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Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke's "Childhood" is included in his collection Das Buch der Bilder, first published in 1902. Various writers have translated the volume as "The Book of Images" or "The Book of Pictures." The poem can also be found in Robert Bly's collection of translations, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. The Book of Images was published just after The Book of Hours and just before New Poems and marks a shift in Rilke's poetic development toward more imagistic, slightly less sentimental verse. Written in thirty-three lines of rhymed iambic pentameter verse and fit into four irregular stanzas, "Childhood" addresses loneliness and the passage of time, typical subjects for Rilke, who spent his life attempting to describe the effects of time's onslaught. Rilke wrote a number of poems about childhood, including "Duration of Childhood" and "The Child." All of these poems express feelings of wonder and bafflement and grapple with the puzzle of human existence. Childhood was a difficult time for Rilke. He was an effeminate and fragile child, and not at all cut out for the military schools to which his father sent him. Many of the images of childhood in his poems are dramatizations of his own memories.

Author Biography

Born December 4, 1875, in Prague, Austria, Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke was the only child of Josef Rilke, a minor railway official, and Sophie Entz Rilke. In 1897, Rilke changed his name to Rainer Maria Rilke. By most accounts, he had an unhappy childhood, raised by parents who were mired in an unhappy marriage. Rilke was educated at military boarding schools and, later, studied philosophy for a short time at Prague's Charles-Ferdinand University. His real education, however, came after he left Prague. In Munich, he socialized with the city's literati, published two poetry collections, and staged a few of his plays. In Venice, he met Lou Andreas-Salome, an intellectual more than a decade older than Rilke, who had a strong influence on many of Europe's writers and artists, including Freidrich Nietzsche. Andreas-Salome became Rilke's lover for a short time, accompanied him on his travels throughout Europe and Russia, and had a lasting influence on his thinking and work.

Raised Roman Catholic, Rilke was obsessed with religious questions, though he eschewed conventional religious thinking. He believed the human condition was essentially that of aloneness and that human beings could access God the most when they were alone. Because his early poems attempted to describe the contours of his own consciousness, they were often abstract and largely unsuccessful. However, once Rilke began studying the visual arts and learning the ways in which painters created effects, his poetry changed. The first book that began showing these changes was Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Images) published in 1902. In poems such as "Childhood," Rilke uses finely honed language and focused similes to depict universal experiences.

Ril ke's style changed even more after serving as secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin in Paris from 1905–1906. In place of the often abstract and sentimental verse he had been writing, he began writing poems that described concrete subjects in symbolic yet detailed terms, and his poems took on a more chiseled, tightly structured quality. He called these compositions "thing poems" and published a collection of them titled New Poems (1907). Following the publication of New Poems, Rilke began an itinerant existence over the next seven years, traveling to more than fifty different places, including North Africa, Paris, Egypt, Berlin, Spain (Toledo), and Duino (between Venice and Triest), where, as the guest of Princess Marie Tour en Taxis, he began writing what became The Duino Elegies (1923), the best-known and most celebrated of his works.

In addition to The Duino Elegies, Rilke's most popular and enduring works include The Book of Hours (1905), Sonnets to Orpheus (1923), the novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1930), and Letters to a Young Poet (1929), a collection of advice in the form of letters. After a lifetime spent battling various ailments, Rilke died of leukemia on December 29, 1926, in Montreaux, Switzerland.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

Poem Summary

Stanza 1

"Childhood" begins with the speaker addressing a child who is in school, describing the child's feelings of boredom, loneliness, and alienation from other children. Adopting the language of a typical school boy's view of the world, the speaker says, "Time in school drags along with so much worry / and waiting, things so dumb and stupid." The speaker contrasts this negative representation of school with the joy the child feels after school. When school lets out, the boy is free, the world now expansive and inviting. These feelings are illustrated in the images of leaping fountains and mysterious "woody places." However, even in his newfound freedom, the boy still feels odd, different from others. This difference is illustrated in the image of him walking oddly.

Stanza 2

In this stanza, the speaker foregrounds his point of view as someone looking back on childhood. He compares the "terror" of childhood with the "trust" of adulthood, as evoked in the images of men and women, a house and a dog, and both marvels at and grieves the change. Even though the poem is written from a third-person point of view and attempts to characterize the child's changing view of the world, the narrator is clearly present and makes his feelings known.

Stanza 3

The poem returns to images of childhood, this time to the boy playing at dusk, "as the light fades away." The "green place" is a descriptive metaphor for a park or a lawn. As dusk settles, an adult—most likely a parent—grabs the hand of the boy and leads him away. The "oceanic vision that is fading" can refer to both the boy's disappointment at having to stop playing, and the speaker's sense of loss and pain in remembering his boyhood. The progression of the events in this stanza are typical of the events of a child's day.

Stanza 4

In this last stanza, the speaker compares fading childhood to the sailboat the child is playing with that sinks. The imagery here is dreamlike, underscoring the confusion of a child's mind and the place of memory itself. The "sails more beautiful / than yours" suggests people more beautiful and lives more beautiful than the child's and the narrator's. The "pale / narrow face" is the face of the child himself, and his puzzling about the future is also the speaker's mourning about the past. The poem ends with the child wondering where childhood will lead him.

Media Adaptations

  • Rilke: Selected Poems (1998) is an audiocassette published by Audio Literature. It features Stephen Mitchell reading Rilke's poems.
  • Para Theatrical ReSearch produced Requiem for a Friend (1991), a VideoPoem/Docudrama by Antero Alli, based on the Stephen Mitchell translation of a Rilke poem.



Rilke studied art history and was a lifelong lover of the visual arts, writing essays on sculptors and impressionist painters, living at a colony for painters, and even marrying a sculptor. In The Book of Images, he tried to create the verbal equivalent to a gallery full of paintings. In "Childhood," he uses imagery in much the same way as painters do. For example, he uses successive images of the child being anxious, then happy, and then mournful to illustrate the rapid emotional changes that occur in childhood. In the foreground are the child's experiences, and in the background is the speaker's commentary on those experiences. Just as a painter uses the technique of chiaroscuro to produce the illusion of depth, Rilke uses images of light and darkness to evoke emotional volatility and psychological depth.


For Rilke, memory is a tool used to unlock the mystery of human existence. The speaker alternates between describing the child's reactions to his surroundings with making statements commenting on those reactions. At the end of the third stanza, after describing the child playing and then being led home by an adult, the speaker writes, "Such oceanic vision that is fading, / such a constant worry, such weight." Statements such as these describe the state of mind of the adult speaker as much as they describe the state of mind of the child. The child is a younger version of Rilke himself, and by describing the child's confusion and feelings of alienation Rilke is, in fact, describing his own ongoing experiences of the same. In this way, he presents the relentless demands of memory as an affliction that the poet must exorcise and exercise.

Topics For Further Study

  • Rilke is a poet of memory and often seems obsessed with his personal past, especially his childhood. Describe at least two powerfully emotional incidents from your childhood in which one or both of your parents played a part. Use as much detail as possible. Then, ask your parents to describe the incidents. How does your memory of events differ from theirs? Write a short essay accounting for the difference.
  • In groups, brainstorm a list of adjectives and images you believe represent your experience as a child and then compose a poem using as many of these words as possible. Take turns reading the poem aloud to the class.
  • In groups, translate Rilke's poem literally, word for word, and then compare your translation with Bly's translation. Discuss the choices Bly made and the reasons why he might have made them. What does this exercise tell you about the practice of translating poetry?
  • As a class, use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast childhood and adulthood. Note the differences that most surprise you and discuss them as a class.
  • Rilke wrote "Childhood" after spending time at the artist colony at Worpswede, and some critics claim he uses words the way painters use paint. In groups, compose a visual representation of Rilke's poem using paint, crayons, markers, images from magazines, and any other appropriate materials. Present your compositions to the class, explaining the choices you made. Post the work in the classroom, gallery style.
  • Rilke was very self-conscious, both in his poetry and in his interactions with others. Practice seeing as Rilke did by sitting still for a half hour and concentrating on one object. In writing, describe both that object and the emotions you experienced looking at it. Read the description to your class and have classmates ask you questions about your description, with the goal of helping them to experience it more powerfully.


Although the child dreads the prison-like atmosphere of school and celebrates his freedom when the school days end by playing tag with others, he feels alone and is aware of how different he is from other children. This condition of otherness is a theme that runs throughout Rilke's poem and one he links to loneliness. Rilke evokes the feeling of loneliness both in imagery and statement. For example, in the second stanza, the adult speaker reflects on the child's being suddenly thrown into the adult world, lamenting, "What crazy mourning, what dream, what heaviness, / what deepness without end." In the last stanza, the boy, playing with a sailboat, worries about other boats that are better than his and contemplates the meaning of his life while gazing into a pond.



Rilke describes emotions in this poem impressionistically. Impressionism seeks to depict scenes or characters by using concrete details to evoke subjective and sensory impressions, rather than to accurately depict an objective reality. For example, Rilke refers to the experience of the child's unbearable waiting for the school day to end as "lumpish time," and the place where he plays after school ends as "some green place." Writers who helped popularize impressionistic writing include Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce.


By using contrasting images and emotions, Rilke underscores the torment and fear that come with childhood. In one stanza, the child is lonely, bored, and anxious, but, in the next, he is full of light and life. In one stanza, he is terrified by the world he sees and then comforted by the sight of adults, a house, and a dog. Juxtaposing these emotions allows Rilke to get at the heart of his experience as a child and to show how the experience remains fresh in the adult speaker's mind.


Rilke uses a variety of sonic techniques to create his impressionistic effects. He uses alliteration in phrases such as "Dumpfen dingen" ("things so dumb and stupid") and "Welt so weit" ("world … so huge") to emphasize the imagery, and he uses assonance in phrases such as "kleinen steifen" ("small / puppety") and "O Traum, o Grauen" ("what dream, what heaviness") to focus the reader's attention on the emotion packed in the images.

Historical Context

Early Twentieth Century

In 1900, Rilke, disgusted by the industrialization of Europe's cities and the waning of communal life, traveled to Russia for the second time, with his friend Lou Andreas-Salome. There, he met writer Leo Tolstoy and attended numerous Russian religious services that, in their rituals and passion, instilled in Rilke a sense of the divine in humanity. Rilke was especially taken by the Russian peasants' conception of God, whom they saw not only in one another but also in everyday objects and even animals. Upon returning to Europe, Rilke joined an artists' colony in Worpswede, near Bremen, Germany, where he met his future wife, sculptor Clara Westhoff, and painter Paula Becker, who became a very close friend. At Worpswede, Rilke, already a student of art history, participated in discussions of art and philosophy and solidified his devotion to writing and his sense of himself as an artist. In his poems during this period, he attempted to use "painterly" techniques.

In 1902, when The Book of Images, which includes "Childhood," was published, Rilke traveled to Paris, commissioned to write a monograph about the sculptor Auguste Rodin. He was chosen to write the monograph because of his relationship to Westhoff, who was a student of Rodin's. Rodin had established a reputation as one of Europe's greatest artists, revolutionizing sculpture and modernizing it. In 1900, Rodin held a retrospective of his life's work at the Universal Exposition in Paris. In addition to Rodin's work, the Exposition, which was visited by more than fifty million people, featured the work of many artists associated with Art Nouveau, which was fast becoming the dominant style for urban architects and designers. Art Nouveau championed a return to nature and to the rural traditions of arts and crafts and rejected the academic and cerebral. Rodin's work habits and his emphasis on the materiality of his art greatly influenced Rilke, who began to rely more on discipline than inspiration for his writing, and who began crafting poems as tightly structured linguistic objects that drew attention to the words themselves as much as what they signified.

In European intellectual circles during this time, people increasingly discussed the theories of Sigmund Freud, who had published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life in 1901. Freud's explanation of dreams—where they come from, and how they work—made the concept of the unconscious subject matter for thinkers and artists throughout the twentieth century and influenced Rilke's own thinking about his childhood. In treating his patients, Freud noted that the topic of childhood seduction came up regularly. It was the repression of the individual's childhood desires—a son for his mother, a daughter for her father—that developed into neurotic symptoms in adulthood, Freud argued. Childhood was also the subject of the bestselling children's book of all time, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, authored by Beatrix Potter and published in 1902.

Rilke struggled financially during this time and restlessly traveled throughout Europe, to Worp-swede, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany, and back to Paris, searching for a place that could accommodate both his need to write and his desire for authenticity in human interactions.

Critical Overview

Although "Childhood" is a frequently anthologized Rilke poem because of its accessibility and subject matter, very little criticism has been written on it or The Book of Images. Edward Snow, who has translated the volume in its entirety, claims in his introduction that this is because of the collection's "scattered, hybrid quality, which makes generalizing about it so difficult." The collection itself appeared twice, once in 1902 and again in 1906, in a much-expanded version. Although Snow notes that many of the poems are rough and do not live up to Rilke's later work, he claims, "In the most brilliant of the poems in The Book of Images … Rilke is uncannily confident from the first."

Writing on Rilke in European Writers, James Rolleston points out the significance of the collection in Rilke's development as an artist, noting that it "illuminates the continuity of Rilke's maturing process." Critic Frank Wood agrees. In his study of Rilke's poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Ring of Forms, Wood claims the collection marks a transitional phase in Rilke's poetry. Comparing The Book of Images to The Book of Hours, written around the same time, Wood says, "[The Book of Images] contains some … really superb poems…. we are atleast aware that a poet, and not a stylized monk, is speaking."


Chris Semansky

Semansky's essays and reviews appear regularly in journals and newspapers. In this essay, Semansky considers the tone of Rilke's poem and its relation to his other poems on childhood.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1900–1910: In 1900, Freud publishes The Interpretation of Dreams, which attempts to explain phenomena such as sexuality and abnormal desires.
    Today: Freud remains popular, though many of his theories have been discredited.
  • 1900–1910: The December 1900 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal predicts that exercise will become compulsory in schools and that by the year 2000 those who cannot walk ten miles a day will be considered weaklings.
    Today: Obesity is a major health problem in both Western Europe and the Untied States, as people eat more and exercise less.
  • 1900–1910: German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who proclaimed "God is dead" and whose ideas influenced Hitler, dies.
    Today: Nietzsche's ideas continue to influence philosophers and social theorists throughout the world.

Rilke was obsessed with loss, with the presence of death in life. His writing is invariably dark, sad, elegiac. Elegies are laments written for the dead. However, Rilke's mourning was not limited to the dead. As someone who paid minute attention to the nuances of his own feelings, perceptions, and changes, Rilke also mourned the loss(es) of his previous selves. "Childhood" is representative in tone and theme of Rilke's poetry, as it laments both childhood and the passing of childhood.

It is impossible not to associate Rilke with the child in the poem. Rilke's own troubled childhood was fodder for so much of his writing. He insisted that it was only by being alone that one could truly be an artist, and Rilke made a life out of being alone. Like the child in the poem, who is engulfed in tortuously slow "lumpish time," waiting for his liberation from school, Rilke seemed to live waiting for his own death, chronicling the road to his impending demise. Time is the stuff that the poet swam in, the measuring stick he used to gauge his relationship to death, thus the speaker's repeated evocation of time throughout the poem.

It is normal for children to be attuned to time while in school. Their days are structured in periods, and the school day begins and ends at a certain hour. Enduring those hours, however, is often difficult, especially if the child already feels out of place in school, which Rilke did. In this sense, the time of childhood for Rilke stands in for the span of one's entire life, which has to be endured, witnessed daily. It is this witnessing of the body's inability to stop time's passing that causes the speaker to cry out, "Such marvelous time, such time passing on, / such loneliness." Time is "marvelous" because it is that which changes people and, without it, existence would be impossible. In this sense, the poet celebrates the passage of time, as he also mourns it.

Rilke is a different kind of witness. His vision goes deep into a thing, a moment, a memory, until he is able to distill its essence and characterize it in all of its complexities and intricacies. His style is so unique that critics often refer to a certain kind of lyric poem as "Rilkean," which means that it is often relentlessly self-conscious and that its insights are usually psychological. Knowing himself required constant witnessing to his past, and by choosing to represent his childhood in densely pictorial terms, Rilke is able to illustrate not only the jumble of conflicting emotions he experienced as a child but the continuing jumble of conflicting emotions he experienced as an adult. He evokes the sense of distance by repeatedly drawing attention to the difference between the child's inner and outer worlds—the frustration and anxiety he endures while in school and the joy he feels when out in the garden playing tag. The distance between the world of the adult speaker and the world of the child parallels the distance between the inner and outer worlds the child experiences.

As an impressionistic representation of his own childhood, the poem captures the complexities of growing up Rilke. The poet often described his childhood in less than flattering terms, noting that his mother sheltered him from others and so deferred his socialization and that his parents held each other in icy regard and eventually separated during his childhood. As an only child in Prague—a city rife with tensions between Czechs and Germans—Rilke was already an outsider. School simply increased his sense of alienation from others. In his biography of the poet, Rilke: A Life, Wolfgang Leppmann argues that for Rilke, coming to terms with his childhood was "one of the driving forces behind his literary production."

The drive to understand his childhood led Rilke to write numerous poems on the subject, and not surprisingly these poems sometimes reference one another. For example, a poem from his collection New Poems, also titled "Childhood," seems to directly address Rilke's attempt in The Book of Images to name the experience of childhood:

It would be good to give much thought, before
you try to find words for something so lost,
for those long childhood afternoons you knew
that vanished so completely—and why?

Just as Rilke addresses his childhood self in the earlier poem, so too he addresses a later incarnation of his self in this poem, creating a kind of poetic feedback loop that, potentially, can go on forever, or at least until he dies. Rilke stands out in modern poetry as a writer who elevated the self to an almost divine status and who took the darker side of his emotional life as the primary subject for his poems.

Rilke's obsession with the self and its permutations through time is in large part a result of his feeling of homelessness. A lifetime wanderer, he would spend a year in one place, a week in another, a month here or there. When he was not renting a cheap room in a run-down section of a city such as Paris, he would stay with wealthy patrons, often women. Place for Rilke was an interior space, populated by memories and a powerful desire to know himself. Geographically unmoored, Rilke sought stability in his dedication to his art.

Sometimes Rilke's excessive enthusiasm for self-knowledge intrudes into his poems, diluting their imagistic power. This happens in the "Childhood" of The Book of Images, where the narrator comments on the child's perceptions. By doing this, he makes explicit the speaker's presence and point of view toward the child. A more successful, though less anthologized, poem from The Book of Images, also on the subject of childhood, is "From a Childhood." In this much shorter poem, Rilke stays true to his desire to create a verbal snapshot of an event.

The darkness was a richness in the room
where the boy sat, hidden, by himself.
And when the mother entered, as in a dream,
a thin glass trembled on the silent shelf.
She felt as if the room had betrayed her, but
she kissed her boy and murmured: Are you here?
Then both glanced shyly at the dark clavier,
for often in the evening she would sing
a song in which the child was strangely caught.
He sat so quietly, his gaze bent low
upon her hands, weighed down with heavy rings,
moving along the white keys as men go
heavily through the deep drifts of snow.

In this poem, there is no editorializing speaker punctuating the description. The images themselves tell readers everything they need to know about the relationship between the child and his mother. The last image of the poem, in which the boy plays with his sailboat and gazes into the pond, evokes a reality beyond that which one normally sees. Such an image is used to fuse the experience of the poet's inner self with his outer world. Poets rely on association and intuition, rather than rational thought processes to evoke meaning and emotion. The surrealists refined the use of the deep image, and it gained popularity again in the 1960s in the poetry of Robert Bly, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and William Stafford. Not surprisingly, most of these poets have translated Rilke, "updating" his work for the late twentieth-century sensibility.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on "Childhood," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.

Frank Pool

Pool is a published poet and reviewer and teaches advanced placement and international baccalaureate English. In this essay, Pool compares Rilke to impressionist painters and discusses problems of poetry in translation.

Rilke's poem "Childhood" appears in a collection that can be translated in English as The Book of Images, or, in an alternative translation, as The Book of Pictures. This collection was published twice, first in 1902 and later in an expanded version in 1906. As Edward Snow writes in his translation of Rilke's The Book of Images, the poems in this volume "tend to epitomize what it means to characterize … a mood, a stance, a cadence, a quality of voice, a way of looking" as typical of the poet. This poem is one of many images in the book; it is an image of childhood, looked upon from the perspective adulthood. It is a reflection in later life on powerful emotions from the poet's childhood and is similar to the work of such romantic poets as William Wordsworth. "Childhood" is a period piece about Rilke's childhood, and it participates in the impressionist movement that Rilke, under the influence of Parisian art and the sculptor Rodin, took part in during this time.

The impressionists were a group of artists in France and Germany near the end of the nineteenth century. The movement derives its name from the artistic movement founded by Monet with his painting called "Impression: Sunrise." With the advent of photography, artistic realism seemed to have been superseded by technology. The impressionists created an art in which light and colors dominated the canvas. Lines between forms were less distinct than before and, in fact, took on a blurry kind of existence. With respect to writers, impressionism made itself felt partly as poets began to explore the sensuality and eroticism of the unconscious. They also used words charged with sensory impressions, something Robert Bly in his translation of "Childhood" expresses in English as "lights and colors and noises; / water leaps out of fountains into the air, / and the world is so huge in the woody places."

A major key to understanding the intent of the poem lies in the German word bild, which means not only a literal picture, portrait, or visual representation but also an image as metaphor that points beyond itself. Snow says, "bilder in this sense can populate the visual realm with traces, invisible connections, imaginings, remembrances, intimations of things lost or unrealized, waiting to be recalled or brought (back) to life." It is as an image of a lost childhood, dually and simultaneously typical and unique, that this poem appears.

The poem begins with a confusion of opposites, with the first three lines expressing the boredom and ennui that even good students sometimes feel about school. Then, there is a sudden shift, and there is action, colors, noises, and the blooming, buzzing eruption and enlargement of the world that a child leaving the classroom and going out to play experiences.

Rilke alternates between narration and meditation in each stanza. He presents impressions of color and light, much as an impressionist painter might. Such lines as "children's bright colors make them stand out" and "in some green place as the light fades away" suggest the verbal equivalent of a painting. Yet, Rilke concludes each stanza, in a sort of parallel structure, with meditation on the images. Bly's translation works to be colloquial in modern English, but it neglects some of the explicit parallelism of the German, a parallelism that is caught in other translations.

Ultimately, a serious student of poetry in translation must make some effort to see what the poem must say either in the original or by comparing various translations to see what each of them seems to capture and how the translations diverge. With Rilke, the comparison is relatively easy because there are many translations of his work. Why do different translators continue to visit and revisit Rilke? As William H. Gass says in his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, many translators have

… blunted their skills against his obdurate, complex, and compacted poems, poems displaying an orator's theatrical power, while remaining as suited to a chamber and its music as a harpsichord: made of plucked tough sounds, yet as rapid and light and fragile as fountain water.

In looking at the Bly translation and comparing it to the original, one fact stands out: Rilke's poem rhymes, and Bly's translation does not. Some translators of Rilke try to preserve the rhyme. Leishman produces rhymed translation, while Snow does not. Bly, in his Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, thoughtfully provides the German original on facing pages, as does Snow in his translation of The Book of Images. Looking at the German, even if one does not fully understand the language, can help one see the structures and repetitions in the original with which any translator must struggle.

In the original German, the poem's unification is enhanced by use of the interjection "O" plus a noun, repeated several times at the end of each of the four stanzas. The reader is forced to look at these nouns to see how they apply to the general theme of childhood. These combinations have positive, negative, or neutral connotations. For example, "Such marvelous time, such time passing on, / such loneliness" presents an immediate contrast at the end of the first stanza. In general, these parallel structures tend toward a sense of melancholy and gravity. Such words as "loneliness," "heaviness," "deepness," "worry," and "weight" express the poet's meditations on the images of childhood. It turns out that the meditations are much more somber than the images are. Perhaps Rilke reflects on childhood in tranquility, but he does not do so without anxiety.

