Suffering Childhood in Early America
Violence, Race, and the Making of the Child Victim

Anna Mae Duane

A compelling look at the use of childhood as metaphor in early America


“A nuanced and sophisticated account of the early American cultural landscape and the ways children engaged with cultural anxieties and concerns. The project offers many useful insights into early American writing.”
—Caroline Levander, author of Cradle of Liberty: Race, the Child, and National Belonging from Thomas Jefferson to W. E. B. Du Bois

"Duane's work offers a valuable road map for scholars seeking routes out of the theoretical blind alleys that potentially stifle inquiry into the history of children."
Journal of American History

"Through illuminating, close readings of both little-known and canonical literary texts as historical evidence, Suffering Childhood in Early America investigates the evolving relationship between the realities and representations of childhood from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. In this pioneering and perceptive study, Duane identifies the cultural labor performed by positive and negative representations of children in social and political arguments about witchcraft, infanticide, motherhood, the American Revolution, and slavery. Particularly compelling are her analyses of the ways authors of African descent reveal the effect childhood continues to have in adulthood."
—Vincent Carretta, author of Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man

"An easy rhetorical trick for soliciting sympathy or raising anxiety, the trope of the suffering child is so familiar we hardly notice its presence. Duane probes the uses of this familiar figure with astute, nuanced rigor. Her work makes clear the stakes of representing childhood as dependent and vulnerable, for actual children and their families, but even more for the process of national formation, and for the treatment of other 'infantilized' groups. Duane, convincingly shows us how the figure of the suffering child structures discussion of so many of the most pressing topics in early America, from witchcraft, Indian captivity, African slavery, and colonial status, to the very idea of republican citizenship. Her account of the suffering child thus proves profoundly illuminating about the nature of power and subjugation, and even more generally, about the kind of work that metaphors can do."
—Karen Sánchez-Eppler, author of Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture

“Duane demonstrates the myriad ways in which early Americans conceptualized their own place within the British system and their relationships with others, including American Indians and enslaved Africans, through the lens of childhood. She analyzes a very wide-ranging selection of texts and draws on cognitive theory to enhance our understanding of the evolving place of children and of childhood as a concept in early American experiences and aspirations.”
—Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Silver Professor of History, New York University

"By tracing how wailing infants and other children in distress shape the work of early American authors, Duane provides an important prehistory to previous criticism on suffering children. . . .[She] provides an important example of how childhood might be used to shed light on women's issues and the work of female writers rather than the other way around."
—Courtney Weikle-Mills, Legacy

"Suffering Childhood provides provocative interpretations of many key documents from early America and reveals often unexpected linkages between childhood and cultural struggles."
—Julie Sievers, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

“I found my imagination captured by the individual characters who appear in this book: their voices are muted and mediated, but they are still given a measure of agency and respect as they emerge, not just symbols but as- yes - real suffering children.”
—Angela Sorby, Journal of American Studies

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Nothing tugs on American heartstrings more than an image of a suffering child. Anna Mae Duane goes back to the nation’s violent beginnings to examine how the ideal of childhood in early America was fundamental to forging concepts of ethnicity, race, and gender. Duane argues that children had long been used to symbolize subservience, but in the New World those old associations took on more meaning. Drawing on a wide range of early American writing, she explores how the figure of a suffering child accrued political weight as the work of infantilization connected the child to Native Americans, slaves, and women.

In the making of the young nation, the figure of the child emerged as a vital conceptual tool for coming to terms with the effects of cultural and colonial violence, and with time childhood became freighted with associations of vulnerability, suffering, and victimhood. As Duane looks at how ideas about the child and childhood were manipulated by the colonizers and the colonized alike, she reveals a powerful line of colonizing logic in which dependence and vulnerability are assigned great emotional weight. When early Americans sought to make sense of intercultural contact—and the conflict that often resulted—they used the figure of the child to help displace their own fear of lost control and shifting power.

Page count: 224 pp.
5 b&w photos
Trim size: 6 x 9


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Anna Mae Duane is an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut.