pamphlets and tracts) provided him with a way to simultaneously mark and trespass the boundaries of this closet self by scripting its primary emotional expressions. As the most intensive site of self-fashioning, childhood became an effective locus for Mather’s larger project of merging patriarchal social expectations with a new focus on individuality, allowing further links between autonomy, hierarchy, and social control. What is more, because task of shaping one’s identity to fit social hierarchies was ideally a sustained process, the image of the closet child reader lends Mather metaphors through which to imagine ways of reading that apply to readers beyond the boundaries of youth, creating “childishness” as a feature of eighteenth-century American readership.

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