In Bly's translation, he replaces the word "O," a word conspicuously absent in current American usage, with a variety of terms, such as "such," and "what" and, in both the first and last stanza, the less-elevated "oh." Bly's alterations of Rilke's original use of the "O" forms syntactical structures that are more pleasing to the contemporary ear, yet the parallelism that is evident in the original, as well as in Leishman's and Snow's translations, gets weakened in Bly's. Different readers may have diverse responses to Bly's translation; some readers enjoy Rilke's mastery of rhyme and structure, whereas others may find it too different from modern poetry to enjoy.

Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet,

… even if you were in a prison whose walls allowed none of the sounds of the world to reach your senses, would you not still have always your childhood, that precious, royal richness, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention there.

In this poem, it is not immediately clear whether childhood is a happy time period for Rilke. There are certainly idyllic moments in this poem. The sudden release of a child from school, the joys of parks and games of tag, and dogs and sailboats all seem to be perfect images of an idealized childhood. Indeed, these images seem to be metaphors for a safe, orderly, self-satisfied life. Yet Rilke is far from satisfied. Childhood recedes from him, eternally and inexorably. His last two lines say (in Bly's translation) "oh childhood, what was us going away / going where? Where?" Snow translates the same conclusion as "O childhood, O likeness gliding off / To where? To where?" In this instance, it seems that Snow has the better of it, in that his translation catches the sense of the German entgleitende, etymologically related to the English "glide," as well as vergleiche, which means "simile," "likeness," or "comparison." One must remember that this is a book of images, which are themselves metaphors. This likeness, which remains unnamed, is the ineffable mysteriousness of existence that the poet senses in meditating on his own childhood.

Rilke begins as something of an impressionist, but he puts his own distance and anxieties into this poem. Kathleen L. Komar, writing in the Germanic Review says "Renunciation and absence … take on a positive creative value for Rilke." It is to the constantly gliding-away past that he turns his attention in "Childhood." Like much of Rilke's work, this is a poem of depth and serious intent. It appeals because of its language, because of its formal structure. Unfortunately, Bly's translation cannot convey these elements. It is only through comparison with other translations that one can see the linguistic richness of the poem. In addition to the linguistic wealth, there is a universality in this poem. Far from being sentimental and conventional, it utilizes images of a fairly typical late nineteenth-century, middle-class childhood to convey something of the depth of the poet's perception. Many people find their childhood escaping them, and yet they cannot let them go. Such a duality, a desire to fix fluid memories in place is characteristic of a life of spirit and mind and perception. Rilke's poem evokes the creative spirit that many people have. It is through such poems that Rilke has gained an enduring reputation.

Source: Frank Pool, Critical Essay on "Childhood," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2003.

George C. Schoolfield

In the following essay, Schoolfield discusses Rilke's personal history and how it affected his writing.

Rainer Maria Rilke is one of the major poets of twentieth-century literature. In the collections with which his early verse culminates, Das Buch der Bilder (The Book of Pictures, 1902; enlarged, 1906) and Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode (1905; translated as The Book of Hours; Comprising the Three Books: of the Monastic Life, of Pilgrimage, of Poverty and Death, 1961), he appears as a creator or discoverer of legends—his own and history's—and, particularly in the latter work, as a special brand of mystic. With the poems of his middle years, Neue Gedichte (1907–1908; translated as New Poems, 1964), he is an expert instructor in the art of "seeing" as well as a guide through Europe's cultural sites just before the onslaught of general war and, subsequently, mass tourism. Because of statements in Duineser Elegien (1923; translated as Elegies from the Castle of Duino, 1931) and Die Sonette an Orpheus (1923; translated as Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936) on the limitations and possibilities of the human condition, he has become something of a teacher and consoler to readers aware of the fragility and the potential of man. Long the prey of cultists and often obscure exegetes and regarded as the bearer of a "message" or "messages," he has more recently been seen as a brilliant verse tactician whose visions may be more original in their manner of perception than in their philosophical core. His novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; translated as The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930) was initially received as a belated product of European decadence or as an autobiographical document (neither opinion is wholly off the mark); later it was identified as a striking example of the "crisis of subjectivity and its influences on the traditional possibilities of narration," in Judith Ryan's formulation. Of all Rilke's works, the large body of stories he wrote has received the least attention; as a mature artist he himself grew condescending when he occasionally mentioned them in his letters—in striking contrast to Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, which he continued to praise and explicate until his death. These tales and sketches, some seventy of them, fall into the beginning of his career, before the changes that took place in his life and production in the years from 1902 to 1905.

Rilke's attitudes toward Prague, where he was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke on 4 December 1875, were mixed, as were those toward his parents. His father, Josef, was a former warrant officer in the Austrian army who at the time of Rilke's birth was a railroad official—a job perhaps owed to the influence of Josef's well-to-do elder brother, Jaroslav. His mother, Sophie (Phia) Entz Rilke, homely and socially ambitious, was the daughter of a perfume manufacturer. Rilke was their only child; a daughter, born before him, had survived only a few days. The parents were divorced before Rilke's childhood was past. The epistolary evidence indicates that Rilke was devoted to his father, who was simple, gregarious, and a lady's man, but saw rather little of him, and that he nearly detested his mother; yet it was the latter who encouraged his literary ambitions. The complexity of his feelings for his mother may be indicated in his early verse and stories by the appearance of a dream mother, lovely and even desirable; his reaction to Phia's bigoted Roman Catholicism, the faith in which he was reared, is reflected both in the ambiguous allusions to a Roman Catholic world in his early verse and Das Marien-Leben (1913; translated as The Life of the Virgin Mary, 1921) and in his much-proclaimed dislike of Christianity. Rilke's snobbery, which led him to cling obstinately to a family saga of age-old nobility, was encouraged by the genealogical researches of his uncle Jaroslav and by his mother's pretensions and prejudices; Phia Rilke was distinguished by her sense of extraordinary refinement and by her contempt for Jews and Czech speakers. Both the Rilkes and the Entzes were "Prague Germans," aware that they were up against an ever more aggressive Slavic majority in a city where German speakers were confronted, as the century wore on, by the rapid weakening of their social and political position.

At ten, after an elementary education, much interrupted by real or fancied illness, with the Piarist Brothers, Rilke was sent to the military school at Sankt Pölten in Lower Austria; save for summer vacations he remained there until 1890, when he was transferred to the military upper school at Mährisch-Weißkirchen in Moravia. The abrupt change from the cosseted existence at home to regimented boarding-school life cannot have been pleasant, even though his teachers encouraged him to read his poems aloud to his fellow students. As a young man Rilke planned to free himself from "jenes böse und bange Jahrfünf" (that evil and frightened half-decade) by writing a military-school novel, and in a letter of 1920 he made an extremely harsh reply to Major General von Sedlakowitz, his German teacher at Sankt Pölten, who had written to congratulate him on his fame: "Als ich in besonneneren Jahren … Dostojewskis Memoiren aus einem Toten-Hause zuerst in die Hände bekam, da wollte es mir scheinen, daßich in alle Schrecknisse und Verzweifelungen des Bagno seit meinem zehnen Jahre eingelassen gewesen sei" (When, in years of greater reflection … I first got hold of Dostoyevski's Memoirs from the House of the Dead, it seemed to me that I had been exposed to all the terrors and despairs of the prison camp from my tenth year on). After not quite a full year at the second school, from which he emerged, he told Sedlakowitz, "ein Erschöpfter, körperlich und geistig Mißbrauchter" (exhausted, abused in body and soul), he was discharged for reasons of health and went back to Prague—only to show off by wearing his cadet's uniform and bragging about a future return to the colors. His uncle Jaroslav then sent him to a commercial academy at Linz, an experience about which he later wrote that investigations were pointless, since he had not been himself at the time. Recent research indicates that he was a would-be bon vivant who persuaded a children's nurse to run away with him to a hotel in Vienna.

In 1892 Jaroslav agreed to finance private instruction leading to the qualifying examination at Prague's German Charles-Ferdinand University, so that one day Rilke could take over his uncle's law firm. Not that Jaroslav was at all confident about the boy's future: "Renés Phantasie ist ein Erbteil seiner Mutter und durch ihren Einfluß, von Hause aus krankhaft angeregt, durch unsystematisches Lesen allerhand Bücher überheizt—[ist] seine Eitelkeit durch vorzeitiges Lob erregt" (René's imagination is an inheritance from his mother, abnormally excited through her influence from the very beginning, overheated by the unsystematic reading of all sorts of books—his vanity has been aroused by premature praise). Tutorial instruction was congenial to Rilke's temperament; by 1895 he was ready to matriculate. He was already avidly seeking an audience—his unbearably sentimental first book, Leben und Lieder: Bilder und Tagebuchblätter (Life and Songs), had come out in 1894, dedicated to Valerie David-Rhonfeld, the niece of the Czech poet Julius Zeyer (Valerie had financed the book's publication). The twenty-one artificially simple poems of Wegwarten (Wild Chicory) appeared in January 1896. At the end of the summer of 1896 he moved to Munich, ostensibly for art history studies but with an eye to the cultural and publishing opportunities afforded by the Bavarian capital, which was then Berlin's equal as an artistic center. By this time he had considerably better proof of his lyric talent to display: Larenopfer (Offering to the Lares, 1896), with its tributes to Prague, was followed by Traumgekrönt: NeueGedichte (Crowned with Dreams, 1897), containing some turgid but striking erotic poems, and he was already a busy contributor to popular journals.

Some of Rilke's Munich acquaintanceships were plainly meant to further his career—for example, that with the dramatist Max Halbe. (Rilke's naturalistic drama Im Frühfrost: Ein Stück Dämmerung. Drei Vorgänge [1897; translated as Early Frost in Nine Plays, 1979] was produced in Prague in July 1897 with the young Max Reinhardt in the role of the weak father.) Others were more important: the novelist Jakob Wassermann introduced him to the Danish author whose works became his vade mecum, Jens Peter Jacobsen. Another young friend, Nathan Sulzberger from New York, provided him with a second major object of cultural devotion: in March 1897, at Sulzberger's invitation, he visited Venice for the first time. He spent an April vacation on Lake Constance with "the mad countess," Franziska zu Reventlow, who was pregnant with another man's child; and in May 1897 he met Lou Andreas-Salomé, fifteen years his senior, the author and former friend of Nietzsche, and the wife (in name only, it would seem) of the Iranian scholar Friedrich Carl Andreas. The summer Lou and Rilke spent at Wolfratshausen in the Bavarian Alps wrought remarkable changes in him: he altered his name from René to Rainer, his handwriting became firmer and clearer, and he gathered his passionate love poetry to Lou into the manuscript collection "Dir zur Feier" (In Celebration of You), which, at her request, he did not publish. (The title, transmuted into Mir zur Feier: Gedichte [In Celebration of Me], was used for a book of verse in 1899.) Some of these poems, estimated to have been about one hundred in number, were subsumed into published collections; others survived only in manuscript; others were destroyed. How long Lou and Rainer remained lovers is not known, but Rilke followed her and her husband to Berlin in the autumn of 1897.

The Prussian capital remained Rilke's home until the new century. His stay there was interrupted by trips that were to be of major importance for his poetic development: a springtime journey to Italy in 1898 (his verse play Die weiße Fürstin [published in Mir zur Feier: Gedichte; translated as The White Princess in Nine Plays, 1979] grew out of a stay at Viareggio); an excursion to Russia from April to June 1899 in the company of the Andreases; and a second and much more carefully prepared Russian trip from May to August 1900, again with Lou but without her husband. Rilke—who had learned Russian easily and quickly on the basis of his school training in Czech—visited the peasant poet Spiridon Drozhzhin and had an uncomfortable interview with Leo Tolstoy at his estate, Yasnaya Polyana. The Russian experience under the tutelage of Lou, a native of Saint Petersburg, provided him with new poetic material: following a fad of the time, he professed a mystic love for the great land in the east; he read its literature carefully and used Russian themes in the poems in Das Buch der Bilder and Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode, in his tales, and in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. During a late-summer stay with the artist Heinrich Vogeler in the artists' colony at Worpswede, near Bremen, after his return from Russia, he wore a Russian peasant's blouse and a large Greek cross. In Worpswede, thus attired, he met the painter and sculptress Paula Becker and the sculptress Clara Westhoff. Rejected by Paula, he turned his affection to her statuesque friend. On 28 April 1901 Rilke and Clara were married.

The affair with Lou had been broken off, but their years together had been enormously productive for Rilke. Some of the poems in Advent (1898) are from the Wolfratshausen summer; Rilke came to regard Mir zur Feier: Gedichte as the first of his "admissible" books; his career as a dramatist had been encouraged by the publication of Ohne Gegenwart: Drama in zwei Akten (1898; translated as Not Present in Nine Plays, 1979), with its Maeterlinckian suggestions of ineffable fears, but it concluded disastrously with Das tägliche Leben: Drama in zwei Akten (1902; translated as Everyday Life in Nine Plays, 1979), a play written in 1900 about a painter caught between two loves. Produced at the Residenz Theater in Berlin in December 1901, it was greeted with laughter: Rilke resolved never to try the stage again.

The writing of stories had occupied much of Rilke's time: a first collection, Am Leben hin: Novellen und Skizzen (Along Life's Course), had appeared in 1898. The book contains eleven tales, six of which can be identified as having been finished at Wolfratshausen during the summer with Lou. Some of the tales suffer from the mawkishness that beset Rilke during his early years, whether he was writing poems, plays, or narratives. In "Greise" (Old Men) a little girl brings a flower to her grandfather as he sits on a park bench. Other old men watch; one of them, Pepi, spits contemptuously as his companion, Christoph, picks up some stray blossoms from the street and carries them back to the poorhouse. Yet Pepi puts a glass of water on the windowsill of their room, waiting in the darkest corner for Christoph to place the scruffy bouquet in it. In "Das Christkind" (The Christ Child) a little girl, mistreated by her stepmother, takes the money her father has slipped to her as a Christmas gift, buys some paper ornaments, and adorns a young fir tree with them; then she lies down in the forest to die, imagining that she is in her mother's lap. Here Rilke ventures into a maudlin realm long since cultivated by certain nineteenth-century masters; in fact, he identifies one of them: in Elisabeth's dying dreams, "Die Mutter [war] schön, wie die Fee im Märchen von Andersen" (The mother [was] beautiful, like the fairy in the tale of Andersen). In "Weißes Glück" (White Happiness) a tubercular girl tells her sad life story to another traveler, a man hoping for erotic adventure at a railroad station in the middle of the night. A blind girl has a beautiful voice but will live out her life unloved in "Die Stimme" (The Voice). Gypsies fight over a girl, and the stronger, Král, slays the boyish flute player in "Kismet."

With such stories, save for his awareness of language and a certain psychological refinement, Rilke does not rise much above the level of, say, another popular writer from Prague, Ossip Schubin (pseudonym of Aloisia Kirschner, 1854–1934). Yet there are flashes of a brilliant satiric gift in the depiction of a moribund Prague-German family in "Das Familienfest" (The Family Festival) and "Sterbetag" (Death Day), and evidence of a keen insight into human relations in "Das Geheimnis" (The Secret), about the romantic dreams of two old maids, and "Die Flucht" (The Flight), about a schoolboy's plans for an escapade with a young girl and his failure—not hers—to carry through with them. In "Alle in Einer" (All in One Woman) Rilke shows a penchant for the shocking and the horrible which he shared with other Prague writers such as Gustav Meyrink and Paul Leppin: tormented by passion, a lame woodcarver makes one image after another of the same girl, until he ends by hacking at his own hands. The concluding story, "Einig" (United), has autobiographical tones: a son with artistic ambitions has returned home ill to his pious mother. It is spoiled by a contrived happy ending—each learns that the other has been sending money to the family's estranged father—but it offers a nice specimen for students of the Ibsen craze in Germany around the turn of the century: like Oswald in Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts (1881), Gerhard says that he is a "wurmfaule Frucht" (worm-eaten fruit), recalling Oswald's famous description of himself as "vermoulu," and claims that his illness has been bestowed upon him by his father.

Zwei Prager Geschichten (Two Prague Stories, 1899) was composed at Berlin-Schmargendorf in 1897–1898. The foreword says: "Dieses Buch ist lauter Vergangenheit. Heimat und Kindheit—beide längst fern—sind sein Hintergrund" (This book is nothing but the past. Homeland and childhood—both far removed, long since—are its background). The two lengthy stories, however, have little to do with the Prague Rilke had known; rather, they take place in Czech milieus and are expressions of Rilke's brief flaring-up of interest in Czech nationalism (other evidence is to be found in Larenopfer). No doubt Rilke was also aware of the interest of German publishers and their public in Prague's semi-exotic world: Karl Hans Strobl (1877–1946), for example, launched his long career as a popular author by writing about the city and the tensions between its language groups. "König Bohusch" (King Bohusch) uses Prague's Czech-speaking artistic circles as a contrasting background for two outsiders who are far more energetic and tormented than the ineffectual aesthetes, actors, and dandies of the city's cafés: the student Rezek, detesting both German speakers and the Austrian government, organizes a terrorist band; Bohusch, a hunchback, loves his "Mütterchen" (little mother), Prague, and dreams of an affair with the prostitute Frantischka. Familiar with the city's nooks and crannies, the self-important Bohusch shows Rezek a hiding place for the latter's group; simultaneously, he falls into fantasies of his own power. The police capture all the plotters save Rezek, who kills the poor, addled Bohusch because he suspects him of betraying the gang to the authorities. In fact, it was Frantischka who did so; her high-minded sister, Carla, is a member of Rezek's group. Based on actual events in the Prague of Rilke's youth, the story is an attempt to provide a dispassionate view of what, for Rilke, was an alien world, however close at hand.

More loosely constructed, "Die Geschwister" (The Siblings) looks sympathetically at a Czech family that has moved to the capital from the countryside. The son, Zdenko, is at the university; the mother does washing for the arrogant German speakers, Colonel and Mrs. Meering von Meerhelm, the depiction of whom may be the most convincing part of the story. Zdenko takes up with the radical circles around Rezek, who is carried over from "König Bohusch," but dies of illness before he can be forced to participate in their activities. The daughter, Louisa, has aroused the interest of Rezek but falls in love with Ernst Land, a young Bohemian-German who rents the late Zdenko's room and stays on after the death of Louisa's mother. By the end it is plain that the Czech and the German, the representatives of two hostile camps, will marry. The simple plot is drawn out by allusions to Bohemia's history, especially to the legends surrounding Julius Caesar, the vicious illegitimate son of Rudolf II who was said to have driven a girl to her death as he attempted to rape her during a masked ball at Krummau Castle. Rilke describes the Daliborka, the "hunger tower" on the Hradčany, later to serve as the setting for the love and conspiratorial scenes in Gustav Meyrink's Walpurgisnacht (1917). These tidbits are not just window dressing but are used by Rilke in an attempt at psychological portraiture. Louisa mingles the tale of Julius Caesar with her impressions of Rezek: "Und sie konnte ihm nicht wehren, daß er auch in ihre Träume wuchs und endlich eines wurde mit dem dunklen Prinzen des alten Maskentraumes und nun für sie nicht mehr Rezek sondern Julius Cäsar hieß" (And she could not prevent him from entering into her dreams and finally becoming one with the dark prince of the old dream of the masked ball, and now for her he was no longer Rezek but Julius Caesar). When Zdenko, Rezek, and Louisa visit the Daliborka, the obsessive thought returns, and she imagines herself naked, fleeing before the advances of Julius Caesar. Her rescue from these fantasies by the calm presence of Land may indicate that Rilke naively thought his Czech compatriots could be saved from the destructive allure of a Rezek by good-natured German liberalism.

Plainly, Rilke is fascinated by sexuality; but he often shies away from addressing it directly. (One of the most linguistically tortuous and emotionally tormented poems in the whole of his work is "Das Bett" [The Bed] in Neue Gedichte.) It is surprising that in the title tale of his third story collection, Die Letzten (The Last, 1902), written in 1898–1899 under Lou's aegis, he can be as frank as he is in discussing a taboo theme: mother-son incest. (Die Letzten was the first of Rilke's books to be published by the Dane Axel Juncker, who shared, Rilke believed, his own interest in the physical makeup of books: a "quiet" text merited "quiet" and elegant printing and binding.) The first story, "Im Gespräch" (In Conversation), records the talk of a group of artists in the salon of the Princess Helena Pavlovna at Venice. The speakers each have roles to play: the German painter is clumsy and loud, the gentleman from Vienna (a city Rilke, from provincial Prague, especially disliked) speaks with empty elegance, the Frenchman Count Saint-Quentin is still and polite, and the Pole Kasimir is the mouthpiece for Rilke's theories of artistic creation: "'Kunst ist Kindheit nämlich. Kunst heißt, nicht wissen, daß die Welt schon ist, und eine machen. Nicht zerstören, was man vorfindet, sondern einfach nichts Fertiges finden'" ("Art is childhood, you see. Art means not knowing that the world already is, and making [one]. Not destroying what one finds but rather simply not finding something finished"). Turning to the princess, Kasimir quotes her: "'Man muß, sagen Sie, dort muß man anfangen, wo Gott abließ, wo er müde wurde'" ("One must, you say, one must begin there where God left off, where He became tired"). At the end, having almost found a kindred soul, the Pole leaves, "wie einer der nicht wiederkommen wird an einen lieben Ort" (like someone who will not return to a beloved place).

A sensitive man is the central figure in the next story, "Der Liebende" (The Lover). The fragile Ernst Bang (his last name may allude to the adjective bang [anxious, afraid] or the Danish writer Herman Bang, whose works Rilke deeply admired) talks with his friend, the vigorous Hermann Holzer. Like Král in "Kismet," Holzer shuts out the light with his "schwarzen Rücken" (black silhouette; in Král's case it was "breite schwere Schultern" [broad, heavy shoulders]). Bang is in love with Helene, whom Holzer is going to marry; after many pauses (Rilke was captivated by Maeterlinck's use of silences onstage), Bang summons the courage to tell Holzer that the latter will destroy Helene with his clumsy affection: "'Nimm mir's nicht übel, Hermann, aber … du … zerbrichst … sie….'Pause" ("Don't take it amiss, Hermann, but … you… will shatter her …" Pause). The difficult conversation drifts along; affable and even respectful, Holzer asks what Bang thinks he should do. "'Sprich, die ganze Kultur steht hinter dir, bedenke'" ("Speak up—remember, the whole culture stands behind you"). The struggle may be not so much between two lovers of the same woman as between the subtle heir to an ancient tradition and the bluff bearer of contemporary strength: Holzer is a peasant's son and has his father's qualities—"Sowas Grades, Eichenes" (something straightforward, oaken). The juxtaposition of the two types is a common one in the fin de siècle, with its sense of the ending of an old Europe and the beginning of a less nuanced world. Helene enters, learns of the conversation, and weeps; taking her on his lap, Holzer tries to console her as she turns pale. The melodrama is obvious: she will stay with Holzer, but both she and Ernst know how sad her fate will be. Rilke's sympathy, however, is not wholly on the side of Bang and Helene; regarding himself as the spokesman of beleaguered refinement, he still looks with some admiration and envy at what is young and fresh and vigorous.

As Rezek turns up both in "König Bohusch" and "Die Geschwister," so an apparent relative of Hermann Holzer appears as the third person in the title story, "Die Letzten." Marie Holzer's grandfather was a peasant; more self-aware than Hermann, she has a sense of being "jünger in der Kultur" (younger in culture) than the members of the impoverished noble family to which she has become attached. She is engaged to Harald Malcorn, whom she met at a gathering of social reformers where he was the impassioned speaker. Now she and Harald's mother await his return from another speaking engagement amid the Malcorns' "Dinge" (things—a word to which Rilke attaches much significance), the great age of which Marie respects and yet cannot quite comprehend. Almost maternally concerned for little Frau Malcorn's well-being, Marie nonetheless senses a rival in the widow, and their competition for Harald comes to the surface in a long stichomythia. Returning home exhausted and ill, Harald decides to abandon his agitator's calling: he breaks with Marie and places himself in his mother's care.

In the story's second part the convalescent Harald and his mother talk of going to an uncle's estate, Skal; but the plan is dropped, in part because of a family curse: the death of a family member has always been presaged by the appearance of a "dame blanche," Frau Walpurga, at the castles the family once owned, and most frequently at Skal. Harald tells his mother about his misty notions of becoming an artist; after recalling circumstances that point to Frau Malcorn's having had a lover long ago and to his own role as a childish and unwitting surrogate for the lover, and after recalling his reaction to his father ("Er hatte einen dichten weißen Bart. Er war alt'" ["He had a heavy white beard. He was old"]), Harald entices his mother into adorning herself like a bride: together they will celebrate a festival of beauty. Frau Malcorn reappears in a white dress, and Harald collapses; hitherto the room has been illuminated only by moonlight, but now someone lights a light, and the reader sees a terrifying tableau: "Harald sitzt entstellt in den Kissen, den Kopf noch vorgestreckt, mit herabhängenden Händen. Und vor ihm steht Frau Malcorn, welk, in Atlas, mit Handschuhen. Und sie sehen sich mit fremdem Entsetzen in die toten Augen" (Harald sits distorted in his cushions, his head still stretched forward, with his hands hanging down. And Frau Malcorn stands before him, withered, in satin, with her gloves. And they gaze into one another's dead eyes with strange horror).

"Die Letzten" is a grotesque and fascinating melange of themes: the "last of the line," unable to create the art that might have been born of his sensitivity; the mother who is led into a fatal attempt to recover her lost youth; the well-meaning outsider, "healthier" than the inhabitants of the old world to which she is drawn. The literary echoes are many: Ibsen's Ghosts, Maeterlinck (the numerous pauses, the subtle anxiety), Jacobsen (Frau Malcorn's nom d'amour is Edel, reminiscent of Edele Lyhne, the aunt of whom the adolescent Niels Lyhne becomes enamored in the novel Niels Lyhne [1880; translated, 1919]), the Gothic tale. What were Rilke's intentions with the story, which comes dangerously close to unintentional comedy with its "white lady" and its family curse? Did he mean to write a conte cruel to vie with the most exaggerated specimens of contemporary decadent literature? The decadent apparatus is plainly on display: the ancient family, incestuous eroticism, a shocking close. Did he intend to plumb the depths of an erotic mother-son relationship of whose existence he was aware in his own case (the psychiatrist Erich Simenauer thinks so) and then mix these personal problems with his theories on the creation of art? Does the story (as Egon Schwarz believes) show the young Rilke's swerve away from the social concerns with which he had flirted to the aesthetic vision of life he subsequently and adamantly maintained? "Die Letzten" is one of Rilke's most tantalizing works, a bizarre conclusion to his early fiction.

In the years between the start of his career in Prague and his removal from Berlin-Schmargendorf and the ambience of Lou in February 1901, Rilke wrote some thirty other tales and sketches: some of these appeared in journals; others were never printed during his lifetime. Exaggerated and often banal effects are common: in a painful specimen of naturalism, "Die Näherin" (The Seamstress, first published in volume 4 of Rilke's Sämtliche Werke [Collected Works] in 1961), the narrator is seduced by a lonely and physically unattractive woman; in the lachrymose "Die goldene Kiste" (The Golden Chest, 1895) little Willy admires a golden chest in an undertaker's window, and his dying words express his desire to be laid to rest in it; a beautiful girl is the victim of brain damage in "Eine Tote" (A Dead Girl, 1896); a wife kills herself so that her husband can devote himself fully to his art in "Ihr Opfer" (Her Sacrifice, 1896); a tubercular girl is used and then forgotten, after her death, by a robust male in "Heiliger Frühling" (Holy Spring, 1897); the young bride of a jovial and hearty older man falls in love with her husband's willowy and melancholy son in "Das Lachen des Pán Mráz" (The Laughter of Pán Mráz, 1899); the story of the masked ball at Krummau Castle from "Die Geschwister" is retold in "Masken" (Masks, 1898); a mother loves her son too well in "Leise Begleitung" (Soft Accompaniment, 1898) and vicariously experiences his disappointment in a love affair with a girl of his own age as she sits beside her unfeeling husband. There are stunted figures: the emotionally frigid man searching for an "event" in "Das Ereignis" (The Event, published in Todtentänze: Zwielicht-Skizzen aus unseren Tagen [Dances of Death, 1896]); the doctrinaire Nietzschean in "Der Apostel" (The Apostle, 1896); the dreamy would-be artist in "Wladimir, der Wolkenmaler" (Wladimir the Cloud-Painter, 1899)—in "Die Letzten," Harald planned to paint clouds, a subject quickly transmuted into his mother, clad in her white dress. Attempts are made at comedy: in "Teufelsspuk" (Devilment, 1899) the new owners of the estate of Gross-Rohozec are terrified by what they think is the castle ghost, but it is merely the former owner, a nobleman, who—slightly intoxicated—has groped his way back to his family's previous possessions. The story might seem to have anti-Semitic overtones, since the buyers of the castle are Jewish and Rilke implies that they are somehow ennobled by their midnight contact with nobility."Teufelsspuk" was printed in the Munich journal Simplicissimus and intended for inclusion in a new volume of novellas Rilke outlined for the publisher Bonz in the summer of 1899; nothing came of the project.

Some of Rilke's best tales are autobiographical. One of the stories unpublished during his lifetime is "Pierre Dumont" (first published in Carl Sieber's biography René Rilke, 1932), about a boy parting from his mother at the military school's gate. Another is Ewald Tragy (written, 1898; published, 1929; translated, 1958), a long story in two parts about a watershed in the life of a young man. The first half consists of the cruel yet somehow affectionate depiction of his last dinner with the members of his Prague family (made up mainly of desiccated oldsters and eccentrics) and his difficult relation with his father, the bestower of uncomprehending love; in the second, Ewald moves away to the loneliness and freedom of Munich. "Die Turnstunde" (The Exercise Hour), published in Die Zukunft in 1902, pays painfully accurate attention to the petty obscenities and large emotional deformations of adolescence. Little Krix tells Jerome, Rilke's alter ego, that he has beheld the body of Gruber, a boy who had died during gymnastics: "'Ich hab ihn gesehen,' flüstert er atemlos und preßt Jeromes Arm und ein Lachen ist innen in ihm und rüttelt ihn hin und her. Er kann kaum weiter: 'Ganz nackt ist er und eingefallen und ganz lang. Und an den Fußsohlen ist er versiegelt….' Unddann kichert er, spitz und kitzlich, kichert und beißt sich in den Ärmel Jeromes hinein" ("I have seen him," he whispers breathlessly and presses Jerome's arm and a laughter is within him and shakes him back and forth. He can scarcely continue: "He's all naked and collapsed and very long. And there are wax seals on the soles of his feet…."And then he giggles, in a sharp, tickling way, giggles and bites into Jerome's sleeve).

"Die Turnstunde" was written only four days before Rilke essayed another descent into physical and psychological horror in "Frau Blahas Magd" (Frau Blaha's Maid); like "Die Turnstunde," it was first set down in Rilke's diary in the autumn of 1899 at Berlin-Schmargendorf, but it remained in manuscript. An early Rilke biographer, Eliza M. Butler, called it a "truly ghastly tale," while a more sympathetic commentator, Wolfgang Leppmann, has characterized it as "one of the most impressive short stories we have from his hand." Annuschka, a simple-minded country girl leading a wretched life as kitchen help in Prague, gives birth to a child, throttles it with her apron, and puts the corpse away at the bottom of her trunk. Then she buys a puppet theater she has seen in a toy-store window: "Jetzt hatte Annuschka etwas für das Alleinsein" (Now Annuschka had something for her loneliness). Neighbor children cluster around the theater; Annuschka tells them she also has a very large doll. They want to see it, but when she comes back "mit dem großen Blauen" (with the large blue thing) they become frightened and run away. Annuschka wrecks her theater, and "als die Küche schon ganz dunkel war, ging sie herum und spaltete allen Puppen die Köpfe, auch der großen blauen" (when the kitchen was quite dark, she went around and split the heads of all the puppets, and of the large blue one too). Annuschka has found refuge in an imaginary world; then, at the intrusion of reality, she destroys it. More successfully than in "King Bohusch," Rilke demonstrates what he imagines goes on in a limited or disturbed mind.

Other stories from the diary seem almost compulsively to seek after gruesome effects: the title character in "Der Grabgärtner" (The Grave-Gardener) transforms a cemetery into a garden in full bloom; he has come from the outside world to take the place of the old gravedigger, who has died. During an outbreak of the plague the townspeople, believing that the stranger has caused the epidemic, try to murder him; they succeed in slaying Gita, the mayor's daughter, whom the gravedigger loves. He kills the leader of the mob and goes off into the night, "Man weiß nicht, wohin" (One knows not whither). The story's emphasis is not on the beauty and order the gravedigger has brought to the realm of death, but on mass hysteria and mass horror; Rilke was probably trying to emulate Jacobsen's story "Pesten i Bergamo" (The Plague in Bergamo, 1881; translated as "Death in Bergamo," 1971). Philippe Jullian has called attention to the popularity in late-nineteenth-century art of what may be called necrophiliac scenes, with a superabundance of beautiful dead or dying bodies, as in Jean Delville's Les Trésors de Sathan (The Treasures of Satan, 1895) and Aristide Sartorio's Diana d'Efeso e gli schiavi (Diana of Ephesus and the Slaves, 1899): "eroticism and death have been blended with great skill." In the Rilke story, revised and published as "Der Totengräber" (The Gravedigger) in Österreichisches Novellenbuch (1903), the same public taste is fully met: "Der Wagen ist über und über mit Leichen beladen. Und der rote Pippo hat Genossen gefunden, die ihm helfen. Und sie greifen blind und gierig hinein in den Überfluß und zerren einen heraus, der sich zu wehren scheint…. DerFremde schafft ruhig weiter. Bis ihm der Körper eines jungen Mädchens, nackt und blutig, mit mißhandeltem Haar, vor die Füße fällt" (The wagon is laden with corpses, pile upon pile. And the redhaired Pippo has found comrades who help him. And they reach blindly and greedily into this abundance, and pull out someone who seems to fend them off…. The stranger keeps calmly at his work. Until the body of a young girl, naked and bloody, with ill-treated hair, falls at his feet).

In the same autumn of 1899—as Rilke claimed, "in einer stürmischen Herbstnacht" (in a stormy autumn night)—he composed the initial version of the work that, in his lifetime, would make his name familiar to a broad public. It was called "Aus einer Chronik—der Cornet (1664)" (From a Chronicle—the Cornet [1664]); a revision made in Sweden in 1904 became "Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Otto Rilke" (The Lay of the Love and Death of the Cornet Otto Rilke) and was published the same year in August Sauer's Prague journal Deutsche Arbeit. The final version, with the hero's name changed to Christoph, was published by Juncker in 1906; in 1912 it was the introductory number in Anton Kippenberg's series of inexpensive but handsome little books, "Die Inselbücherei," and made its way into thousands of romantically inclined hearts. In twenty-six brief poems in prose (reduced from twenty-nine in the first version and twenty-eight in the second) it gives an account of the last days of a noble officer from Saxony, eighteen years old, during an Austrian campaign against the Turks in western Hungary. Rilke had found a reference to this supposed ancestor in the genealogical materials assembled by his uncle Jaroslav; when he sent the manuscript of "Aus einer Chronik—der Cornet (1664)" to Clara Westhoff, he told her that it was "eine Dichtung … die einen Vorfahren mit Glanz umgiebt. Lesen Sie sie an einem Ihrer schönen Abende im weißen Kleid" (a poetic work that surrounds a forebear with splendor. Read it, on one of your beautiful evenings, in your white dress). The boy rides over the dusty plain; makes friends with a French marquis; sits by the campfire; observes the rough life of the bivouac; is presented to the commander, Johann von Sporck (of whom a portrait had hung in the military school at Sankt Pölten); and frees a girl tied nude to a tree—she seems to laugh when her bonds are cut, and the boy is horrified: "Und er sitzt schon zu Ross / und jagt in die Nacht. Blutige Schnüre fest in der Faust" (And he is already mounted on his steed / and gallops into the night. Bloody cords held tight in his grip). The cornet writes to his mother; sees his first dead man, a peasant; and senses that the enemy is near. The company comes to a castle, and the officers are feted—another of Rilke's festivals of beauty. Dressed in white silk (reminiscent of the dress uniform worn by Austrian officers in Viennese operettas), the virgin youth meets the lady of the castle, and shortly, "nackt wie ein Heiliger. Hell und schlank" (naked as a saint. Bright and slim), he spends a night of love with her. "Er fragt nicht: 'Dein Gemahl?' Sie fragt nicht: 'Dein Namen?' … Sie werden sich hundert neue Namen geben…."(He does not ask: "Your husband?" She does not ask: "Your name?" … They will give one another a hundred new names…). The Turks attack, and the troop rides out to meet them; the cornet, whose task is to bear the flag, is not present. But he appears in the nick of time, finds the banner—"auf seinen Armen trägt er die Fahne wie eine weiße, bewußtlose Frau" (he carries the flag in his arms, like a woman, white and unconscious)—and gallops into the midst of the foes; "die sechzehn runden Säbel, die auf ihn zuspringen, Strahl um Strahl, sind ein Fest. / Eine lachende Wasserkunst" (the sixteen curved sabers that leap at him, beam upon beam, are a festival. / A laughing fountain). The next spring, a courier brings the news of his death to his mother. That the tiny book captured a large readership is quite understandable: the impelling rhythms of its prose, the colorful settings, the theatrically simple situations, the amalgamation of eroticism and early heroic death were irresistible. That Rilke's view of war was hopelessly false, and a throwback to the worst extravagances of romanticism, is another matter.

A second book that also found a devoted audience, Vom lieben Gott und Anderes: An Große für Kinder erzählt (Concerning Dear God and Other Matters), had also gotten under way in the busy autumn of 1899. These playfully "pious" tales were quickly delivered to the Insel publishing house, administered by Schuster and Loeffler in Berlin, and appeared just in time for the Christmas trade of 1900; a new edition, Geschichten vom lieben Gott (translated as Stories of God, 1932), came out in 1904, with a dedication to the Swedish feminist and pedagogical writer Ellen Key. The stories have held a prominent place among the "standard" items by the young Rilke, but the Rilke scholar Eudo C. Mason dismissed them as a reproduction of "much of the religious doctrine of Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode in prose, in the form of whimsical little tales told to children by a lame cobbler." Professor Mason's statement might be refined to say that the stories reproduce in particular the message of the first part of Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode, "Das Buch von mönchischen Leben" (The Book of Monkish Life), which Rilke also wrote in the early autumn of 1899. God is in a state of becoming, perceived by artists and repeatedly created in their works, or God is the mystery from which art emanates: "Du Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme" (You darkness, out of which I come), as Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode proclaims. Mason's indifference toward Geschichten vom lieben Gott is evidenced by his unwonted inaccuracy; the tales are told to several listeners—a neighbor lady, a visiting stranger, a priggish male schoolteacher, District Commissioner Baum, and an artistically inclined young man, as well as the lame cobbler Ewald.

Oddly, the gentle book delights in making fun of the establishment; amid the often sugary trappings and language a sense of rebellion can be detected. In the first tale, "Das Märchen von den Händen Gottes" (The Tale of the Hands of God), the Lord's hands let humankind loose from heaven before the Maker has had a chance to inspect His work; in "Der fremde Mann" (The Strange Man) God's right hand, long since out of favor with God, is cut off by Saint Paul and sent to earth in human form; in "Warum der liebe Gott will, daß es arme Leute gibt" (Why Dear God Wants There to Be Poor People) the shocked schoolteacher is informed that the poor are closest to the truth and so are like artists. (In Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tod Rilke coined the phrase that has garnered him some scorn from socially aware readers: "Denn Armuth ist ein großer Glanz aus Innen" [For poverty is a great shining from within].) The pompous Baum, with his bourgeois view of a "romantic" Venice, is told in "Eine Szene aus dem Ghetto von Venedig" (A Scene from the Venetian Ghetto) about the precarious lot of the Jews in that splendid city, and about the vision of one of them, old Melchisedech, whose daughter has just had a child by a Christian. The narrator wonders what Melchisedech has seen: "'Hat er das Meer gesehen oder Gott, den Ewigen, in seiner Glorie?'" ("Has he beheld the sea or God, the Eternal Being, in His glory?"), to which Baum confidently replies: "'Das Meer wahrscheinlich … es ist ja auch ein Eindruck'" ("The sea, probably… after all, that's an impression too"). As these examples show, the tales suffer from excessive archness; in "Wie der Fingerhut dazu kam, der liebe Gott zu sein" (How the Thimble Came To Be Dear God), the all too clear message is that God is to be found in the least significant of objects—as obvious a point as that made in "Ein Verein aus einem dringenden Bedürfnis heraus" (A Club Created To Meet a Pressing Need), a long-winded formulaic narrative directed against artistic organizations.

The best of the stories are the three devoted to Russian themes, "Wie der Verrat nach Russland kam" (How Treachery Came to Russia), "Wie der alte Timofei singend starb" (How Old Timofei Died Singing), and "Das Lied von der Gerechtigkeit" (The Song of Justice). They are all told to the receptive Ewald and illustrate that Russia is a land that borders on God, a land of true reverence. The opportunity of making a thrust at dry scholarly authority is not allowed to slip by: the tales are based on byliny and skazki, epic folk songs and folktales long hidden away by learned men. According to the narrator, the tales have died out among the Russian people, and it seems to be his intention to bring them to life again. The first of the trio tells how a simple peasant demands from the czar not gold but truth and integrity (one more example of the poverty—and poverty of spirit in the biblical sense—that Rilke so admired); the second hopes for a continuation of the ancient line of folksingers and their songs, "darin die Worte wie Ikone sind und gar nicht zu vergleichen mit den gewöhnlichen Worten" (in which the words are like icons and not at all to be compared with ordinary words), even though such a continuation requires the singer to abandon his wife and child; the third is an historical tale from western Russia, in which a blind singer inspires his listeners to throw off the yoke of the Polish lords and the greed of the Jews.

There are also three tales from Italy: the Venetian ghetto story; a tribute to Michelangelo, "Von Einem, der die Steine belauscht" (Concerning Someone Who Eavesdropped on Stones); and another legend on the nature of true poverty, "Der Bettler und das stolze Fräulein" (The Beggar and the Proud Maiden), in which a Florentine noble disguises himself as a beggar and asks the prideful Beatrice to let him kiss the dusty hem of her garment. She is afraid of the strange beggar, but gives him a sack of gold. The experience transforms him: he remains in his beggar's rags, gives away all his possessions, and goes off barefoot into the countryside. Hearing the story, the teacher concludes that it is a tale of how a profligate becomes an eccentric tramp; the narrator rejoins that he has become a saint; and when the children hear the tale, they assert, "zum Ärger des Herrn Lehrer, auch in ihr käme der liebe Gott vor" (to the annoyance of the teacher, that dear God appeared in this story too). Like "Der Bettler und das stolze Fräulein," "Ein Märchen vom Tode" (A Tale about Death), with its glorification of "der alten schönen Gebärde des breiten Gebetes" (the beautiful old gesture of broad prayer), offers an example of the author's belief in the efficacy of a great or brave gesture that transforms its maker. Having begun with a double prologue set in heaven—the two tales about the hands of God—the collection harks back at its end to Rilke's more realistic stories with "Eine Geschichte, dem Dunkel erzählt" (A Story Told to the Darkness). Klara Söllner defies society's norms by divorcing her husband, a state official, and embarking on an affair with an artist; she rears their love child by herself. The narrator, twitting a narrow-minded public one last time, claims that nothing in the tale is unfit for children's ears; in fact, it reflects the scandalous independence of Rilke's friend, Franziska zu Reventlow.

Klara generously encourages her lover to leave her in pursuit of his art; Rilke himself was settling down to a life of considerably less freedom than he had known before. The young couple took up residence in Westerwede, near Worpswede; Rilke did reviews for a Bremen newspaper and larger periodicals and prepared Die Letzten and Das Buch der Bilder for publication. On 12 December 1901, their only child, Ruth (named after the heroine of a novel by Lou), was born. Home life could not long appeal to Rilke, and he began to conceive new plans. As a result of his Jacobsen enthusiasm, further readings of the Nordic works that were phenomenally popular in Germany at the time, and his association with Juncker, his interest in the north grew. Spending a month in the early summer of 1902 at Castle Haseldorf in Holstein as a guest of the poetaster Prince Emil von Schönaich-Carolath, he found in the archives sources that had to do with the great Danish-German Reventlow family: "Diese Wochen hier haben doch ihren Sinn, auch wenn sie nur im Lesen einiger Bücher bestehen" (These weeks here have their meaning after all, even though they consist only of the reading of some books). Simultaneously, he wrote a review of the Swedish reformer Ellen Key's Barnets arhundrade (1900; translated into German as Das Jahrhundert des Kindes, 1902; translated into English as The Century of the Child, 1909), with its recommendation for greater openness in the education of children; the review led to a correspondence with Key and, in time, to an invitation to the north.

But Rilke's immediate plan, the composition of a book about Auguste Rodin, led him to Paris in August 1902. The autumn weeks in the metropolis were difficult for him and formed the basis for several episodes in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge; leaving Ruth in her parents' care, Clara also traveled to Paris to study with Rodin, but maintained a residence separate from her husband's so that each would have greater freedom. Rilke's production at the time was varied: he had completed his book on the Worpswede painters and the north German landscape in which they worked before he set out for Haseldorf; the Rodin book was written in Paris during November and December 1902 and was published in 1903; the second part of Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode, "Das Buch von der Pilgerschaft" (The Book of Pilgrimage), had been completed at Westerwede in 1901; and in Paris he wrote verses that would be included in the augmented edition of Das Buch der Bilder, as well as "Der Panther" (The Panther), destined to become one of his best-known poems and the earliest of the items included in Neue Gedichte. A springtime trip to Viareggio in 1903 gave him the third part of Das Stunden-Buch enthaltend die drei Bücher: Vom mönchischen Leben: Von der Pilgerschaft: Von der Armuth und vom Tode, the upsetting mixture of eroticism and thoughts about death called "Das Buch von der Armuth und vom Tode" (The Book of Poverty and Death).

After a summer in Germany, the Rilkes set out in September 1903 for Rome; the poet's reaction to the city was one of discomfort. He found himself yearning for the north, and he sent pathetic letters to Key about the failure of the Roman winter and spring to be "real." In February 1904 Rilke made the first sketches for a novel about a young Dane in Paris: "An einem Herbstabende eines dieser letzten Jahre besuchte Malte Laurids Brigge, ziemlich unerwartet, einen von den wenigen Bekannten, die er in Paris besaß" (On an autumn evening of one of these last years Malte Laurids Brigge, rather unexpectedly, visited one of the few acquaintances he had in Paris). Malte tells his listener of a dinner interrupted by a ghostly apparition, an experience he had had when he was twelve or thirteen during a visit to his maternal grandfather's estate, Urnekloster, in the company of his father. The story would become one of the Danish episodes in the novel.

By the most skillful sort of hinting, Rilke arranged a Scandinavian stay from June to December 1904 to collect material for the book. The trip was spent largely with the artist and writer Ernst Norlind and Norlind's fiancée at a chateau, Borgeby, in south Sweden, and then at the home of an industrialist, James Gibson, at Jonsered near Gothenburg. The Gibsons were friends of Key, and a Sunday at the farmhouse of Key's brother, Mac Key (like the Gibsons, the family was of Scottish origin), in late November 1904 inspired another episode in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, the visit to the manor house of the Schulins, the center of which has been burned out. There, young Malte learns about fear. For a while Rilke toyed with the idea of preparing monographs on Jacobsen and on the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøj, but dropped both projects. He had learned to read Danish but could not speak it, and Copenhagen, which had initially charmed him as he passed through it, had come to seem ominous to him. He left Denmark on 8 December 1904 and never returned to the north; meeting a young Danish woman, Inga Junghanns, in Munich during the war, he rejoiced to think that the book about Malte would be returned to its "original language" in her translation. But Paris remained his true home, if so peripatetic a soul as Rilke may be said to have had a home.

In many ways 1905 marked a turning point in Rilke's career, just as the liaison with Lou had been the turning point in his personal development. Anton Kippenberg took over the Insel firm; in Kippenberg, Rilke discovered a skillful and usually generous manager of his literary fortunes and personal finances. His employment as Rodin's secretary began in September; it would end abruptly, in a dreadful scene, in May 1906. He made his first public appearances in Germany, reading from his works with a fire that was in contrast to his frail figure and exquisitely gloved hands. And, in part through the agency of the Rhenish banker Karl von der Heydt, he began to make the acquaintance of the noble ladies who would offer him so much solace and so many refuges. The relationship with Clara, whom he had to "keep at bay," in Miss Butler's malicious phrase, grew ever more tenuous, and Rilke developed the talent for swift wooing that would make the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis (happily married and, save intellectually, not one of his conquests) tell him that Don Juan was an innocent babe in comparison to him. Clara and Ruth briefly joined him on a trip to Belgium, sponsored by von der Heydt, late in the summer of 1906, but he much preferred to travel alone. Perhaps the first of his extramarital romances was with the Venetian Mimi Romanelli, whom he met at the pension of her brother in the autumn of 1907. He was the guest of Frau Alice Faehndrich at the Villa Discopoli on Capri in the winter and spring of 1906–1907 and again in the winter and spring of 1908; there he was surrounded by admiring ladies, among them the young and beautiful Countess Manon zu Solms-Laubach, for whom he wrote the poem "Migliera" (published in volume 2 of his Sämtliche Werke, 1956). With Frau Faehndrich, before her death in 1908, he translated Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850). Some of the poems from the Capri days found their way into Neue Gedichte; the first part, dedicated to the von der Heydts, appeared in 1907, the second, dedicated "À mon grand ami Auguste Rodin," in 1908. The quarrel with the master had been patched up; Rilke remained grateful to Rodin for having taught him the doctrine of work: "Il faut travailler toujours, rien que travailler" (One must work always, nothing but work).

Capri was not the main growing ground for the Neue Gedichte; that was Paris, to which Rilke became more attached the more he was able to transform its beauties and horrors into literature. An apartment at the Hôtel Biron in the Rue de Varenne became Rilke's pied-à-terre in August 1908; Rodin liked the Louis-Quatorze mansion so much that he immediately moved his own Parisian studio there. In 1910, on a trip to Leipzig during which he stayed in the tower room of the Kippenbergs' home, Rilke looked after the final stages of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. The production of the slender book emptied him, he liked to declare, and no other major work came from his hand during the next twelve years, although the production of this so-called barren period includes some of his best verse.

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge consists of seventy-one entries divided into two parts, with a break after entry thirty-nine. It has often been conjectured that the model for Malte was the Norwegian poet Sigbjørn Obstfelder (1866–1900), a devotee of Jacobsen who had lived for some time in Paris; his fragmentary novel En prests dagbok (1900; translated into German as Tagebuch eines Priesters, 1901; translated into English as A Priest's Diary, 1987), and a collection of his other prose, which Rilke reviewed in 1904, had come out in German translation. Much about Obstfelder does not fit, however, the picture of Malte in Rilke's novel: Obstfelder was of modest parentage, an engineer by calling, and had lived and had a nervous breakdown in the American Middle West; the aristocratic Malte—the last of his line—is fetched rather from Rilke's reading of Bang and his own musings about himself and his fancied background. The age of Rilke in February 1904, when the first sketches were made, is that of Malte as he looks back on his life as a man of letters: "Ich bin achtundzwanzig, und es ist so gut wie nichts geschehen. Wiederholen wir: ich habe eine Studie über Carpaccio geschrieben, die schlecht ist, ein Drama, das 'Ehe' heißt und etwas Falsches mit zweideutigen Mitteln beweisen will, und Verse. Ach, aber mit Versen ist so wenig getan, wenn man sie früh schreibt" (I am twenty-eight, and as good as nothing has happened. Let's repeat: I have written a study about Carpaccio, which is poor, a drama, called "Marriage," that tries to prove something false with ambiguous means, and verses. Oh, but how little is accomplished with verses when one writes them early in life). Rilke appears to have imagined that Malte was emotionally destroyed by the Parisian experience; he says in a letter of May 1906, after having heard the "inappropriate" laughter of a French audience at a performance of Ibsen's Wild Duck: "Und wieder begriff ich Malte Laurids Brigge und sein Nordischsein und sein Zugrundegehen an Paris. Wie sah und empfand und erlitt er es" (And once more I understood Malte Laurids Brigge and his Nordicness and his destruction by Paris. How he saw and felt and suffered it). Malte is undergoing a severe crisis: entry number twenty describes his visit to the Salpetrière Hospital, apparently for electrotherapy. (That Rilke sometimes feared that he would go insane is indicated by the "last will and testament" he sent to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart on 27 October 1925.)

The substance of the first part of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, on the one hand, is Malte's awareness of Paris: of "die Existenz des Entsetzlichen in jedem Bestandteil der Luft" (the existence of the horrible in every particle of the air)—the factory-like dying in the city's hospitals, the terrible street noises, the sordidness exposed on every side, coupled with the joy he feels while visiting an antiquarian bookseller's booth by the Seine, reading the poetry of Francis Jammes in the Bibliothéque Nationale, or viewing the tapestry "La dame à la licorne" in the Musée de Cluny. But intermingled with Parisian episodes are memories of his childhood in Denmark—a childhood of dramatic and terrifying scenes: the death of his paternal grandfather at Ulsgaard; ghost stories connected with Urnekloster, the maternal seat; hallucinations, such as a hand emerging from the wall, that he had while recovering from fever; his tender "Maman," his reserved father, and his maternal aunt Abelone, whom he loves in some never clearly defined way. He wishes he could show her the tapestries in the Parisian museum: "Ich bilde mir ein, du bist da" (I imagine that you are here). The kernel of the Parisian sections is Rilke's own observations, which he often put down in letters; save for quotations from Baudelaire's Spleen de Paris and the Book of Job, the Parisian material draws little on literary sources. The Danish components are more mixed, with strong echoes of the description of Danish estate life in the novels of Bang and Jacobsen and of Rilke's own childhood. Upon its appearance Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge was often treated by critics as another novel about the "decadent hero"—the scion of the old family, disheartened, quiveringly sensitive, and suffering from an inability to act, yet admiring those beings—such as a man with Saint Vitus' dance trying to sustain his dignity by a tremendous act of will—who are undefeated. The book is also one of the several works of German fiction from the time that display a strong "Nordic" side.

The second and more difficult part of the novel again employs the main figures from the Danish past: Maman reappears, appreciating the careful work of anonymous lace-makers; young Malte visits the neighboring estate of the Schulins (based on the Key farm); birthdays are celebrated. A mature Malte returns to Copenhagen ("Ulsgaard war nicht mehr in unserm Besitz" [Ulsgaard was no longer in our possession]); witnesses the perforation of his dead father's heart lest he be buried alive; and ponders the death of Denmark's great baroque king, Christian IV, an account of which his father kept in his wallet. Among the Scandinavian figures, Abelone is the most important: taking dictation from her aged father, Count Brahe, for whom the past is part of the present, and introducing young Malte to one of the great "loving women," Bettina Brentano, who outdid Goethe, Malte claims, in the sheer strength of her emotion. Memories of Abelone come to Malte when he hears a Danish woman sing about "besitzlose Liebe" (possessionless love) and its splendors in a Venetian salon: "'weil ich dich niemals anhielt, halt ich dich fest'" ("since I never detained you, I hold you fast"); other salutes to splendid women—the Portuguese nun Heloise, Louise Labé, Sappho, and others—who know that "mit der Vereinigung nichts gemeint sein kann als ein Zuwachs an Einsamkeit" (with union nothing can be meant save an increase in loneliness) prepare for this last quasi-appearance by Abelone. Thus far it is relatively easy to follow Rilke's arguments on love; save in the artistry of the presentation, not much difference exists between the selfless Klara Söllner of the last story of Geschichten vom lieben Gott and the singer of the song in Venice. It is harder to grasp, however, what Rilke means when he speaks of Abelone's yearning to take everything that was transitive out of her love, to make it objectless loving, "absolutely, in complete loneliness," in Eudo C. Mason's words.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (1929) remains one of his most popular works. In it, Rilke dispenses advice on art, love, life, and how to be a poet in ten intensely emotional letters to a former student of one of his own teachers.
  • Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke (1995), translated by Stephen Mitchell and released by Modern Library, provides a good introduction to Rilke's work.
  • The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) is Rilke's only novel. Malte Laurids Brigge is a Danish nobleman and poet living in Paris, who is obsessed with death, his family, and the city.
  • Rilke has been a major influence on contemporary poets, such as Mark Strand. Strand's Selected Poems was released in 1990.

The horrors of Paris are still with the diarist: Malte—"Ich lerne sehen" (I am learning to see) is the way he describes his most imperative task—cannot shut his eyes to a girl who stands "mit ihrem dürren, verkümmerten Stück" (with her stunted, withered stump) of an arm or to a blind newspaper vendor. The fear of death is still overriding, not only in the story of the post-mortem operation on Malte's father but even in the comical tale of Nikolaj Kusmitsch, Malte's neighbor in Petersburg, who, realizing how much time he had in his account (he assumed he would live another fifty years or so), resolved to use it sparingly. The Kusmitsch tale leads into stories about a mother who comes to console her disturbed son and about the rebelliousness of objects, followed by glosses on the dangers of loneliness and an intense and horrifying rehearsal of the temptations of Saint Anthony.

Other narratives are baffling, especially the stories recalled from the little green book Malte owned as a boy about the end of the false Dmitri, Grischa Otrepjow; the death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy; the mad Charles VI of France; John XXII, the Avignon pope; and the terrible fourteenth century, "Die Zeit, in der der Kuss zweier, die sich versöhnten, nur das Zeichen für die Mörder war, die herumstanden" (The time in which the kiss of reconciliation between two men was merely the signal for the murderers standing nearby). This awful reflection comes to Malte after he has remembered a trauma of his childhood, a time of similar insecurity, in which he thought himself pursued by another of those large and threatening male figures, like Král and Holzer of the early stories. Perhaps the historical exempla are meant to illustrate Rilke's thoughts on the human will, a will that is variously jeopardized or fails: just before the pistol shot that ends Grischa Otrepjow's life, the pretender experiences "noch einmal Wille und Macht… alles zu sein" (once more the will and power… to be everything). The will also sustains Eleonora Duse, to whom tribute is paid after a sideswipe at contemporary theater, but here the artist's will has made her overrun—magnificently and frighteningly—the limits of the art in which she must perform. Much of the second part of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge could be presented as a statement, as oblique as the first part's is direct, on the strange heroism of the exceptional human who exceeds, or attempts to exceed, his own limitations, forever standing alone. The original ending of the novel, criticizing Tolstoy, who had abandoned his art and was beset by fears of death ("Es war kein Zimmer in diesem Haus, in dem er sich nicht gefürchtet hatte, zu sterben" [There was no room in this house in which he had not feared he would die]), was supplanted by the story of the Prodigal Son, retold as "die Legende dessen … der nicht geliebt werden wollte" (the legend of him … who did not wish to be loved)—a representation, as Joseph-François Angelloz thought, of Rilke's long search for the freedom that would enable him to apply his artistic will to the fullest. The final lines are cryptic: "Er war jetzt furchtbar schwer zu lieben, und er fühlte, daß nur Einer dazu imstande sei. Der aber wollte noch nicht" (He was now terribly difficult to love, and he felt that there was only One who was capable of it. He, however, did not yet want to). Mason suggests that this is a "hyperbolic way" of implying that there is no plane, "human or superhuman," on which the problem of love can be solved for one who, like the Prodigal Son, is "governed by a daemonic dread of his sacrosanct, isolated selfhood being encroached upon through the love of any other human being."

Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge is at once a profoundly satisfying and unsatisfying book. It presents in unforgettable language the tribulations of a sensitive being in an overwhelmingly beautiful and ugly world—the omnipresence of fear; the search for small joys ("Was so ein kleiner Mond alles vermag" [How much such a little moon can do]); the residual terrors of childhood, never to be overcome; the problems of loving; the profits and torments of being alone. Formally, the novel seems less daunting than it did to readers of the past; Rilke advertises his intention of writing a nonlinear novel: "Daß man erzählte, wirklich erzählte, das muß vor meiner Zeit gewesen sein" (That people told stories, really told stories, that must have been before my time). Just the same, in many episodes—the banquet at Urnekloster, the death of the chamberlain Brigge, the visit to the Schulins, the death of Charles of Burgundy—Rilke proved himself a master of the short story, in which he had served such a long apprenticeship. As Wolfgang Leppmann points out, the reader can become "frustrated": he is asked to know the obscure historical facts Rilke had stored away in the corners of his mind or culled directly from other texts; he may find some of the doctrines advanced (for example, intransitive love) hard to grasp, let alone embrace. What may be overlooked, in grappling with Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, is that it is, after all, a feigned diary and also incomplete: Rilke told Lou Andreas-Salomé that he had ended it out of exhaustion. Furthermore, it is a personal document: Rilke made fun of Ellen Key for having identified Malte with him, yet she was by no means inaccurate in her naiveté. In Paris for his last visit, he would write to Nanny Wunderly-Volkart: "Je m'effraie comme, autrefois, Malte s'est effrayé…." (I am terrified, as, formerly, Malte was terrified …). In his letters, he could never let Malte go.

The post-Malte time was marked by flurries of frantic travel: to North Africa in the autumn of 1910; to Egypt in the spring of the next year with the mysterious Jenny Oltersdorf, about whom Rilke remained forever close-mouthed; to Castle Duino, near Trieste, a holding of the Thurn und Taxis clan, in 1911–1912 (here the "angel" of the Duineser Elegien is supposed to have spoken to him, inspiring the work that would not be complete until 1922); to Venice again, to spend much of the remainder of 1912–1913; to Spain in the winter of 1912–1913; and, in the summer of 1913, to Göttingen for a visit with Lou Andreas-Salomé. He spent October 1913 to late February 1914 in Paris and was in Munich when World War I broke out in August 1914. (The singer of the deeds of the cornet greeted the conflict with enthusiastic verse he soon regretted.) If the itinerary of these years is long, so is the list of feminine friends: the motherly and excitable Marie von Thurn und Taxis; the haughty Helene von Nostitz; the vivacious Sidonie Nádherny´ von Borutin, whom Rilke dissuaded from marrying the satirist Karl Kraus. On the passionate side, there was the simple Parisienne Marthe Hennebert, for a time Rilke's "ward"; and the pianist Magda von Hattingberg, or "Benvenuta," for both of whom he pondered a divorce from Clara. He could not do without the blue-blooded friends or the ones who became objects of his desire—such as the "douce perturbatrice," the phrase he bestowed on Marthe in one of the French poems he wrote more and more frequently.

The war years kept him far away from his Parisian books and papers, some of which were irretrievably lost, others saved through the good offices of his friend André Gide, whose Le Retour de l'enfant prodigue he had translated into German in 1913–1914. His principal residence was Munich, and his principal companion for a while was the painter Lulu Albert-Lasard. A rising tide of mainly erotic poetry in 1915 was interrupted by a draft call to the Austrian army at Christmas. He spent a wretched few weeks in basic training and was saved by powerful friends, including Princess Marie, who effected his transfer to the dull safety of the War Archive and comfortable quarters in Hietzing's Park-Hotel. Rilke continued to complain about his enforced residence in detestable Vienna and was released from service in June. The rest of the war went by in a kind of convalescence—mostly in Munich, but the summer of 1917 included a stay on an estate in Westphalia, and the autumn of the same year a stay in Berlin. There he saw both Walther Rathenau and Marianne Mitford (née Friedländer-Fuld), whose exceptionally wealthy family owned an estate in the vicinity of the capital: she received one of the first copies of his 1918 translation of the sonnets of the Lyonnaise poetess of the Renaissance, Louise Labé, whom he had ranked among the great lovers in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. Back in Munich, he lived first at the Hotel Continental and then in an apartment in the artists' quarter of Schwabing; observing the "Munich revolution," vaguely sympathizing with Kurt Eisner's idealistic socialism, and giving shelter for a night to the fugitive author Ernst Toller, Rilke was briefly suspected of leftist sympathies by the victorious "White" forces that took over the city on 1 May 1919. At the same time, he enjoyed the innocent attentions of Elya Maria Nevar, a young actress, and the less innocent ones of the would-be femme fatale Claire Studer ("Liliane"), shortly to become the mistress and then the wife of the expressionist poet and editor Iwan Goll.

Casting about for a refuge from postwar Germany's turbulence, Rilke was invited to undertake a reading tour in Switzerland. Once he had made fun of Switzerland and its scenic "Übertreibungen" (exaggerations), its "anspruchsvolle" (pretentious) lakes and mountains; now he was glad to cross the border. Some of his Swiss sanctuaries were much less satisfactory than he had hoped: at Schönenberg, near Basel, a summer home of the Burckhardt family, where he lived from March until May 1920, he liked neither the house's grounds nor its feeble stoves; at Castle Berg am Irchel, near Zurich, placed at his disposal by a Colonel Ziegler for the winter of 1920–1921, he was bothered by children at play and the noise of a sawmill—but at Berg there also appeared to him, he said, the phantom who dictated the double cycle of poems Aus dem Nachlaß des Grafen C. W. (1950; translated as From the Remains of Count C. W., 1952). He quickly found new friends; the most important was "Nike," Nanny Wunderly-Volkart, the witty and self-controlled wife of the industrialist Hans Wunderly. Through her Rilke discovered and had rented for him a little tower at Muzot, near Sierre, in the canton of Valais; there—as literary histories never tire of repeating—he finished the Duineser Elegien and received the "additional gift" of Die Sonette an Orpheus: Geschrieben als ein Grab-Mal für Wera Ouckama Knoop in February 1922. (It is plain, though, that he knew the storm of inspiration was coming: he had some difficulty in persuading the great love of the first Swiss years, "Merline," or Baladine Klossowska, that he needed to be alone, cared for only by his competent housekeeper, Frida Baumgartner.)

Rilke announced the completion of his task with justifiable pride; the afterglow of accomplishment permeates his letters during the remainder of 1922. A sense of aging also came over him, however: his daughter married, and in 1923 he became a grandfather. (The birth of Ruth herself, he had told a friend years before, had given him a similar sense of "l'immense tristesse de ma propre futilité" [the immense sadness of my own futility].) His health declined: he spent time at a half-resort, half-hospital at Schöneck on the Lake of Lucerne, and then repeatedly at the sanatorium of Valmont above the Lake of Geneva. Rilke had always had a weakness for the restful weeks at a sanatorium or spa—for the sake of his nerves, he liked to say—and they brought useful and interesting contacts: in 1905 at the sanatorium "Weisser Hirsch" near Dresden he had met Countess Luise Schwerin, who had put him in touch with the von der Heydt and Faehndrich circles. Nevertheless, he had become hesitant about the efficacy of physicians in dealing with his ills, real or fancied, and regarded sleep as the great cure-all. The year 1924 opened and closed with stays at Valmont. From January to August 1925 he had his final sojourn in Paris—he was lionized during his stay there, but perhaps the most sincere of his many admirers was the Alsatian Maurice Betz, who was at work on a translation of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge. By December he was back at Valmont, staying until May 1926. His last works were his translations of Paul Valéry's poetry and prose and three small volumes of his own French verse. Carl J. Burckhardt, a Swiss diplomat who possessed a keen eye for Rilke's weaknesses, recalled that Rilke did not understand how reserved and even condescending Valéry was toward the "German" poet who late in his career tried his hand at French. Rilke appears to have sought Valéry's company, chatting with him a last time in September 1926 at Anthy on the French side of Lake Geneva. A special issue of Les Cahiers du Mois, "Reconnaissance à Rilke," edited by the faithful Betz, had appeared at Paris in the summer of 1926—its opening a restrained salute from Valéry's own hand.

Also in September 1926 the critic Edmond Jaloux introduced Rilke to Nimet Eloui Bey, an Egyptian beauty of Circassian background. When Rilke was still viewed as the devoted and sensitive admirer of women but not an erotic adventurer, Jaloux's account of this "last friendship" seemed the perfect finale for the poet's romantic life; gathering white roses for her, Rilke pricked his hand, and the injury became infected, a harbinger of the final onslaught of his illness. It is now known that the Egyptian was but one of the women and girls who surrounded and attracted him almost to the end: the eighteen-year-old Austrian Erika Mitterer, who carried on a correspondence in poems with him from 1924 to 1926; the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetayeva, who wanted to visit and consume him; the pretty Lalli Horstmann, a friend of Marianne Mitford; the Dutch singer Beppy Veder; and the actress Elisabeth Bergner were among the many. What may be more significant about the "last friendship" with Nimet Eloui Bey, though, is that she wanted to meet the author of Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, which she had just read in Betz's translation—the book of his that lay closest to his own heart.

Source: George C. Schoolfield, "Rainer Maria Rilke," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 81, Austrian Fiction Writers, 1875–1913, edited by James Hardin and Donald G. Daviau, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 244–71.


Gass, William H., Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, Basic Books, 1999, p. 32.

Komar, Kathleen L., "The Mediating Muse: Of Men, Women, and the Feminine in the Work of Rainer Maria Rilke," in the Germanic Review, Vol. LXIV, No. 3, Summer 1989, pp. 129–33.

Leppman, Wolfgang, Rilke: A Life, Fromm, 1984, p. 16.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, "Childhood," in New Poems, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 1984, p. 89.

——, "Childhood," in Rilke: Poems, translated by J. B. Leishman, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, p. 16.

——, "Childhood," in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly, Harper & Row, 1989, pp. 72–75.

——, "From a Childhood," in Selected Poems, translated by C. F. MacIntyre, University of California Press, 1968, pp. 28–29.

——, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by Reginald Snell, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, p. 217.

Rolleston, James, "Rainer Maria Rilke," in European Writers, Vol. 9, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, pp. 767–95.

Snow, Edward, "Introduction," in The Book of Images, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, 1991, pp. ix–xii, 41.

Wood, Frank, Rainer Maria Rilke: The Ring of Forms, Octagon Press, 1970, p. 64.

Further Reading

Baron, Frank, Ernst S. Dick, and Warren R. Mauer, eds., Rilke: The Alchemy of Alienation, Regents Press of Kansas, 1980.

This anthology contains English-language essays by Rilke scholars such as Stephen Spender, Lev Kopelev, Walter H. Sokel, Andras Sandor, and Erich Simenauer. It is a useful resource for students already familiar with Rilke's work.

Freedman, Ralph, Life of a Poet: A Biography of Rainer Maria Rilke, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1995.

Freedman's biography is a detailed accounting of Rilke's life with special attention paid to his many love affairs.

Gass, William, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, Knopf, 1999.

Postmodernist Gass provides an idiosyncratic reading of The Duino Elegies while exploring some of the thornier issues of translation.

Sword, Helen, Engendering Inspiration: Visionary Strategies in Rilke, Lawrence, and H. D., University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Sword explores the early twentieth-century poetic visions of Rilke, D. H. Lawrence, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle).


views updated May 29 2018


The stage of life referred to as "childhood" is not a fixed notion but is instead a concept defined largely by the dominant concerns, needs, and values of a given cultural and historical context. What it means to be a child changes as society changes. How children are portrayed in literary texts of a given period and what recommendations are documented regarding the actual treatment of children become ways to examine the major issues and events of that particular historical time and place. According to Caroline Levander and Carol Singley in The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader, the child is "not only a biological fact but a cultural construct that encodes the complex, ever-shifting logic of a given group . . . and reveals much about its inner workings" (p. 4). The period between 1820 and 1870 in American history is one of the richest for examining changes in attitudes about childhood and studying the child as a vehicle that reveals the struggles and inner workings of an emerging nation. Summarizing the early- and mid-nineteenth-century shifts in understanding childhood, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) commented, "There grew a certain tenderness on the people not before remarked. Children had been repressed and in the background; now they were considered, cosseted and pampered" (Complete Works 10:325). Emerson's observation not only refers to the growing interest in nurturing children that characterized these decades but alludes to broader meanings as well.

In the years following the American Revolution, childhood became a useful site for debate about changing theological beliefs regarding human nature and served as an allegorical tool for exploring the challenges faced by the newly formed, independent Republic separated from its parental monarch. The portrayal and treatment of the child became an important tool for reflecting and conveying the fundamental transition from harsh puritanical, authoritarian rule of colonial America to more egalitarian and participatory democracy of the Jacksonian era; a transition apparent in church, government, and even in the microcosm of the family. No longer "repressed and in the background," Americans were exploring what would be required of governing themselves while respecting the common good and solidifying a diverse nation (Emerson, Complete Works 10:325). A new concept of citizenry was emerging and with it new ideas about raising children who would fulfill the role of democratic citizens guided by conscience—able to be self-governing yet unified. Moreover, in theological matters, beliefs in original sin and infant depravity, dominant in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Calvinism, were giving way to more moderate viewpoints about human nature, specifically regarding souls of infants and children. By the early 1800s children were considered to be morally neutral, not evil, and by mid-century, Romantic notions of the child's innate goodness had emerged in the writings of Unitarians and transcendentalists respectively. In an unprecedented way, major and lesser-known American authors of early and mid-century incorporated children as significant characters in novels and stories, while childhood itself both served as subject matter and appeared in figurative language and rhetorical devices in imaginative literature as well.

Additionally, literature and periodicals were written and published for children. With increasing literacy rates, the reading of magazines, stories, and informational books became a commonplace activity for children and family gatherings, whereas in earlier times reading the Bible or religious tracts had been the predominant, if not exclusive, literacy activity for children and adults. As the connection was made between nation building and child rearing, large numbers of advice manuals were published and sold between 1820 and 1870. In the previous century parents received guidance on raising their children from sermons and authorities on religious doctrine; by the nineteenth century sources of information had broadened and came from more liberal religious teachers as well as from secular writers on child rearing and domestic management. This advice literature incorporated and represented the opinions of physicians and educators as well as mothers and fathers themselves, who at least to some extent were influenced by the philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704) and, to a lesser degree, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile (1762). American parents and educators found in the work of Locke especially and Rousseau (1712–1788) more controversially explanations of the critical role that environment plays in shaping the malleable, growing child. Such views were compatible with the hope of cultivating conscientious children for future citizenship in a republican society.


With religious and political change as a thematic focus, major writers of the nineteenth century, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), Mark Twain (1835–1910), Walt Whitman (1819–1892), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) employed the child figure in some fashion in their work, usually emphasizing the redemptive and innocent nature and presence of the child while also acknowledging the rebellious and resistant capacities of children. Most widely recognized among texts by these authors in which children appear as central characters are Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Gentle Boy" (1832), "Little Annie's Ramble" (1834), and The Scarlet Letter (1850); Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852); and Mark Twain's "The Story of the Bad Little Boy" (1865) and "The Story of the Good Little Boy" (1870), forerunners to his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and later Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Perhaps no child characters of the nineteenth century are discussed more extensively in critical scholarship than Hawthorne's Pearl, Stowe's Little Eva and Topsy, and Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The proliferation of comment is not surprising because these characters embody so clearly three essential and frequently expressed themes, sometimes contradictory, related to the portrayal of children in fiction of this period: children possess higher moral insight and integrity that challenges the status quo; children die dramatically and with redemptive flair; and children behave rebelliously or uncontrollably as symbolic voices against the social injustices of their historical settings, whether it be against the abuses and bigotry of New England Puritanism or slavery. Child "saintliness" and early death as described by Anne Trensky (1975) or their cunning misbehavior as discussed by Daneen Wardrop (2000) and Franny Nudelman (1997) are two general characterizations of children in early- to mid-century fiction. Each child prototype carries significant symbolic reference to numerous and timely controversial issues having to do with beliefs in innate neutrality or purity replacing the eroding dogma of original sin; the corruptive aspect of urban industrialization and expanding commerce, where good cannot survive without a price; the abolitionists' debates and discussions about inhumane and unjust treatment of slaves and Native Americans; and paradoxically, the persistent need to instill the value of conformity to support a threatened national identity during this time.


Nathaniel Hawthorne's child characters Ilbrahim in "The Gentle Boy" and Pearl in The Scarlet Letter function as outcasts from their restrictive and judgmental New England Puritan communities of the seventeenth century. Each endures ridicule for different reasons. Ilbrahim is a child of Quaker heritage among intolerant and condemning Puritans, and Pearl's illegitimate status renders her little identity in the eyes of the Puritans beyond that of the manifestation of her mother's stigma as adulteress. In both texts the child becomes a method for Hawthorne to display his ambivalent position about human nature and to explore the questions regarding the extent to which children inherit the sins of their parents. At the same time, Pearl and Ilbrahim also show endearing and genuine tenderness and playfulness that provide joy and comfort to adults and soften the impact of their persecution. Pearl and Ilbrahim meet different fates. Ilbrahim dies a martyr to the narrowness of a community intolerant of his different "sect." He suffers as well from the death of his birth father; the abandonment by his biological mother, an eccentric Quaker; and the inadequacies and ambivalences of his adoptive parents. Ilbrahim's death suggests the fundamental possibility of evil associated with religious and doctrinal fanaticism, while Pearl survives and, as the character in the novel least repressed or oppressed, embodies redemption or hope for a broader, open future.

What is generally understood is that Hawthorne modeled Pearl on his observations of his daughter, Una, and that Pearl provides evidence for the strong influences of discussions he had with friends and family about children's education and development. Hawthorne's wife, Sophia, expressed interest in transcendentalist ideas of the period, although Hawthorne was reluctant to fully embrace the assumptions of essential human goodness and child innocence that Ralph Waldo Emerson expresses in his work, especially in his essay Nature (1836), and to which Henry David Thoreau alludes in Walden (1854). However, Hawthorne had many opportunities to participate in discussions about transcendentalism and to be familiar with the work of educational progressives of the period. Sophia's two sisters, Elizabeth Peabody and Mary Peabody Mann, wife of the noted advocate of public education, Horace Mann, were teachers and authors of numerous texts about children, including the widely read Moral Culture of Infancy and Kindergarten Guide (1863). Hawthorne had a genuine interest in and fascination with actual children as well as fictive ones, and he wrote several books specifically for children: The Whole History of Grandfather's Chair (1840), Tanglewood Tales (1853), and A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls (1851). In fact, "Little Annie's Ramble" first appeared in 1835 in an annually published gift book for children (also read by adults), Youth's Keepsake: A Christmas and New Year's Gift for Young People. In this story of a five-year-old girl who accompanies a man on a journey through a small town, Hawthorne captures what might be read as his ultimate statement of the child's compelling, almost mystical impact. The adult narrator says of his time spent with the child that he is revived, "After drinking from those fountains of still fresh existence, we shall return into the crowd . . . to struggle on and do our part in life . . . with a kinder and purer heart, and a spirit more lightly wise" (pp. 121–129).

Anne Tropp Trensky calls the character Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin a "quintessential saintly child—an unequivocally pure savior" ("The Saintly Child," p. 392). Harriet Beecher Stowe, deploying the sentimentality characteristic of the period and especially associated with child and childlike figures (e.g., Uncle Tom), portrays children as voices of wisdom and redemptive insight. Stowe distinguishes Eva from other children by describing her as having a "dreamy earnestness" and noting "the deep spiritual gravity" of her eyes (p. 161). Like Hawthorne's Annie, Eva has a profound and transforming impact on those around her, particularly as she nears her death and expresses deep compassion for the suffering of slaves and contempt for the injustices they endure. Eva is a voice for Christian humanitarianism and assures the uncontrollable and self-depreciating slave child, Topsy, that Jesus loves her even in her bondage. Eva is the vehicle for Stowe's abolitionist statement, which, as Jane Tompkins suggests, is softened and made palatable by the use of child characters and their tear-jerking deaths or the heart-wrenching plight of a slave mother attempting to prevent the sale of and separation from her young son. Stowe's child characters are covert instruments of social critique and are designed in their domestic innocence and purity as tools of persuasion to elicit sympathy.

Often, these divine children die, further underscoring the idea that the corrupt world is no place for them to thrive. The frequent depiction of child death was especially poignant and effective rhetorically because actual infant and child mortality rates in the nineteenth century were extremely high. Many families suffered from the actual deaths of their children. Readers empathized with and sought solace in fictive descriptions of angelic children who were taken from earth where, as Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811–1872) says of her character "Dear Little Charley" in Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio (1853), "you were . . . out of place" (p. 120). Children of redemptive virtue who retain their innocence or succumb to death in the face of society's hostility are also portrayed in Susan Warner's best-seller The Wide, Wide World (1850), Timothy Shay Arthur's The Angel of the Household (1854), Elizabeth Oakes Smith's The Newsboy (1854), Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter (1854), Martha Finley's Elsie Dinsmore (1868), and Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868–1869). Twenty-firstcentury readers may think of these texts as designed for child audiences, yet nineteenth-century readers of all ages, especially women, enjoyed these books.


Transcendentalist writers and thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau saw the child as aligned with essential divine energies of nature. Not only did the child represent a model of integrity, purity, and an unaccommodating "self-reliance" to which adults should aspire, but in its youthfulness possessed a vitality of the senses, a freshness, that these writers saw as an important quality in having direct, authentic experiences with the divine vitality in daily life. "Children appear to me as raw as the fresh fungi on a fence rail," Thoreau wrote in his journal (Journal 1:85). Similarly, he wrote in 1851, "The senses of children are unprofaned" (Journal 3:291). It was the clarity and purity of the senses that Thoreau revered as the avenue to living a "fresh" and creative life. Because observation of the natural world confirms the cycles of new life followed by growth, degeneration, and regeneration, both Thoreau and Emerson saw human life as adhering to this natural rhythm. The child, literally, was new life and symbolically represented to the transcendentalist writers the possibility of inspired self-regeneration at any chronological age. Hence, in his 1836 essay Nature not only does Emerson write about the importance of accessing the inward source of new inspiration, but he also emphasizes that when adults live close to nature they live a "perpetual youth"; they "retain the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood" (p. 498).

Apart from his theoretical reverence, Emerson suffered immense personal loss when his own young son, Waldo, died in 1842. Emerson was forced by this tragic event to reexamine his understanding of nature and childhood. His 1846 poem "Threnody" was written in honor of his son and reflects some of his modifications. Instead of perceiving the child as perfectly unified with natural, "self-reliant" life, Emerson elevated the child above nature to a state so pure and open to divine intuitions that it is, in fact, vulnerable to the grosser natural world (pp. 699–706). Waldo's death affected Emerson and Thoreau to the extent that both writers began in their later work to acknowledge that although the child, "the feeblest babe," may indeed represent "a channel through which the tremendous energies stream" (Emerson, Journals 8:223), the mature adult has the benefit of experience to mix with inspiration, so maturation is not entirely a disadvantage. Thoreau's poem "Manhood" refers to "the man, the long-lived child . . . I love to contemplate the mature soul of lesser innocence, Who hath traveled far on life's dusty road" ("Manhood," p. 634).

Another transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, a teacher of young children and father of Louisa May Alcott, wrote extensive journals and texts from the 1820s through the 1840s about his teaching philosophy and observations of children. His beliefs that children must be allowed to pursue the spontaneity of their divine natures were radical to the point of being impractical, especially in the eyes of many conservative parents, and Alcott was dismissed from several teaching positions. Nevertheless, progressive educators and writers of the period, such as Peabody, Mary and Horace Mann, and Emerson, admired and encouraged Alcott's deep commitment to describing and respecting the spiritual quality of children. In a similar vein, Walt Whitman's poetry also exalts the higher spiritual and intuitive status of the child. In "There Was a Child Went Forth" (1855), Whitman describes the child's capacity to merge with and assimilate the vast world of experience. Fundamentally, Whitman echoes the Lockean perspective that learning comes from direct experience through the senses and, similar to Thoreau and Emerson, suggests that the child's senses and intuitions are particularly acute for generating new perspectives. In "Song of Myself" (1855), Whitman suggests that the child's insight and knowledge is just as valid as the adult's, and he uses the child as the rhetorical vehicle for diminishing authoritarianism in favor of an egalitarian spirit. When the voice of a child poses the question, "What is the grass?" the poet responds, "How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he" (p. 665).


Finally, no discussion of early- and mid-nineteenth-century literary representations of children would be complete without mention of the "bad boy" prototype. Although associated with dime novels and work of the later decades of the century, the depiction of children as rambunctious, mischievous, and slightly criminal appeared by mid-century as reaction to the prevalence of fiction portraying holy and esteemed child characters and allusions. There had been a proliferation of American Sunday School Union publications for children in the early decades describing excessively pious children whose dedication to their religion brought rewards to themselves and to their families or, in contrast, portrayed naughty children who brought downfall and shame to their lives and those around them. Obviously, these texts were designed to teach the benefits of good and moral living and the hazards of wrongdoing. The bad-boy genre, however, had a broader focus and attempted to dilute the sweet sentimentalizing about childhood by presenting children in a more realistic light. In The Story of a Bad Boy (1869) by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the narrator says, "I was really not a cherub . . . I was a real boy" (pp. 7–8). Aldrich's use of the word "cherub" is particularly significant, since Lydia Maria Child's The Mother's Book (1831), which sets the stage for an onslaught of domestic guidebooks on the importance of mothering and diligent nurturance of the tender body, mind, and spirit of the innocent and impressionable child, describes the child as "the little cherub."

In addition to being a well-known abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child also wrote on domestic issues and childrearing. In The Mother's Book, Child discusses the importance of mothers guiding the education and development of their children.

It is a great mistake to think that education is finished when young people leave school. Education is never finished. Half the character is formed after we cease to learn lessons from books; and at that active and eager age it is formed with a rapidity and strength absolutely startling to think of. Do you ask what forms it? I answer the everyday conversation they hear, the habits they witness, and the people they are taught to respect. Sentiments thrown out in jest, or carelessness, and perhaps forgotten by the speaker as soon as uttered, often sink deeply into the youthful mind, and have a powerful influence on future character. This is true in very early childhood; and it is peculiarly true at the period when youth is just ripening into manhood. Employ what teachers we may, the influences at home will have the mightiest influences in education. Schoolmasters may cultivate the intellect; but the things said and done at home are busy agents in forming the affections; and the latter have infinitely more important consequences than the former.

Child, The Mother's Book, p. 146.

Advice literature of the time built the case for child rearing to be taken seriously. While middle-class white children certainly benefited from such attention, there were also growing populations of abandoned and poor "street children," especially in expanding urban areas. By the 1840s and 1850s, the problem of petty crimes and vagrancy among children in New York was perceived as a threat to civility and predictions of a growing "dangerous" underclass began to proliferate. Philanthropic efforts were begun to save children. Charles Loring Brace established the Children's Aid Society in 1853, and actions were taken to get children off the street and into facilities where they would receive adult supervision and care. Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York, published in 1867, popularized the struggles of urban underclass children and their relentless efforts to improve themselves and rise above a life of poverty, actually as much through luck and the intervention of benevolent wealthy strangers as through their own cunning and hard work. Alger's writing was certainly one version of presenting the bad-child-turned-successful formula and served to construct the didactic message linking social mobility to honest effort in a democratic society.

Bad-boy fiction conveyed other viewpoints as well. It also provided a way to glorify the noncon-forming, precocious independent child whose less than stellar behavior was more an insightful act of resistance to societal restraint than it was a sign of maliciousness. Furthermore, the bad boy, in his refusal to be civilized and grown up, was a nineteenth-century manifestation of the Peter Pan complex, and this reluctance to comply was communicated as particularly American. Even before Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Mark Twain published "The Story of the Bad Little Boy" and "The Story of the Good Little Boy." These stories were some of the first examples of the bad-boy genre and were parodies of sentimental fiction that contained the usual trajectory of reward promised pious, well-behaved children explicit particularly in the Sunday school series. But Twain reverses the trajectory: the bad boy is seen as justified in his unruliness, and the good boy endures more pain than reward for his propriety.


Attitudes toward real children changed drastically in the nineteenth century. Whereas references to children in poetry and diaries of previous centuries focused mainly on birth and death in baptism or funeral elegies emphasizing the child's salvation, by the nineteenth century attention began to be directed to the quality of a child's upbringing and the experience of childhood itself. This attitude had emerged as a logical extension of eighteenth-century sermons about parents' responsibilities in helping their children consciously adopt Christian practices for redemption of the child's innate sinfulness and then extended to an understanding that children are indeed malleable and could be shaped in ways that promoted moral conscience and good character as was necessary, particularly in the national context of political uncertainties and change. The modern understanding of childhood as an important life stage took hold in the early 1800s, perhaps because for the first time in history, childhood was embraced as a period of preparation for adult life and children were viewed as responsive to a variety of adult influences. The breaking of the child's will through harsh discipline and even beatings to the point of death in rare cases in the 1600s and 1700s shifted to gentler approaches that emphasized cultivating a relationship of nurturance, trust, and guidance aimed at building, not breaking, the child's character and spirit.

Since Ann Douglas coined the phrase "the cult of motherhood" in her 1976 book The Feminization of American Culture, much scholarly attention has been given to studying connections between nineteenth-century domestic advice literature and literary texts produced for children as well as its influence on major literary work for adult readers, such as The Scarlet Letter or Uncle Tom's Cabin. The critical role of the mother in the child's care and education, the movement away from the use of corporeal punishment in favor of instilling an internalized self-restraint in the child through firm but gentle parental correction, and the importance given the role of play and entertainment are three basic themes appearing repeatedly as recommendations for raising children with strong self discipline and initiative in addition to nurturing in them the awareness and capacity to make constructive social contribution. Two early secular child-care publications that had wide influence on parents and teachers and on subsequent advice authors were Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic (1784) by Benjamin Rush (1746–1813) and Treatise on the Physical and Medical Treatment of Children (1825) by William Potts Dewees (1768–1841). Rush and Dewees, both physicians, emphasized good physical and mental health in children and early cultivation of a social consciousness to the extent that the child must understand his or her purpose in life to be one of contribution to community functioning even if it entailed the sacrifice of personal advantage or whim. With the breakdown of the father's autocratic rule of the family prevalent during colonial times, the mother assumed a more central role in the management of the home and children throughout the 1800s. Motherhood was a personal as well as patriotic duty for women to take seriously, and from 1830 through 1850, an extensive list of books with this message was published. Most influential in this category were The Mother's Book (1831) by Lydia Maria Child, Home (1835) by Catherine Sedgwick, Letters to Mothers (1839) by Lydia Sigourney, and Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) by Catherine Beecher. Later, in 1869, Catherine Beecher (1800–1878) and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe published The American Woman's Home; or, Principles of Domestic Science Being a Guide to the Formation and Maintenance of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, and Christian Homes. The lengthy title bespeaks the comprehensive duty of women to "form" and "maintain" the domestic sphere, which of course included the care of children and from which men had less and less influence because they were preoccupied by demands in the public, not private, realm. These books were written by and for women, yet men also published significant contributions on child rearing. In 1847 Horace Bushnell wrote Views of Christian Nurture, and as early as 1833 a small version of The Mother at Home by John Abbott was published, to be published again in 1852.

In the wake of such attentiveness to raising children, the market for books and periodicals for children and youth exploded in the early and mid-1800s. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), a prolific writer and abolitionist, started publishing the magazine Juvenile Miscellany in 1826. The periodical, although intensely popular for awhile, was discontinued in 1834, when subscriptions fell drastically in protest of Child's out-spoken opposition to slavery. Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860) began publishing the series of Tales of Peter Parley about America in 1827, followed by his publication of Parley's Magazine. Later Goodrich solicited the help of writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Sedgwick, and Oliver Wendell Holmes to contribute to a gift book called The Token that was released each year from 1827 to 1842. Jacob Abbott, already widely known for his child rearing advice, wrote a series of popular books focused on a central child character, Rollo.

For the most part, children's literature, whether fictional or factual, had a didactic flavor and was geared to promote a unified national identity and instill a sense of morally inspired character in nineteenth-century youth. Scholarly work examining children's literature grew exponentially in the late twentieth century and considers gender role divisions in addition to social class, moral, and political messages embedded in these texts. Without doubt, the modern understanding of childhood as a developmentally significant time began in the decades of the early and middle nineteenth century. With greater attention devoted to nurturing children and by conceptualizing childhood as a formative life stage, the period from 1820 to 1850 viewed children as resources to be cultivated with the goal of securing a strong and unified democratic citizenry. Fiction and nonfiction of the period portrayed the child as a site of opportunity and hope, filled with wisdom and promise for a better future in a new nation valuing good character and persistent self-improvement.

See alsoChildren's and Adolescent Literature; Domestic Fiction; Education; Marriage; Reform; Romanticism; The Scarlet Letter;Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Aldrich, Thomas Bailey. The Story of a Bad Boy. 1869. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1976.

Alger, Horatio. Ragged Dick; or, Street Life in New York with the Boot-Blacks. 1867. Introduction by Alan Trachtenberg. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Child, Lydia Maria. The Mother's Book. 1831. New York: Arno, 1972.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph WaldoEmerson. Centenary ed., 12 vols., edited by Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks. 10 vols., edited by William Gilman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1966.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. 1836. In Norton Anthology of American Literature, 6th ed., shorter version, edited by Nina Baym, pp. 1072–1101. New York: Norton, 2002.

Fern, Fanny. Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio. 1853. Auburn, N.Y.: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1854.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Twice-Told Tales. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, volume 9. Columbus: Ohio University Press, 1974.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1852. Introduction by Jane Smiley. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Thoreau, Henry David. The Journal of Henry David Thoreau. 14 vols. Edited by Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Manhood." In Henry David Thoreau: Collected Essays and Poems, edited by Robert F. Sayre. New York: Library of America, 2001.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Other Writings. 1855. Edited by Michael Moon. New York: Norton, 2002.

Secondary Works

Avery, Gillian. Behold the Child: American Children and Their Books, 1621–1922. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Brodhead, Richard H. "Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America." In Culture of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Richard H. Brodhead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. 1976. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Levander, Caroline, and Carol Singley, eds. The American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

Nudelman, Franny. "'Emblem and Product of Sin': The Poisoned Child in The Scarlet Letter and Domestic Advice Literature." Yale Journal of Criticism 10, no. 1 (1997): 193–213.

