Kristen Proehl, PhD Candidate
In July and August of 2009, a Friends of the Princeton University Library research grant allowed me to conduct four weeks of archival research for my dissertation project, titled “Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Race and the Tomboy Narrative in American Literature, 1859-1960.” From Jo March to Laura Ingalls, the American tomboy figure has become an icon of modern girlhood and a symbol of female empowerment. My dissertation, the first to investigate the tomboy figure’s ongoing ties to literary sentimentalism, centers upon five women authors: E.D.E.N. Southworth, Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Carson McCullers and Harper Lee. Chapter 1 examines Cap Black, the cross-dressing “newsgirl” protagonist of Southworth’s popular sentimental novel, The Hidden Hand; more specifically, this chapter investigates the ties between Cap’s gender subversion, sentimentalism, urban geography, and non-traditional familial experiences. Chapter 2 analyzes Jo March of Alcott’s Little Women in relation to discourses of poverty, sympathy, and race in the Civil War era. Chapter 3 focuses on Laura Ingalls’s struggles with sympathy amidst the geographical, cultural and historical “landscapes” of the prairie in Wilder’s Little House series, published during the 1930s and 40s. Chapters 4 and 5 consider Southern tomboys, Carson McCullers’s Frankie Addams and Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, who challenge heteronormativity, racial violence and segregationist politics in the twentieth-century South, particularly as they forge sympathetic alliances with other “outsider” figures.
Theoretically informed close readings of these texts will be supported by the archival research I conducted as a fellow at the Princeton University Library last summer. The Cotsen Children’s Library, the Peter J. Eckel Newsboy collection, and other collections of rare books and manuscripts at Princeton, allowed me to explore the visual, textual and even musical “worlds” of the tomboy figure. I strengthened the project considerably by considering under-examined representations of tomboyism in western-themed dime novels, Children’s Aid Society periodicals, popular children’s books and magazines, Civil War era sheet music, and photographs of early twentieth-century New York City “newsgirls.”
More specifically, the Peter J. Eckel Newsboy Collection lead me to consider Southworth’s tomboy figure and “newsgirl,” Cap Black, in the context of the proliferation of “newsboy narratives” in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. I examined fictional newsboy narratives, such as dime novels, stories in children’s magazines and novels, as well as non-fictional narratives and reports, such as Father Dunne’s Newsboy’s Home or Child Workers on City Streets. While I was not particularly surprised to discover that newsboy stories influenced Southworth’s authorship of The Hidden Hand, I was surprised to find that Southworth’s novel appears to have inspired later nineteenth-century “newsgirl” narratives. My research at Princeton convinced me that the emergence of the tomboy narrative in the mid-nineteenth century is inextricably tied to the development of the equally ubiquitous newsboy narrative. In the coming year, I hope develop an article that explores the relationship between tomboy and newsboy figures in more depth.
The Cotsen Children’s Library collection allowed me to examine several original and out-of-print editions of tomboy narratives, as well as other relevant early American children’s literature. For instance, I examined multiple editions of children’s books of manners, games and advice, such as Lydia Maria Child’s The Girls Own Book (1833) and S. Babbock’s Juvenile Pastimes (1849). In so doing, I was better able to contextualize how play was gendered in the nineteenth century, which informed my discussion of the emergence of tomboy figures in the mid-nineteenth century. Drawing from yet another collection, the Archives of Story Magazine, I benefited from the opportunity to examine a copy-edited draft of one of Carson McCullers’s earliest short stories, “Like That,” which is her first (and, until recently, unpublished) tomboy narrative.
In sum, my research trip was highly productive, thoroughly enriched my understanding and analysis of the tomboy figure in American culture, and played a critical role in the final stages of my dissertation project. I am especially grateful to the fellowship committee and the Friends of the Princeton Library for their support of my research proposal. Throughout my stay Princeton University, Andrea Immel and Aaron Pickett offered insightful research guidance, advice, and stimulating discussion about children’s literature. I would also like to thank Linda Oliveira, AnnaLee Pauls, and the reading room staff for their exceptional patience, helpfulness, and expertise.