Price, Kenneth M., and Susan Belasco Smith, eds. Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

Reinier, Jacqueline S. From Virtue to Character: American Childhood, 1775–1850. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Singley, Carol J. "Building a Nation, Building a Family: Adoption in Nineteenth-Century American Children's Literature." In Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives, edited by E. Wayne Carp. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Trensky, Anne Tropp. "The Bad Boy in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction." Georgia Review 27 (winter 1973): 503–517.

Trensky, Anne Tropp. "The Saintly Child in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction." Prospects: Annual of American Cultural Studies 1 (1975): 389–413.

Wardrop, Daneen. "Hawthorne's Revisioning of 'The Little Cherub': Pearl and Nineteenth-Century Childrearing Manuals." National Hawthorne Review 26 (2000): 18–32.

Nancy D. Chase


views updated Jun 27 2018


Childhood is usually defined in relation to adulthood: the condition of being an immature person, of having not yet become an adult. In some societies, physical or reproductive maturity marks the transition to adulthood, but in modern Western societies full adult status is not usually achieved until several years after puberty. Childhood is legally defined here as a state of dependency on adults or as the status of those excluded from citizenship on the grounds of their youth. Dependence and exclusion from citizenship are in turn justified in terms of young people's incapacity to look after themselves or their emotional and cognitive unfitness for adult rights and responsibilities. Hence, psychological immaturity becomes a further criterion for deciding who counts as a child. The definition of childhood, then, involves complex cultural judgments about maturity and immaturity, children's assumed capabilities, and their difference from adults. Therefore, childhood is a social category, not merely a natural one.

Modern legal systems institutionalize childhood by setting an age of majority at which persons become legal subjects responsible for their own affairs and able to exercise citizenship rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen unless, under the laws of his or her country, the age of majority comes sooner. Even with such legalistic dividing lines, there are still areas of ambiguity. Within any one country there may be various markers of adult status, so that one ceases to be a child for some purposes while remaining one for others. For example, the right to vote and the right to marry without parental consent may be acquired at different times.

Modern Western Conception of Childhood

Childhood has not been defined and experienced in the same ways in all societies at all times. The modern Western conception of childhood is historically and culturally specific. Philippe Ariès (1962) was one of the first to suggest that childhood is a modern discovery. He argued that in medieval times children, once past infancy, were regarded as miniature adults; they dressed like adults and shared adult's work and leisure. Children were not assumed to have needs distinct from those of adults, nor were they shielded from any aspects of adult life. Knowledge of sexual relations was not considered harmful to them and public executions were a spectacle attended by people of all ages. In claiming that there was no concept of childhood prior to modern times, however, Ariès overstated his case (see Pollock 1983; Archard 1993). Shulamith Shahar (1990) suggests that medieval thinkers did see young children as being less developed in their mental and moral capacities than adults. It is clear from Ariès's own evidence that children did not always do the same work as adults and that they occupied a distinct place within society.

David Archard (1993) makes a useful distinction here between a concept of childhood and a conception of childhood. A concept of childhood requires only that children are in some way distinguished from adults; a conception entails more specific ideas about children's distinctiveness. The existence of a concept of childhood in the past does not mean that those people shared the modern conception of childhood. Medieval writers thought of childhood rather differently from how it is viewed today. They dwelt on the status and duties of children and on the rights accorded them at various stages of maturity (Shahar 1990). Childhood was defined primarily as a social status rather than as a psychological, developmental stage. Attitudes toward children began to change, very slowly, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, affecting upper-class boys first, then their sisters (Ariès 1962; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1969). By the nineteenth century, middle-class children were confined to home and school, but many working-class children continued to work and contribute to the support of their families (see Davin 1990; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973). Gradually, however, children as a whole were excluded from the adult world of work and the period of dependent childhood lengthened.

Both historians and anthropologists have argued that modern Western societies make an unusually sharp distinction between childhood and adulthood (Ariès 1962; Benedict: 1938; Mead and Wolfenstein 1955). Western children are excluded by law and convention from many aspects of adult social life. They spend most of their time either within their families or within institutions designed to care for, educate, or entertain them separately from adults. They therefore have little contact with adults outside the circle of family and friends apart from childcare professionals. Many of the special arrangements made for children serve to emphasize their difference from adults: their clothes, toys, games, songs and books, even the colors of their bedrooms. Children are treated not simply as inexperienced members of society, but as qualitatively different from adults.

Childhood is also conceptualized as a process of development toward adulthood. In the nineteenth century, childhood began to be mapped out as a series of developmental stages that determined the character of the adult individual. Both Archard (1993) and Nikolas Rose (1989) accord a decisive role at this time to the emerging discipline of psychology. Rose argues that, in making it the object of scientific inquiry, psychology constructed or invented childhood and claimed a particular expertise in categorizing children, measuring their aptitudes, managing and disciplining them—and has done so ever since (Rose 1989).

Living in a society where childhood is thought of as a series of developmental stages has specific effects on children. For example, schooling is organized as a series of age-graded progressions, which means that children are not only relatively segregated from adults but also from children of different ages. Children themselves acquire ideas about what is appropriate for people of their own age and may try to negotiate specific freedoms or privileges on this basis. Ordering children's lives in this way also influences what they are capable of achieving. It has been argued that the restriction of children to age-graded institutions may help to construct the very developmental stages that are seen as universal features of childhood (Skolnick 1980; Archard 1993). For a child to behave in the manner of someone older is often thought inappropriate, so the term precocious has become an insult. Age-grading may help to keep children childish. Historical and anthropological evidence suggests that children in other societies and in the past were far more independent and capable of taking care of themselves than Western children are today ( Jackson 1982).

The idea of childhood as a developmental phase means that childhood is usually seen as important largely in terms of its consequences for adulthood. This is, as a number of researchers have pointed out, a very adult-centered view (Leonard 1990; Thorne 1987; Waksler 1986). Children are thought of as incomplete adults whose experiences are not worth investigating in their own right, but only insofar as they constitute learning for adulthood. Developmental theories presuppose that children have different capacities at different ages, yet children are frequently characterized as the polar opposites of adults: children are dependent, adults are independent; children play, adults work; children are emotional, adults are rational. The definitions of both childhood and adulthood are, moreover, gendered. Models of ideal adulthood are frequently in effect models of manhood, so that there is often a correspondence between attributes deemed childish and those deemed feminine— such as emotionality—and conversely those deemed adult and masculine—such as rationality ( Jackson 1982; Thorne 1987).

The definition of childhood as a developmental stage and psychological state masks the fact that it is still a social status. Because childhood is defined as a stage or state of incapacity, children are thought to be incapable of exercising adult rights. There is considerable debate about whether this assumption is justified or not and about what rights are appropriate to children (see Thorne 1987; Archard 1993). Childhood is an exclusionary status (Hood-Williams 1990) in that children are neither citizens nor legal subjects and are under the jurisdiction of their parents. Their subordinate position is also evident in their interaction with adults. A child is expected to be deferential and obedient; a "naughty" child is one who defies adult authority.

Children Within Families

Within families, children are defined as dependents, subject to parental authority. Economic dependence is a crucial, and often neglected, aspect of children's status within families (see Leonard 1990; Hood-Williams 1990; Delphy and Leonard 1992). Children's lifestyles are dependent on their parents' income and their parents' decisions about how that income should be spent. The goods children receive come in the form of gifts or maintenance; they have things bought for them rather than buying them for themselves. Children can exercise choice over these purchases only if their parents allow them to choose. A child may well receive pocket money, or money as gifts, but this too is given at adults' discretion and adults may seek to influence how it is spent. Dependent, adult-mediated consumption is one facet of the power that parents have over children.

It has been argued that parents today have less power and autonomy than in the past because childrearing is now policed and regulated by experts and state agencies (Donzalot 1980; Ehrenreich and English 1978). Nonetheless, parents have a great deal of latitude in rearing their children as they wish, in setting acceptable standards of behavior, and in deciding what their children should eat and wear and how they should be educated and disciplined. Others' interference in these matters is regarded as violation of family privacy and an assault on parents' rights. Because modern families are seen as private institutions, state or public regulation generally only intrudes where parents are deemed to have abused their power or not exercised it effectively enough—where children are abused, neglected, or delinquent. As Barrie Thorne (1987) points out, the situation of children enters the public domain only when they are seen as victims of adults or a threat to adult society. Children also come into public view if their parents separate and contest custody, asserting the primacy of his or her rights over those of the other. Only during the late twentieth century have children been accorded any rights in deciding with which parent they prefer to live.

John Hood-Williams (1990) argues that children's lives within families are regulated in unique ways. Confinement to highly localized, restricted social spaces is part of the everyday parameters of childhood, as is the ordering of children's time by others. Childhood is also remarkable, says Hood-Williams, for the degree of control exercised over the body by others. Children's deportment, posture, movement, and appearance are regulated; they are touched, kissed, and fussed over to a degree unparalleled in any other social relationship. Children are also the people most likely to be subject to corporal punishment; many U.S. and U.K. parents hit their children on occasion (Gelles 1979; Newsom and Newsom 1965, 1968).

Styles of childrearing, however, have become undoubtedly less authoritarian than they were in the late nineteenth century. Increased concern about children's special needs has resulted in more emphasis on the quality of childcare, and each new model of child development has involved changes in standards of ideal parenting, especially mothering (see Hardyment 1983). Families are often described as child-centered. Certainly children's needs are given a high priority, but these are defined for them by adults, tied in part to the responsibility placed on parents to raise children who will conform to wider social norms. It is widely recognized that socialization, or the social construction of subjectivity, of identities, desires, and aptitudes begins with early experience of family life.

An important aspect of this process is the reproduction of family members, of each new generation of adults who will marry and have children. Although family structures are changing, the majority of the Western population still fulfills these expectations. To take up positions as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, individuals are required to be identifiably masculine or feminine and to be predominantly heterosexual. Despite opposition from feminist, lesbian, and gay activists, the family remains a heterosexual institution founded on hierarchies of age and gender (see Delphy and Leonard 1992).

This raises questions about how childhood experiences influence sexual and romantic desires and expectations of marriage and family life. Much of what children learn derives from their experience of family life and the sense they make of it. This is evident, for example, in the way young children play house, recreating the patterns of relationships they see around them. The single most important factor in the shaping of future sexual and familial identities and experiences is gender. To enter into any social relationships whatsoever, children must be defined, and must position themselves, as girls or boys; there is no gender-neutral option. Gender then becomes an organizing principle around which sexual, emotional, and romantic desires are ordered ( Jackson 1982; Davies 1989; Crawford et al. 1992).

Sexual learning in early childhood, for both sexes, is limited by adults' concealment of sexual knowledge from children. Children usually first learn about sexual relations as a reproductive, heterosexual act, but this does not mean that children learn nothing else of sexual significance. They learn, for instance, about bodily attractiveness, deportment, and modesty in a way that is shaped by adult sexual assumptions and impinges particularly on girls ( Jackson 1982; Haug 1987). They become acquainted with codes of romance from such sources as fairy tales (Davies 1989). This is true of both sexes, but again it is girls who are encouraged to take part in feminine romantic rituals and to become more fluent in discourses of love and emotion ( Jackson 1993). Numerous researchers suggest that romantic ideals profoundly affect the way in which young women later come to terms with their sexuality (Lees 1993; Thompson 1989; Thomson and Scott 1991). Boys, on the whole, become less emotionally fluent, find intimacy problematic, and make sense of sexuality through a language of masculine bravado (Seidler 1989; Wood 1984). This may help set the pattern, so often observed in studies of marriage, where women seek forms of emotional closeness that men are unable to provide (Cancian 1989).

Nancy Chodorow (1978) argues, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that this pattern of heterosexual incompatibility is reproduced because women care for children. Girls grow up in a close identificatory relationship with their mothers and so develop the desire to nurture and be nurtured. Boys can establish their masculinity only by distancing themselves from the feminine, becoming more autonomous and less able to establish emotional closeness with others. This process is envisaged as occurring largely at an unconscious level. Other perspectives suggest that children's emotional and sexual desires develop through their active negotiation of gendered positions within the social world (Davies 1989; Haug 1987; Jackson 1993; Crawford et al. 1992). In either case, the experiences of children have an effect on their later lives and on the expectations they bring to adult sexual, marital, and family relationships.

See also:Adulthood; Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Child Abuse: Sexual Abuse; Childcare; Child Custody; Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Childhood, Stages of: Infancy; Childhood, Stages of: Middle Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Childhood, Stages of: Toddlerhood; Children's Rights; Development: Cognitive; Development: Emotional; Development: Moral; Development: Self; Discipline; Family Development Theory; Family, History of; Family Policy; Family Roles; Gender; Gender Identity; Only Children; Oppositionality; Play; Sexuality in Childhood; School; Socialization


archard, d. (1993). children: rights and childhood. london: routledge & kegan paul.

ariès, p. (1962). centuries of childhood. london:jonathan cape.

benedict, r. (1938). "continuities and discontinuities incultural conditioning." psychiatry 1:161–167.

cancian, f. (1989). love in america. cambridge, uk.:cambridge university press.

chodorow, n. (1978). the reproduction of mothering.berkeley: university of california press.

crawford, j.; kippax, s.; onyx, j.; gault, u.; and benton, p.(1982). emotion and gender: constructing meaning from memory. newbury park, ca: sage publications.

davies, b. (1989). frogs and snails and feminist allen and unwin.

davin, a. (1990). "when is a child not a child?" in thepolitics of everyday life, ed. h. corr and l. jamieson. london: macmillan.

delphy, c., and leonard, d. (1992). familiar exploitation.oxford: polity.

donzalot, j. (1980). the policing of families: welfare versus the state. london: hutchinson.

ehrenreich, b., and english, d. (1978). for her owngood: 150 years of experts' advice to women. new york: doubleday.

gelles, r. (1979). family violence. newbury park, ca:sage publications.

hardyment, c. (1983). dream babies: child care fromlocke to spock. london: jonathan cape.

haug, f., ed. (1987). female sexualization. london: verso.

hernandez, d. j. (1997). "child development and the social demographics of childhood." child development 68(1):149–169.

hood-williams, j. (1990). "patriarchy for children: on thestability of power relations in children's lives." in childhood, youth, and social change: a comparative perspective, ed. l. chisholm, p. buchner, h.-h. kruger, and p. brown. london: falmer.

jackson, s. (1982). childhood and sexuality. oxford: basilblackwell.

jackson, s. (1993). "even sociologists fall in love: an exploration in the sociology of emotions." sociology 27:201–220.

jenks, c. (1996). childhood. new york: routledge.

kagan, j., and gall, s. b., eds. (1998). the gale encyclopedia of childhood and adolescence. detroit: gale.

lees, s. (1993). sugar and spice: sexuality and adolescentgirls. london: penguin books.

leonard, d. (1990). "persons in their own right: children and sociology in the uk." in childhood, youth, and social change: a comparative perspective, ed. l. chisholm, p. buchner, h.-h. kruger, and p. brown. london: falmer.

mansfield, p., and collard, j. (1988). the beginning of therest of your life. london: macmillan.

mead, m., and wolfenstein, m. (1955). childhood in contemporary cultures. chicago: university of chicago press.

newsom, j., and newsom, e. (1965). patterns of infantcare in an urban community. london: penguin books.

newsom, j., and newson, e. (1968). four years old in anurban community. london: penguin books.

pinchbeck, i., and hewitt, m. (1969). children in englishsociety, vol. 1. london: routledge & kegan paul.

pinchbeck, i., and hewitt, m. (1973). children in englishsociety, vol. 2. london: routledge & kegan paul.

pollock, l. a. (1983). forgotten children: parent-child relations from 1500–1900. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

rose, n. (1989). governing the soul: the shaping of the private self. london: routledge & kegan paul.

seidler, v. (1989). rediscovering masculinity. london:routledge & kegan paul.

shahar, s. (1990). childhood in the middle ages. london:routledge & kegan paul.

skolnick, a. (1980). "children's rights, children's development." in children's rights and juvenile justice, ed.l. t. empey. charlottesville: university of virginia press.

thompson, s. (1989). "search for tomorrow: on feminism and the reconstruction of teen romance." in pleasure and danger, ed. c. vance. london: pandora.

thomson, r., and scott, s. (1991). learning about sex:young women and the social construction of sexual identity. london: tufnell press.

thorne, b. (1985). "revisioning women and socialchange: where are the children?" gender and society 1:85–109.

waksler, f. c. (1986). "studying children: phenomenological insights." human studies 91:71–82.

wood, j. (1984). "groping towards sexism: boys' sextalk." in gender and generation, ed. a. mcrobbie and m. nava. london: macmillan.

stevi jackson (1995) bibliography revised by james j. ponzetti, jr.


views updated Jun 08 2018


CHILDHOOD. Childhood as a historical construct can be defined as a constantly evolving series of steps toward adulthood shaped by a vast array of forces and ideas, ranging from ethnicity to class, from region to religion, and from gender to politics. Historians have tended to focus on two fairly distinct, if imprecise, phases of "growing up": childhood and youth. The former suggests a time of innocence, freedom from responsibility, and vulnerability. The latter includes but is not necessarily restricted to adolescence and is normally characterized as a period of "coming of age," when young people begin taking on the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. Childhood suggests a period of shared expectations and closeness between parents and children, while youth, at least in the twentieth century, connotes a period of conflict between the generations, as hormonal changes and the new generation's drive for independence spark intense emotions and competition.

Changing Patterns of Childhood

In general terms, the historical arc of childhood in the United States shows several long, gradual, and not necessarily linear shifts. The "typical" free child in the British colonies of seventeenth-century North America belonged to a relatively homogeneous society—with similar values, religious faith, expectations, and opportunities—characterized by rural settlement patterns, informal education, and little contact with institutions outside the family. By the twentieth century, the "typical" child might encounter a bewildering variety of institutions, rules, and choices in a society characterized by wider differences in wealth, increasingly complex contacts with governments at all levels, and greater concentration in cities and suburbs.

Another shift, which began in the middle classes by the mid-nineteenth century but ultimately reached all ethnic and economic groups, was the "extension" of childhood. Although early Americans had distinguished between adults and children in legal terms (certain crimes carried lighter penalties for those under certain ages), on the farms and in the workshops of the British colonies in North America the transition from child to adult could take place as soon as the little available formal schooling was completed and a skill was learned. This gradual extension of childhood—actually, a stretching of adolescence, a term popularized at the turn of the twentieth century by child-psychologist G. Stanley Hall—occurred in several ways. Schooling touched more children for longer periods of time, as states began mandating minimum lengths for school years and cities began to create high schools. (The first high school appeared in Boston in 1821, but even as late as 1940, less than 20 percent of all Americans and 5 percent of African Americans had completed high school. By the 1960s, however, over 90 percent of all youth were in high school.) Lawmakers recognized the lengthening childhood of girls by raising the age of consent, even as the average age at which young women married fell during the nineteenth century from twenty-seven to twenty-two. Reformers in the 1910s and 1920s attempted to strengthen weak nineteenth-century child labor laws, which had generally simply established ten-hour work days for young people; in the 1930s further reforms were incorporated into New Deal programs. The dramatic expansion of colleges and universities after World War II added another layer to coming-of-age experiences, and by the 1990s, nearly two-thirds of high-school graduates attended institutions of higher learning, although the percentages for minorities were much lower (11 percent for African Americans and less than 1 percent for Native Americans).

Changes in the health and welfare of children were among the most striking transformations in childhood, especially in the twentieth century. Scientists developed vaccinations for such childhood scourges as diphtheria, smallpox, polio, and measles. Combined with government funding and public school requirements that students be vaccinated, these discoveries dramatically extended the average life expectancy. Not all children shared equally in these developments, however, as infant mortality in poor black families and on Indian reservations remained shockingly above average, even in the early twenty-first century. Prescriptions for "good" child care shifted from an emphasis on discipline among New England Puritans to the more relaxed standards of the child-centered Victorian middle classes to the confident, commonsense approach of the twentieth century's favorite dispenser of child-rearing advice, Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care first appeared in 1946.

Of course, there were children living in every era of American history who did not fit into the mainstream society of the United States. Native American and African American children, whether slave or free, enemies or wards of the state, were faced, by turns, it seems, with ostracism and hostility or with forced assimilation and overbearing "reformers." Children of immigrants from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and from eastern and southern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century encountered similar responses; their lives tended to veer away from the typical lives led by middle-class, native-born, Protestant American children. Immigrant children were crowded into shabby classrooms where teachers demanded rote memorization and forbade them to speak their native languages. Segregation—de jure in the South, de facto in much of the rest of the country—characterized most school systems. Despite the transparent racism of the "separate but equal" philosophy, segregated schools were not equal. Spending for public schools serving black students was often a tenth of the amount spent on white schools, black teachers earned a fraction of their white colleagues' salaries, and black children, especially in the rural South, attended school for fewer days per year than white students. Asian American children were often placed into segregated schools in the West. Hispanic young people found that in some communities they were "white" and in others "colored," which understandably engendered confusion about their legal and social status. Native American children were sometimes forced to attend boarding schools—the most famous of which, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and Hampton Institute in Virginia, were located half a country away from the students' homes—where they were stripped of traditional ways, given English names, and often subjected to harsh living conditions.

The Common Experiences of American Childhoods

Despite great differences in child-rearing customs, material and ethnic cultures, economic standing, and family size, there were important similarities in the ways that children grew up. For instance, all children were educated to meet the expectations and needs of their communities. Farm boys in New England or Georgia or Ohio were raised to become farmers, girls to perform the chores required of farmwives. The sons and daughters of southern planters were raised to fill their niches in plantation society, even as the children of slaves were educated informally to meet their responsibilities but also to protect their meager sense of self under the crushing burdens of the "peculiar institution." Native American children were taught to be hunters and warriors, wives and mothers, by instructors who were sometimes family members and other times teachers assigned to train large groups of children.

Members of every cultural group raised children to understand their particular traditions, including religious faiths, assumptions about proper use of resources, the importance of family, and appreciation for the larger culture. Each group developed and passed along to the next generation beliefs to sustain them and rituals to remind them of their heritages. Protestants and Catholics from Europe and, later, Latin America, sustained traditions of religious training culminating in first communion, confirmation, and other rites of passage; Jewish adolescents became members of their religious communities through Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs; Native American children participated in equivalent training and ceremonies designed to pass on their own origin myths and spirituality.

Despite the vast differences in cultures among the various ethnic and racial groups in the United States, the relatively steady decline in family size and the idealization of the family and of children—which proceeded at different rates among different groups and in different regions—affected children in a number of ways. For instance, as family size among the white, urban, middle class dwindled, children became the center of the family's universe. They were given more room—literally and figuratively—and enjoyed greater privacy and opportunities to develop their own interests. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the commercial publishing and toy industries began to take over the play and leisure time of children; nurseries and children's rooms filled with mass-produced toys and with books and magazines published exclusively for children. Although children continued to draw on their imaginations, as the decades passed, the sheer volume of commercially produced toys grew, their prices dropped, and more and more American children could have them. By the 1980s and 1990s, electronic toys, videotaped movies, and computer games, along with the still-burgeoning glut of television programming for children, had deeply altered play patterns; for instance, children tended to stay inside far more than in the past.

Some children and youth took advantage of the environments and the opportunities found in the West and in the cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Children of migrants and of immigrants differed from their parents in that, while the older generation was leaving behind former lives, children were, in effect, starting from scratch. Although they had to work on the farms and ranches of rural America and on the streets and in the sweatshops of the cities, young people managed to shape their lives to the environments in which they lived, which was reflected in their work and play. City streets became play grounds where organized activities like stickball and more obscure, improvised street games were played, while intersections, theater districts, and saloons provided opportunities to earn money selling newspapers and other consumer items. Such jobs allowed children—mainly boys, but also a few girls—to contribute to the family economy and to establish a very real measure of independence from their parents. Similarly, life on farms and on ranches in the developing West, even as it forced children into heavy responsibilities and grinding labor, offered wide open spaces and a sense of freedom few of their parents could enjoy. Of course, in both of these scenarios, boys tended to enjoy more freedom than girls, who were often needed at home to care for younger siblings or married while still adolescents. The stereotype of the "little mother," a common image in the popular culture of the cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was an equally accurate description of the childhood work performed by rural girls.

Children and Childhood as Social and Political Issues

Even as children in different eras tried to assert themselves and to create their own worlds, a growing number of private and public institutions attempted to extend, improve, and standardize childhood. Motivated by morality, politics, economics, and compassion, reformers and politicians constructed a jungle of laws regulating the lives of children, founded organizations and institutions to train and to protect them, and fashioned a model childhood against which all Americans measured their own efforts to raise and nurture young people.

The middle class that formed in the crucible of nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization set standards in many facets of American life, including the family. Bolstered by the "domestic ideal," a renewed evangelical religious faith, and a confidence in middle-class American values, the growing middle class established myriad reform movements affecting all aspects of society, including children. Orphanages increasingly replaced extended families; Children's Aid Societies pioneered the "placing out" of needy city children with foster parents living on farms or in small towns. Educational institutions and schoolbooks were designed to instill citizenship and patriotism, create responsible voters, and teach useful vocational skills during the first wave of educational reform early in the nineteenth century.

Children and youth were also the subjects of numerous reforms and social movements in the twentieth century. Settlement houses helped educate, assimilate, and nurture urban children with kindergartens, nurseries, art and other special classes, and rural outings. Juvenile courts, which originated in Chicago in 1899 and quickly spread to other urban areas, separated young offenders from experienced criminals and offered counseling and education rather than incarceration. By the 1910s, child labor reformers began attacking more aggressively than their predecessors the practice of hiring youngsters to work in mines and factories and in the "street trades." The 1930s New Deal included provisions prohibiting the employment of individuals under fourteen years of age and regulating the employment of young people less than eighteen. The modest origins of the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912 paved the way for greater government advocacy for the health and welfare of children. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s centered partly on children, as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Supreme Court decision inspired hundreds of individual lawsuits aimed at desegregating the public schools of the South, and, by the 1970s and 1980s, northern school districts. The 1935 Social Security Act included programs like Aid to Dependent Children, which were expanded during the Great Society of the mid-1960s in the form of Head Start, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and need-based college scholarships. Finally, late-twentieth-century campaigns to reform welfare obviously affected the children of mothers moved from welfare rolls into the minimum-wage job market, while pupils at public and private schools alike were touched by efforts to improve education through school vouchers and other educational reforms.

The "Discovery of Childhood" and American Children

One of the most controversial elements of the study of children's history is the degree to which children were "miniature adults" in the colonial period, "discovered" only as family size dwindled and the expanding middle class embraced the concept of the child-centered family. Most historians of American children and youth believe children were always treated as a special class of people, emotionally, politically, and spiritually. Even in the large families of colonial New England or in late-nineteenth-century immigrant ghettos, the high mortality rate did not mean individual children were not cherished.

But Americans' attitudes toward their children have changed from time to time. Because of their necessary labor on the farms and in the shops of early America, children were often considered vital contributors to their families' economies. Public policy regarding poor or orphaned children balanced the cost of maintaining them with the benefits of their labor. For instance, most orphanages, in addition to providing a basic education, also required children to work in the institutions' shops and gardens. Lawsuits and settlements for injuries and deaths of children due to accidents often hinged on the value to parents of the child's future labor, similarly, up through the mid-to late-nineteenth century child-custody cases were normally settled in favor of fathers, at least partly because they were believed to be entitled to the product of their offspring's labor, both girls and boys. The child-nurturing attitudes of the twentieth century, however, recognized the value of children more for their emotional than their economic contributions. Lawsuits and custody settlements came to focus more on the loss of companionship and affection and on the psychological and emotional health of the children and parents than on the youngsters' economic value.

Childhood at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century

Many of the issues that have characterized children's experiences since the colonial period continue to shape their lives nearly four hundred years later. Youth still work, but their jobs tend to be part time and their earnings tend to be their own. For girls, smaller families have eliminated the need for the "little mothers" who had helped maintain immigrant and working-class households generations earlier. The educational attainment and health of minority children, while improving, still lags behind that of white children, with one shocking twist: the most serious health threat facing male, African American teenagers is homicide. Yet, however much the demographics, economics, politics, and ethics of childhood have changed, the basic markers for becoming an adult—completing one's schooling, finding an occupation, marriage—remained the same.


Berrol, Selma. Immigrants at School: New York City, 1898–1914. New York: Arno Press, 1978. The original edition was published in 1967.

Bremner, Robert H., ed. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970–1974.

Calvert, Karin. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992.

Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The Metropolitan Experience, 1876–1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Fass, Paula, and Mary Ann Mason, eds. Childhood in America. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Graff, Harvey. Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Hawes, Joseph M., and N. Ray Hiner. American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Mason, Mary Ann. From Father's Property to Children's Rights: The History of Child Custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Nasaw, David. Children of the City: At Work & At Play. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1985.

Szasz, Margaret. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination Since 1928. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

West, Elliott. Growing Up in Twentieth-Century America: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Youcha, Geraldine. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985; repr. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.


See alsoChild Abuse ; Child Care ; Child Labor ; Education .


views updated May 14 2018





Births: From Midwife to Physician. In pre-industrial Europe, midwives controlled the birthing process. Birth was women’s domain, and midwives used techniques derived from generations of tradition and experience to assist in the delivery of babies, allowing most births to run their natural course and generally not interfering in the process. This practice was still largely followed in late-nineteenth-century Russia, where the uneducated midwife, or povitukha, assisted pregnant peasant women. Part of their help included preparing warm baths and special herbs and ointments. In wealthier households, special cloths were hung around the room and the bed for the delivery. Midwives also helped with the housework after the birth. By the nineteenth century, professional male doctors trained in medical schools open only to males began to write manuals on childbirth and gradually pushed the midwives out of the birthing process. During the eighteenth century, male doctors had begun using new inventions—such as forceps—to move the baby manually through the birth canal. These technologies were effective, but such tools and procedures were still in the developmental stage and contributed to the deaths of women and their infants in childbirth—as did doctors’ ignorance of the need to sanitize their instruments and the mother’s immediate environment.

Nursing. Wet-nursing, the process of having another woman breast-feed one’s infant, either in one’s home or at the wet nurse’s home, was common in pre-industrial western Europe. Often, urban, middle-class mothers sent their babies away from home for some time to live with and be nursed by poorer women in the countryside. Weaning usually occurred during the child’s second year, and a child sometimes lived away from its parents until that time. Around 1750 philosophers began to express their disapproval of mothers who sent their children out to nurse, for many wet nurses lived in impoverished, unhealthy environments. They also argued that children imbibed not only the milk but also the morals and integrity of the nurse. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) accused wet nurses of negligence and argued that women who neglected “their first duty” to nurse their own children were bad mothers. His belief that the death rate for wet-nursed children was higher than that for babies nursed by their own mothers is supported by statistics. Wet-nursing was also increasingly criticized by the middle classes for depriving a child of its natural relationship with its mother.

Baby Food. Food for newborns went beyond breast milk in some colder European environments where animal milk might keep for longer periods of time than in warm climates. In the Scandinavian countries and eastern Europe mothers often supplemented their own milk with pap. The ingredients of pap varied from region to region, but it was generally a mixture of animal milk and bread crumbs or flour. Parents soaked towels or other cloths in this mixture and allowed babies to suckle the cloth. Sometimes they sucked on the same one for up to a week. Some Russian women added bacon to pap.

Disease Prevention. Increasingly in the nineteenth century, published guides for mothers offered instruction on how to care for their children. By the end of the century, mothers were beginning to learn about diseases and bacteria from the work of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and began to boil animal milk to reduce the danger of its causing illness in newborns. The practice of swaddling (wrapping the child tightly in cloth bands), which was common in pre-industrial Europe, came under criticism from eighteenth-century philosophers, who viewed the practice as detrimental to the baby’s health and to its natural desire for freedom. Swaddling was gradually abandoned, first in urban areas and then in the countryside, where traditional practices retained their grip longer.

Child Mortality Compared to modern standards, infant mortality was extremely high in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Between 1840 and 1845, on average, 137 of 1,000 Danish children died in their first year of life. The rates were a bit higher in France and England. By the end of the century, infant mortality was 150 deaths per 1,000 births in many countries, including France, Italy, England, and Sweden. Not only did births occur in unsanitary rooms, but also babies born before the development of modern immunization were vulnerable to a variety of diseases and complications. Once pasteurized milk became available in the later nineteenth century, one cause of infant mortality was substantially reduced. Child mortality rates were highest before weaning (usually during the second year) and declined steadily thereafter.


At the end of her best-selling Book of Household Management (1861), Isabella Beeton (1836–1865) included a section titled “The Rearing and Management of Children, and Diseases of Infancy and Childhood.” By the nineteenth century, the middle class assumed that the truly caring and moral mother would breast-feed her child instead of sending it to a wet nurse. Like her contemporaries, Beeton praised the soothing effects of beer on infants, a food not recommended by modern medical practitioners.

As Nature has placed in the bosom of the mother the natural food of her offspring, it must be self-evident to every reflecting woman, that it becomes her duty to study, as far as lies in her power, to keep that reservoir of nourishment in as pure and invigorating a condition as possible; for she must remember that the quantity is no proof of the quality of this aliment.

The mother, while suckling, as a general rule, should avoid all sedentary occupations, take regular exercise, keep her mind as lively and pleasingly occupied as possible, especially by music and singing. Her diet should be light and nutritious, with a proper sufficiency of animal food, and of that kind which yields the largest amount of nourishment; and, unless the digestion is naturally strong, vegetables and fruit should form a very small proportion of the general dietary, and such preparations as broths, gruels, arrowroot, etc ..., still less. Tapioca, or groundrice pudding, made with several eggs, may be taken freely; but all slops and thin potations, such as that delusion called chicken-broth, should be avoided, as yielding a very small amount of nutriment, and a large proportion of flatulence.... Lactation is always an exhausting process, and as the child increases in size and strength, the drain upon the mother becomes great and depressing. Something more even than an abundant diet is required to keep the mind and body up to a standard sufficiently healthy to admit of a constant and nutritious secretion being performed without detriment to the physical integrity of the mother, or injury to the child who imbibes it; and as stimulants are inadmissible, if not positively injurious, the substitute required is to be found in malt liquor. To the lady accustomed to her Madeira and sherry, this may appear a very vulgar potation for a delicate young mother to take instead of the more subtle and condensed elegance of wine; but as we are writing from experience, and with the avowed object of imparting useful facts and beneficial remedies to our readers, we allow no social distinctions to interfere with our legitimate object....

The nine or twelve months a woman usually suckles must be, to some extent, to most mothers, a period of privation and penance, and unless she is deaf to the cries of her baby, and insensible to its kicks and plunges, and will not see in such muscular evidences the gripping pains that rack her child, she will avoid every article that can remotely affect the little being who draws its sustenance from her.... As the best tonic, then, and the most efficacious indirect stimulant that a mother can take at such times, there is no potation equal to farter and stout, or, what is better stiE, an equal part of porter and stout.... Stout alone is too potent to admit of a full draught, from its proneness to affect the head; and quantity, as well as moderate strength, is required to make the draught effectual; the equal mixture, therefore, of stout and porter yields all the properties desired or desirable as a medicinal agent for this purpose.

Source: Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management (London: S. O. Beeton, 1861), pp. 1034–1035.

Infanticide and Child Abandonment While many children died of natural causes, others perished at the hands of their mothers. Infanticide was a serious concern among lawmakers and local officials in the pre-industrial period. While legislation outlawing infanticide, usually advocating execution for a mother convicted of the crime, was still on the books in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, few women were prosecuted for the crime during the industrial age, suggesting that the rate of infanticide was declining, perhaps because of rising living standards and new programs aimed at aiding impoverished mothers. During the nineteenth century European states created offices and bureaus designed to help support poor mothers and to teach them how to care for their children according to middle-class standards. The means by which societies coped with the problem of child abandonment also changed. Young women with no immediate families or other support Systems sometimes felt compelled to leave unwanted children under bridges, near streams, or on the doorsteps of religious establishments. In small villages, especially in southern Europe, having an illegitimate child brought shame not only to the mother but to her entire household as well. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries European governments concerned about maintaining growth in their populations established foundling hospitals. Despite the notoriously poor conditions in such establishments, increasing numbers of mothers abandoned their children, many of them illegitimate, at these hospitals. Some mothers placed notes or identification tags on their babies, hoping that they might return one day and reclaim them, but they rarely did. One historian has estimated that by 1800 close to 100,000 children were abandoned annually in Europe.


In 1889 Pauline Kergomard (1838–1925) gave a speech to the International Congress of Women’s Charitable Organizations and Institutions in which she explained how the French Association of Child Rescue defined the physical and mental abuse of children and outlined its activities.

Abused (children) are:

Children who are the subjects of habitual and excessive physical mistreatment;

Children who, as a result of criminal negligence by their parents, are habitually deprived of proper care; Children habitually involved in mendacity, delinquency, or dissipation; Children employed in dangerous occupations; Children who are physically abandoned.

Children who are morally endangered are;

Children whose parents live in notoriously uproarious and scandalous state;

Children whose parents are habitually in a state of drunkeness;

Children whose parents live by mendacity;

Children whose parents have been convicted of crimes;

Children whose parents have been convicted of theft, habitually encouraging the delinquency of minors, of committing an offense against public decency or an immoral act....

While we wait for the law to arm us solidly against the undeserving parents from whom we have already wrenched some victims; while we wait for it to permit us to take all the children, who roam the streets to our temporary shelter, while we wait for it to permit us to search the hovels where there is torture and depravity, we have set ourselves the task of:

Snatching children from the horrible hornets’ nest of a police record by saving them from first convictions;

preventing them from being confined or released from confinement too early, which would fatally return them to the streets and bring them back before the courts;

improving their conditions at the police station or detention center while they await trial.

To this end we have established out headquarters at the Palais de Justice and, thanks to the humanitarian feelings of almost all the magistrates ... we make ourselves known to the accused on their arrival, we negotiate with certain parents who have them sign over custody to us, we send children to farmers in the country (of whom we now have one hundred twenty for this purpose), we release to the Public Assistance Administration those who fall under their jurisdiction...

Then, too, we have improved the conditions under which children are detained at the Police Station and Detention Center, girls being in greater need for this than boys. Not long ago the girls held in the Detention Center—some were four years old, some sixteen—were all placed together; now there is a separation [by ages]....

Not long ago they slept three to a cell—without surveillance. Today there is a dormitory where observation is easy.

Not long ago they had nothing to keep them busy and spent their days telling each other their sad pasts. Today they sew—the Association has furnished them with material and sent a sewing teacher—today they read, because the Association has assembled a library.

Not long ago they stayed in the Detention Center in the same sordid clothing and unwashed state as the day they were arrested. Today there are baths and changes of clothes.

Oh! There is a great deal still to be done, but the Association is happy with the results it has achieved.

Source: Lisa DiCaprio and Merry E. Wiesner, eds., Lives and Voues: Sources in Europian Women’s History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001), pp. 317–318.

Child Abuse Protecting children from abuse became an important issue during the nineteenth century and was part of a larger movement by philanthropists and reformers to protect the interests of children. Early reform movements centered on the child laborer. Michael Thomas Sadler (1780–1835), a member of the British House of Commons, introduced legislation that limited the employment of children in factories. Known as the Factory Act of 1833, this bill regulated the hours children and adolescents could work. In 1853 Prussia passed a child-labor law that established the minimum age for child labor at twelve, and France did the same in 1874. By mid century, many middle-class women had begun to exercise “natural maternal charity,” creating reform associations that took a woman’s domestic qualities into the public sphere to care for the children of the working classes. In England by 1893 perhaps as many as 500,000 women were involved in charitable organizations predominately geared to the welfare of children. By the end of the century states had begun to take over the care and welfare of children from private reform and philanthropic societies. Governments also began to make it a crime for parents to abuse their children. Many European countries established societies for the protection of children, such as the Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in England. In 1889 France and Britain passed laws that enabled the state to remove a child from parental control when “fathers and mothers..., through their habitual drunkenness, their notorious and scandalous misconduct . . . compromise the safety, health, and morality of their children.” By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the state had moved from protecting paternal rights over children to threatening to remove those rights in cases of abuse.

Transformation of Attitudes toward Children Changes in the treatment of the welfare of children may be one sign of an increase in the degree of emotional attachment parents felt toward their children. By the late nineteenth century the population increases of the previous one hundred years had slowed. Most couples had two or three children instead of four or five. Some historians have argued that this demographic shift conditioned parents to increase their attention to their children and that greater affection resulted. Many later-nineteenth-century writers and artists depicted childhood as the purest stage of human life, devoid of the imperfections later caused by society. In her autobiography, nineteenth-century author George Sand (1804–1876) stated that “childhood is good, it is honest, and the best people are those who retain the most of its innate honesty and sensitivity.” One major consequence of this outlook was the parents’ increased concentration on their children’s early development and education and on shielding children from the outside world by placing them more firmly within the parental control within the home. By 1900 Swedish writer Ellen Key could confidently predict that the twentieth century would be the “century of the child.”

Children’s Toys and Clothes Between 1750 and 1914 parents came to assume that children needed specific material objects in order to live fruitful childhoods. Toys, children’s clothes, and games all existed in pre-industrial Europe, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the production and marketing of these products were increasingly targeted exclusively for children and more and more with gender distinctions in mind. Small-toy manufacturers arose throughout Europe, and department stores and their catalogues began to focus on material goods for children. Specialized children’s periodicals were also developed during the nineteenth century. From birth until about the age of seven, European boys and girls wore similar clothes, played with the same toys, and received the same education. After seven, however, gender defined their education and material surroundings. Boys left the purview of the mother and entered the masculine world. Toy (and eventually real) horses, swords, trumpets, guns, and uniforms became the playthings for boys, while girls played with tambourines, dolls, puppets, and balls. Boys’ toys inspired an imagination that took them outside the home while girls played with puppets and dolls in the salon and so were conditioned to imagine a future life inside the home.


George Alter, The Family and the Female Life Course: The Women of Verviers, Belgium, 1849–1880 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988).

Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 (New York: Longman, 1995).

Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles, and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986).

Rachel Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

Deborah Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity / Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2001).

George E. Sussman, Selling Mothers Milk: The Wetnursing Business in France, 1715–1914 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982).


views updated May 29 2018


The period between birth and adulthood, during which a person develops physically, intellectually, and socially.

History of childhood

Childhood has been defined differently across the ages. The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 b.c.) believed children were born with certain dispositions that could be changed by their environment . Ancient Romans expressed great affection for their children in letters and on tombstones. During the Middle Ages, little distinction was made between adults and children, who worked from a very young age. The Renaissance saw the beginning of the nuclear family in Europe, with an increased focus on childhood as a time for education and training. John Locke (1632-1704), founder of the empirical school of philosophy, believed the child enters the world as a tabula rasa or blank slate, and learns through experience. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) took the opposite tack, recommending that education should follow nature since infants automatically prefer goodness. According to Sigmund Freud 's (1856-1939) psychoanalytic theory, children must pass through five psychosexual stages to achieve healthy adulthood. In contrast behaviorist John Watson (1878-1935) asserted that, given a controlled environment, he could train a child to be anything from doctor to thief. The emphasis on environment, particularly the behavior of parents, continued through the twentieth century until studies of identical and fraternal twins , reared together or apart, began to show the effect of genes on the journey from infancy to adulthood.

Prenatal development

The future adult begins not at birth but at conception, with the creation of a unique set of genes, half from the mother, half from the father. This genetic blueprint is called the genotype ; its outward manifestation is the phenotype. Sometimes the phenotype is controlled directly by the genotype, for example, eye color. More often, the phenotype represents the interaction of the genotype and the environment. It is even possible for the genotype to be altered by the environment, as happens when men exposed to certain toxins suffer an increased risk of fathering children with genetic abnormalities.

Fewer than half of fertilized eggs, called zygotes, survive the first two weeks during which the zygote moves from the fallopian tube where it was fertilized to the uterus where it is implanted. During the next six weeks, the zygote differentiates into an embryo with internal organs, skin, nerves, and rudimentary limbs, fingers, and toes. In the final seven months of gestation, the maturing skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems of what is now called the fetus make movement possible. Babies born at 28 weeks can survive, although often with chronic health problems.

As each system undergoes its most rapid growth, it is especially vulnerable to damage. In addition to genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome , environmental agents called teratogens can affect the fetus. These might be maternal viruses such as rubella (German measles) or chemicals such as nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine. Exposure to nicotine is linked to premature birth, low birth weight, and cleft (malformed) palate and lips, while exposure to alcohol is linked to intellectual and behavioral impairments. An inadequate maternal diet also puts the fetus at risk, especially its brain and nervous system . Prenatal teratogens can cause lifelong problems or even death. The vast majority of babies, however, are born healthy and normal .


Newborns enter the world with many skills. In addition to a range of adaptive reflexes such as grasping, sucking, and rooting (turning the head when the cheek is touched), they are able to recognize their mothers' face, voice, and smell . Even more impressive, less than one hour after birth, babies can imitate gestures such as sticking out the tongue.

Physical development

The average healthy newborn is 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg) and 20 inches (52 cm). It triples its weight and grows 10 to 12 inches (24-30 cm) its first year. By age two for girls and two-and-a-half for boys, babies reach half their adult height. Physical development is largely programmed by a genetically determined timetable called maturation, which proceeds in predictable stages. For healthy, well-nourished babies, progress is influenced only slightly by environment, although they need opportunities to practice new skills.

The rate of physical growth slows after the second year, not accelerating again until puberty . Both size and rate of growth are genetically determined. In industrialized societies, puberty begins at 10 for girls and 12 for boys, ages that have declined significantly over the past 150 years due to improved health and nutrition.

Intellectual development

The Swiss researcher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) pioneered the field of cognitive, or intellectual, development. On the basis of his observations and ingenious questions, he divided children's thinking into four qualitatively distinct stages, moving from a direct sensory understanding of the world, to the symbolic representation of objects, to mental manipulation of objects, to logical thinking about abstract concepts. Using new techniques such as changes in sucking and heart-rate, contemporary researchers have found that, contrary to Piaget's theory, even babies seem to understand basic principles like object permanence, the concept that objects continue to exist when hidden. And although his middle stages of development have been confirmed, far fewer people attain Piaget's final stage of logical reasoning than he predicted.

Other theories of learning attribute cognitive development not to the child's own construction of knowledge, but to conditioning, the effect of environment on the child. Conditioning works by encouraging behavior through reinforcement or discouraging it through punishment . Social learning theory adds another mechanism, modeling , or learning by observation.


The measurement of intelligence , psychometrics, began with Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Although his measures of vision , reaction time , and grip strength proved poor predictors of academic success, his model of multiple indicators of intelligence has remained useful. IQ, or intelligence quotient , was originally a way to identify children who needed remedial teaching. It compares mental age to chronological age, with average intelligence set at 100. Modern IQ tests are quite successful in predicting school success, but have been criticized as culturally biased and limited in scope. IQ tends to remain the same when measured after the age of 4, an indication of its reliability.

Language learning

Perhaps the most crucial task of childhood is learning to communicate. Researchers have found that humans are attuned to language even before birth. Following a universal sequence, even deaf babies first cry, then coo, then babble. Around eight months, babies begin to copy the sounds and intonations of their native language and speak their first words around one year of age. Vocabulary expands to over 200 words by age two, expressed in phrases such as "want cookie." The speech of three-year-olds reflects knowledge of plurals, past tense, negatives, and questions, along with an increased vocabulary. Grammatical complexity and vocabulary continue to expand throughout the school years. Children who are spoken and read to more are linguistically advanced, although late talkers tend to catch up with early talkers in the absence of other problems. Children who are read to also have less trouble learning to read.

Personality development

Personality is what makes each person unique. Where do individual differences come from and how stable are they from birth to adulthood? There is strong evidence for a biological component to personality dimensions like sociability, irritability, neuroticism, and conscientiousness, but environmental effects are also present. A baby's innate sociability, for example, can be squelched by a depressed mother, or a child's innate irritability increased by a punitive teacher. In general, however, personality characteristics remain stable from infancy to adolescence .

Social development

Children grow up in a web of social relationships. The first and most important is the bond between infant and mother called attachment . Attachment is crucial because securely attached babies tend to become sociable, confident, independent, and emotionally mature children. Adolescents who feel close to their parents also enjoy more friendships and higher self-esteem . Another predictor of social success is physical attractiveness. Even infants prefer attractive faces, as do older children. Boys who physically mature early are also more popular. Not surprisingly, aggressive, disruptive, and uncooperative behaviors are predictors of social rejection. A cycle of aggression and rejection often persists into adulthood.

Nature and nurture

The most contentious issue in the study of childhood is the relative importance of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). Purely environmental models such as behaviorism have been contradicted by numerous studies showing a strong genetic influence for everything from intelligence to shyness to sexual orientation. On the other hand, even clearly genetic traits interact with environment. Tall children, for example, are often treated as more mature. Intelligence is even more complicated. Twin studies show that between 50 and 60 percent of IQ is determined by genes. A child's genetic intellectual potential, then, is actually a range that can be maximized by a rich environment or minimized by a deprived one. In general, a child's development follows a genetic blueprint, but the final result is constrained by the building materials of the environment.

Cultural differences

Most research on childhood is conducted in Western, industrial cultures. However, there is a growing body of cross-cultural studies highlighting both similarities and differences in childhood around the world. Secure maternal attachment, for example, is less common in Germany, a culture that values autonomy, than in Japan, a culture that values community. Guatemalan mothers always sleep with their babies, who fall asleep without the rituals and problems typical among American babies. Attitudes toward school achievement also vary. Japanese and Chinese mothers expect more from their children than do American mothers, and their children outperform Americans. Some children spend their first years in constant proximity to their mother, some in day care centers. Some children watch younger siblings or work in factories, some attend school. Some children live in extended families, an increasing number live with a single parent. Despite these differences, however, children everywhere show a zest for learning, play , and friendship , and a drive to make sense out of their ever changing world.

Lindsay Evans

Further Reading

Bee, Helen. The Developing Child. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Casey, James. The History of the Family. Basil Blackwell Inc., 1989.

Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption. The Free Press, 1998.

Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. Basic Books, Inc., 1984.

Kalat, James W. Introduction to Psychology, 5th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.

"Linking Cleft Palates and Smoking Moms." New York Times, (11 April 2000): D8.

Monastersky, Richard. "A New Round of Research Rattles Old Ideas of How Infants Interpret the World." The Chronical of Higher Education, (24 March 2000): A22.

Nairne, James S. The Adaptive Mind. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1997.

Rawson, Beryl, ed. Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1996.

Wood, Samuel E. and Ellen Green Wood. The World of Psychology. Allyn and Bacon, 1996. Home page of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Last modified: April 12, 2000.


views updated May 14 2018




Changing View of Children. Historians used to think that before the eighteenth century, people were harsh or indifferent toward their children and did not regard childhood as a separate stage of life. These views were derived largely from child-raising manuals that advocated strict discipline and warned against coddling or showing too much affection, and portraits of children that showed them dressed as little adults. This bleak view has been altered as people have studied

sources that give information about the way children were actually treated rather than the way they were supposed to be treated; they have discovered that many parents showed great affection for their children and were very disturbed when they died young. Such sentiments can be seen easily in a letter from the wealthy Florentine woman Alessandra Strozzi to her son Filippo Strozzi in 1459. Parents tried to protect their children with religious amulets and pilgrimages to special shrines, made toys for them, and sang them lullabies. Even practices that may seem cruel, such as wrapping children tightly with bands of cloth (termed “swaddling”), were motivated by a concern for the child's safety and health at a time when most households had open fires, domestic animals wandered freely, and mothers and older siblings were doing work that prevented them from continually watching a toddler. Paintings from the period show small children in wheeled walkers that kept them safer until they learned to walk securely, and women's diaries report that they led their toddlers on “leading-strings” attached to their clothing to prevent them from falling or wandering.

A Boy's World. In most parts of Europe, boys inherited family land while girls generally did not, and in all parts of Europe men were regarded as superior to women. These practices and attitudes led parents to favor the birth of sons over daughters. Jewish women prayed for sons, and German midwives were often rewarded with a higher payment for assisting in the birth of a boy. English women's letters sometimes apologize for the birth of daughters. Girls significantly outnumbered boys in most orphanages or foundling homes, as poor parents decided their sons would ultimately be more useful; infants had a much poorer chance of survival in orphanages than they did if cared for by their parents. Occasionally parents who could not care for their children killed them outright, but these cases were quite rare and generally involved desperate unwed mothers; one cannot tell from the records whether girls were more likely to be killed than boys, for the court records generally simply refer to “child” or “infant.”

Divergence of Treatment. It is difficult to know whether boys and girls were treated differently when they were infants. Children were dressed alike in long dresslike garments for the first several years of their lives, rather than put into pink or blue outfits as is often common in contemporary American culture. Until they were about seven, children of both sexes were cared for by women, generally their own mothers if they were poor and servants or nursemaids if they were wealthy. When children began their training for adult life, at the age of four or five, clear distinctions became evident. Girls of all classes were taught skills that they would use in running a household—spinning, sewing, cooking, and the care of domestic animals; peasant girls were also taught some types of agricultural tasks. Boys also began to learn the skills they would use later, assisting their fathers or working in the fields. Many children began to work when they were very young; boys as young as seven might be apprenticed to a man other than their father to learn his trade, and girls might be sent at that age to another household to be a domestic servant. In northern Europe wealthy children might be sent at this age to the homes of even wealthier and more prominent people, with the expectation they would learn good manners as well as make acquaintances and contacts that would later lead to favorable marriages or help them in their careers.

Early Education. If parents themselves could read, they might begin teaching their children to read along with learning practical skills. A few medieval authors, such as theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, encouraged both fathers and mothers to take an interest in their young children's education: “For this the activity of the wife alone is not sufficient, but the intervention of the husband is better suited, whose reason is better suited for intellectual instruction and whose strength for the necessary discipline.” After the Protestant Reformation, reformers urged both fathers and mothers who could themselves read to pass this knowledge on to their children, or to send their small children to friends or neighbors who could. Older women in many towns and cities ran “cranny schools” that combined child care with teaching young children their letters and the recitation of Bible verses or psalms. Jewish women in Italy taught children the Hebrew letters and the correct reading of scripture in Hebrew, though translation and commentary were reserved for male teachers.

Literacy. Most parents themselves could not read, however, and practical training in daily tasks was the extent of the education most children received in Renaissance and Reformation Europe; the vast majority of the population was not able to read or write in 1350 nor in 1600. They were not necessarily uneducated, for they may have been highly skilled in a trade and astute about the world around them, but this education came through oral tradition and training, not through books.


The following is, a letter, from a weathy, Florentine, woman Alessandra Strozzi to her son Filippo in 1459 describing her feelings about the death of another son.

My dear son. On, the, 11th of last month, I received your letter of July 29, with the news that my dear son Matteo had become ill, and since you didn't tell me the nature of his malady, I became worried about him. I called Francesco and sent for Matteo di Girgio; and they both told me that he had a tertian fever. I gained some comfort from this, for if some other, malady does not develop, one does not become mortally ill from a tertian fever. Then I heard from you that he was improving so that, while I was still concerned, my spirits did improve a little. I then learned that on the 23rd, it pleased Him who gave him to me take him back. Being sound of mind, he willingly received all of the sacraments as a good and faithful Christion. I am deeply grieved to be deprived of my son; by his death, I have suffered a grievous blow, greater than the loss of filial love, and so have you, my two sons, reduced now to such a small number. . . .

Although I have suffered the greatest pain in my heart that I have ever experienced, I have rceived comfort from two things. First, he was with you; and I am certain that he was provided with doctors and medicine, and that everything possible was done for his health, and that nothing was spared. Yet, it was all to no avail; such was God's will. I have also been comforted by the knowledge that when he was dying, God granted him the opportunity to confess, to receive communion and extreme unction. He did this with devotion, so I understand; from these signs, we may hope that God has prepared a good place for him. I realize, too, that everyone has to make this journey, and they cannot foresee the circumstances [of their death], and they cannot be certain that they will die as did my beloved son Matteo (for whoever dies suddenly or is murdered . . . loses both body and soul). So I have been comforted, realizing that God could have done worse to me. Aijd if by his grace and mercy, he conserves both of you, my sons, he will give me no more anguish.

From your letter of the 26th, I know that you have been sorely tried in body and soul as have I, and as I shall cotttiiiue to be until I receive word from you that yqu are taking care of yourself... I know that you have had sleepless nights, and that you have suffered from this ordeal, so that you are now in a bad state. And I worry so much about this day and night that I cannot rest.... I beg you, for love of me, to calm yourself and guard your health, and don't concern yourself so much about the business. It might be a good idea to take a light purgative . . . and then to take some air, if it is at all possible. Do remember that your health is more important than your property....

In burying my son with such ceremony, you have done honer to yourself and to him. Since no services are held here for those in your state [i.e., exiles], it was particularly important to give him a decent funeral there, and I am pleased that you have done so. I and my Wo daughters, who are disconsolate over the death of theii brother, are dressed in mourning...

Source: Alessandra Strozzi to Filippo Strozzi in Naples, 6 September 1459, Letter di una gentildonna fiorentina, pp. 177-181, translated by Gene Brucker, in The Society of Renaissance Florence: A Documentary Study edited by Brucker (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 47-49.


Hugh Cunningham, Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (London 8c New York: Longman, 1995).

Linda A. Pollock, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

Richard C. Trexler, Power and Dependence in Renaissance Florence, volume 1: The Children of Renaissance Florence (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1993).


views updated May 21 2018


Childhood is not a Freudian concept. A large part of psychoanalytic theory concerns the early years of life and childhood but, in a certain sense, we can say along with Donald Winnicott that "Freud neglected childhood as a state in itself" (1961).

Only after a wrenching period of revision (1895-1901) could Sigmund Freud come to acknowledge the active role of the child in sexual seduction and to abandon his earlier view of children as innocent victims of the incestuous desires of adults; this reversal, moreover, led him to theorize childhood sexuality for the first time. "In the beginning," he would later write, "my statements about infantile sexuality were founded almost exclusively on the findings of analysis in adults which led back into the past. I had no opportunity of direct observations on children. It was therefore a very great triumph when it became possible years later to confirm almost all my inferences by direct observations and the analysis of very young children" (1914d).

It was in connection with the treatment of adults that Freud became interested in observing small children. As he wrote apropos of the case of "Little Hans," "I have for years encouraged my pupils and friends to collect observations on the sexual life of children, which is normally either skillfully overlooked or deliberately denied" (1909b). Freud indeed never abandoned this line of enquiry, as witness his celebrated account of the "Fort/Da " game played with a cotton reel by one of his grandsons, the personal observation of which he used to support his theoretical conclusions. As related in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), the fact that an act provoking unpleasure would be repeated, coupled with clinical findings from his treatment of traumatic neuroses, was what led Freud to formulate the concept of the death instinct.

After the publication of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), the first generation of analysts began observing and reporting on the behavior of their own children in reference to infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, and castration anxiety. Anna Freud shared in this activity (Geissmann and Geissmann, 1992). Soon these analysts were joined by specialists on child behavior who had themselves been analyzed. They began to observe specific populations of disturbed children, such as delinquents, then certain periods of childhood, notably that of the earliest mother-child relations, and finally certain types of problems encountered (feeding, thumb-sucking, attempts at separation, etc.). In so doing they were "systematically constructing a psychoanalytic psychology of the child, integrating two kinds of data: data based on direct observation and data based on reconstructions with adults" (Freud, 1968).

It is important to note, along with Anna Freud, that psychoanalysts at first showed considerable reluctance to undertake such direct observation of children. The pioneers were more concerned to underscore the differences between observable behavior and hidden drives than they were to point up the similarities. Their chief aim was still to show that manifest behavior concealed unconscious processes. Anna Freud was initially interested in the defense mechanisms, which became accessible to an observational approach; she then turned her attention to children's behavior, to what they produced, and, lastly to the child's ego. She sought to include a psychology of the ego within the analytic framework, an effort further developed later by her friend Heinz Hartmann, whom she never completely disavowed.

On a practical level she created institutions for young children, the first in Vienna in 1924-1925, the last and most complex, which was established after the war in London, being the Hampstead Clinic, an extension of Hampstead Nurseries. At the end of her life she trained child specialists at Hampstead Clinic who worked within the framework of a psychoanalytic psychology of childhood. This work involved treating the childnot only with analysisto prevent further disturbances, conducting research, and training future specialists in children's education and pedagogy by applying previously acquired knowledge.

During this same period, Melanie Klein also became interested in childhood. She did not base her theories on direct observation, however. Starting from the psychoanalysis of young children, she constructed a detailed picture of the internal world of the young child. She pioneered the use of play in analysis. Like dream interpretation for Freud, the free play of the child was for Klein the royal road to the unconscious and to the fantasy life. In The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), she argued forcefully that play translated the child's fantasies, desires, and lived experience into a symbolic mode. Her technique consisted in analyzing play just as one would analyze dreams and free association in adults, that is, by interpreting fantasies, conflicts, and defenses. The inner world of the young child as she describes it is filled with monsters and demons, and the picture of infantile sexuality she presents is strongly tinged with sadism. In discussing the death drive, she describes an infant whose first act is not simply a gesture of pure love toward the object (breast) but also a sadistic act associated with the action of the drive. Here, as Freud had earlier, Klein challenged a universal human shibboleth: the innocent soul of the child. This was one of the reasons why her work was often poorly received.

The direct observation of young children has expanded considerably in recent years, helped in part advances in technology: it is now possible to study newborns and even fetuses. It is interesting to note that, in this way, the significance and the complexity of the mental life of the very young child have been confirmed, along therefore with the intuitions and efforts of psychoanalysts working during the early twentieth century.

It is clear that psychoanalysis has renewed our vision and understanding of the world of childhood. However, that world remains highly complex, especially its pathology, and it is important to avoid seeing it in terms of adult behavior. Also, while psychoanalysis has enabled us to better understand that world, we must remember, as Anna Freud remarked at the end of her life, that it does not have the power to eliminate childhood neuroses and turn the child and childhood into that place where we would so much love to find innocence, the mythical innocence of a paradise lost.

Claudine Geissman

See also: Childhood and Society ; Children's play; Fort-Da; Klein-Reizes, Melanie; Winnicott, Donald Woods.


Freud, Anna. (1966). Collected writings. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

Geissmann, Claudine and Geissmann, Pierre. (1992). A history of child psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). The psycho-analysis of children. In The Writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. II). London, Hogarth. (Original work published 1932)

Winnicott, Donald. (1965). The theory of infant-parent relationship. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. (pp. 17-55). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1962)


views updated May 18 2018


Young people were important in the Renaissance primarily because there were so many of them. During that period, more than half the population of Europe was under age 25. Children were dependent on adults, who controlled their behavior and taught them the skills they would need in later life.

The Meaning of Childhood. Renaissance life before adulthood had three stages—infancy, childhood, and youth. Infants—children under seven years old—were the responsibility of women. After age seven, children were ready to begin learning from instruction. People generally saw age 14 as the end of childhood, but this age limit was not clear-cut. Some laws considered young people under age 14 to be capable of committing adult crimes. Many children started to work before age 14, and boys of 9 or even younger could be required to bear arms. Therefore, the line between childhood and youth was blurry. Youth ended with an event that changed a person's legal status, such as marriage.

Bringing Up Children. Renaissance children were powerless, completely under the control of adults. Adults believed that such control was necessary to tame children's natural wildness. To them, dealing with children was a battle of wills, and the only good outcome was for a child to submit to authority.

Renaissance adults also believed that children needed protection from the forces of evil, which usually meant sexuality. Except for the home, most institutions kept boys and girls apart. Yet children were often exposed to other undesirable behavior—such as coarse language, gambling, and excessive drinking—in their towns, villages, and homes.

Some historians see the strict control of children as a sign that their lives lacked warmth and affection. Others argue that most Renaissance parents loved and cared for their children. Many children had only one living parent. Others were orphans and lived under the care of sometimes reluctant relatives. Guardians sometimes took advantage of rich orphans. Children without relatives went to foundling homes, or orphanages.

Play was a common part of children's lives during the Renaissance. Toys from this period included balls, sticks, hoops, dolls, and marbles. Children also played games and engaged in horseplay. Most children played in groups rather than alone. Children from poor families, who lived in small houses, probably did most of their playing outdoors.

Education. Boys and girls started learning about religion in the household at a very early age, often from women. In peasant families, children under seven might also learn to help around the house or look after younger children. In wealthy households, children usually had governesses* or tutors who saw to their early training and education. As in peasant households, a child's gender determined what he or she would learn. Girls studied needlework and household management, while boys learned horsemanship and hunting.

Between the ages of five and seven, fortunate children began formal schooling either inside or outside the home. The type and amount of education varied according to the family's economic and social status, the child's gender, the parents' expectations, and the availability of schooling. Children of the lower classes often became apprentices* to learn a trade. Parents made all the necessary arrangements with apprentice masters regarding their children's training.

In Italy, most children continued to live with their parents during their education. Even apprentices usually worked for their own fathers or for artisans* in their hometowns. In northwestern Europe, by contrast, children of both town and country commonly left home for training or an education. The age at which children left home and the length of time they stayed away varied. Peasant children might leave for a year or two, spend some time working at home, and then leave again. Apprenticeships usually lasted for several years and permanently separated children from their homes. Those who took in children assumed the educational and disciplinary role of parents.

Apprenticeships could take several forms. Peasant children went to other peasant households or, less frequently, to wealthy households. Many children of higher social rank trained with merchants or with professionals such as physicians or lawyers. At the highest levels of society, children served in nobles' homes. These children had to master elaborate codes of social behavior. Serving in a noble household provided valuable contacts for these children and for their families.

Youth. Youth was, in many ways, an extension of childhood. There was no clear transition between the two, although the signs of physical development made a significant difference. These signs—such as voice change and menstruation—seem to have appeared fairly late, after age 14.

Like children, young people had little freedom, and they often behaved irresponsibly. Sports and games might become wild, especially when combined with drinking and gambling. Some old village traditions were open to youth without adult supervision. Groups of young people organized seasonal celebrations and supervised courtship behavior.

Many youths, both boys and girls, spent time as servants. Their period of service began around age 14 and could last for many years, especially in the countryside. Servants moved frequently from place to place, serving many different masters. Such wandering was not a sign of independence—servants moved from depending on one master to depending on another. Some highborn youths served in noble houses until they were in their 20s. Apprenticeships could also last that long.

The end of youth came only with a change in legal status. Youth was the time for courtship, and marriage usually marked the start of adulthood. Most people married around the same time their apprenticeships or periods of service ended. Marriage brought more independence to young men than it did to young women, who became legally dependent on their husbands. Males could also end their youth by joining monasteries. Some young men who did not marry became responsible for themselves as adults when their fathers chose to "emancipate" them (legally set them free).

(See alsoDaily Life; Education; Family and Kinship; Literacy; Motherhood; Orphans and Foundlings; Peasantry. )

* governess

woman employed to take charge of a child's upbringing and education

* apprentice

person bound by legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson


views updated Jun 27 2018


Childhood in Islam, like childhood in any great religious tradition, is seen generally as a period of education and training, a time of socialization for the future adult. The child is seen as the crucial generational link in both the religious community and the family unit, the key to its continuation, the living person that ties the present to the past. The idea of childhood, the place of the child, the duties of the child are basic issues and have been since the beginning of Islam. Childhood ends in a formal sense at the age of puberty, when performance of the religious duties (Five Pillars) marks the ritual passage into the early stages of adulthood.

Socialization of the child takes place primarily within the family unit, the home, and the father and mother are ultimately responsible for their offspring. However, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are also expected to participate in a child's rearing and usually did so in the past. Religious socialization also takes place in the home (for boys and girls) and in the mosque (for boys) but also in the Qur˒anic school or kuttab (for boys and girls). A knowledge of the Qur˒an is deemed necessary for a child's religious development, and most parents, even the poorest, try to send their sons and daughters to the kuttab.

Socialization for values of the society begins even earlier, as soon as a child is conscious of others. These values vary somewhat according to geographical, historic, and economic differences within Muslim communities but in general they are designed to develop ˓aql or reason in the child and to make the child mu˒addab, one who is polite and disciplined. In the Arab world, a child is taught respect for food, for religion, for the kin group, hospitality to guests, and, above all, respect for and obedience to the authority of the father.

Most Muslim societies might be classified as patrilineal (the exception being parts of Southeast Asia, in which a matrilineal descent is observed). In the reckoning of one's descent in patrilineal societies, one's kin-group membership passes through the male line on the father's side. This means that all children retain their father's name throughout their lives, but a daughter, unlike a son, cannot pass membership on to her children. Male and female descendants inherit from the father, according to the specifics of Islamic legal codes. This hierarchical organization means that the oldest male, father or son, holds authority over his descendants, but is also the primary economic provider for the group, and thus controller of the group's economic resources. In exchange, the male head of household is expected not only to provide for but to protect the group, including sons and daughters, throughout their lives.

The period of childhood socialization is marked by ritual events, both religious and secular: ceremonies surrounding birth and naming; circumcision, for all boys and some girls; graduation from Qur˒anic school, particularly for boys; and finally marriage. Marriage is the crucial step in tying individual members to the group, and the birth of children confers on the newly united pair full membership in the family unit and in Islam. "When a man has children he has fulfilled half his religion, so let him fear God for the remaining half," states one of the hadiths of the prophet Muhammad.

Further, throughout childhood, there is strong socialization for future roles in the family and the Muslim community; from a very early age, children are given responsibilities. Girls are expected to help in the home and care for siblings; boys may be asked to help in family business or on their father's farm. This traditional picture, in practice, is changing, as people in the Muslim world become more mobile, and as the family group becomes more attenuated. The father is still seen as head of household, but the mother frequently shares economic responsibilities by working outside the home, and this places stress on family expectations for both sons and daughters. Free public education has supplemented, but not replaced, Qur˒anic education for all children.

Still, the basic approach to childhood as a time of learning rather than as a carefree time for play remains. To become a full member of the Islamic community, a child is expected to learn the Qur˒an, respect parents, and gradually assume responsibilities within the family and the religious community, so that the untutored child becomes the disciplined Muslim adult.

See alsoCircumcision ; Education ; Gender ; Marriage .


Ghazzali, Muhammad ibn Muhammad Abi Hamid al-. Ayyuha al-Walad. Cairo: Dar al-I˒tisam, 1983.

Warnock Fernea, Elizabeth, ed. Children in the Muslim MiddleEast. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

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