Playing at Class

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Sat May 26 00:05:22 PDT 2001

For what it's worth.... Yoshie

***** Karen Sánchez-Eppler, "Playing at Class," _ELH_ 67 (2000) 819-842

...The invention of childhood entailed the creation of a protracted period in which the child would ideally be protected from the difficulties and responsibilities of daily life -- ultimately including the need to work. "For the history of children," Priscilla Clement explains, "the legacy of industrialization was the hardening of class lines," with middle-class families' exemption of their children from labor as one of the strongest markers of their difference from the lower classes.2 Thus to the extent that childhood means leisure, having a childhood is in itself one of the most decisive features of class formation. Yet since the "work" from which children were exempted never fully includes household labor, these general shifts in the definition of childhood function quite differently for girls than for boys.

Historians of leisure have charted the rising valuation of play throughout the nineteenth century while historians of the family have described the period's idealization of childhood.3 My concern is with the links between these trends, as the same patterns of urbanization and industrialization that separate workplace from home, labor from leisure simultaneously function to commodify leisure-time and to idealize middle-class domesticity, especially that of childhood. "Play," explains Bronson Alcott in justification of his pedagogical proposals, "is the appointed dispensation of childhood." This wonderfully un-playful phrasing presents child's play as part of the created order of things. "Appointed dispensation" emphasizes in its very redundancy the guiding wisdom -- divine and/or social -- that regulates human affairs, and Alcott's discussion of children's play focuses on how teachers should use play to ready children for the "loftier claims" of "instruction" and "advancement."4 Alcott, writing in 1830, was among the nation's [= the USA's] earliest champions of children's play, and his defense of its "designed purpose" shows the marks of the culture's general view of leisure as a largely suspect activity and childhood as besmirched by infant depravity and original sin.5 By the time Macy's opened the nation's first toy department in 1875 the merchandising of children's toys epitomized how leisure, not work, would drive the consumption patterns of mature industrial capitalism. The 1870 census would be the first to track children's employment, and it would be in the 1870s, too, that states would begin passing laws regulating child labor.6 These are enormous and extremely swift shifts in the cultural understanding of childhood, work, and play. I will focus my exploration on the verge of transition -- the decades of the 1850s-1870s -- and on the figure of the working child, whose need to labor stands in potent opposition to the burgeoning idealization of childhood as a life-stage appointed for play.7

This is not a simple story of play-time's haves and have-nots, for with remarkable consistency it is the working child who is seen to embody play, and hence teaches the middle class about fun. By the end of the century, play -- and the worlds of the imagination -- would have become cultural markers for what was marvelous about childhood, and this culturally valuable play would be recognized as an attribute of middle-class affluence and leisure. Yet, and this is the crux of my argument, it is through depictions of working-class children that these middle-class ideals are first and most forcefully articulated.8 In particular I will focus on the paradigmatic example of the street-child. With street-trading one of the most visible forms of child employment in American cities, street-traders figured largely in literary and reform discourses as the representative child laborer.

As children, street-traders both embodied the chasm of class (since middle-class children would not occupy the streets in this way) and made that divide appear less frightening. For whatever New York's chief of police, George Mastell, might say about the "idle and vicious children of both sexes, who infest our public thoroughfares," an infestation of children poses a largely future threat, while the adult poor appear far more immediately dangerous.9 Street-children, as children, accrued much of the charm that the middle-class associated with childhood, along with the pathos of lacking most of the material conditions that made such charming childhoods possible. For these reasons images of street-children proved a popular means of representing and humanizing all that was troubling but attractive about urban spaces. These ambiguities express the instability, the cultural uncertainties, of the assignation of class identity to street-children. Distributors not producers, independent agents (however exploited), their labor is not characterized by the routinization of factory, office, or domestic work. Thus despite their extreme poverty and the harshness of their work conditions street-children are nevertheless frequently evoked to represent a kind of liberty from the constraints and abjection of labor. Marx would count "orphans and pauper children" among the "surplus-population," that "industrial reserve-army" required for the "free play" of Capital.10 His analysis suggests how these figurations of street-trading as a form of play present a romance of the market, one that emphasizes the swirl of circulation and disregards the wasting of "surplus" lives. In a more conservative version of social critique, reformers like Charles Loring Brace (founder of New York's Children's Aid Society) would see in these children the clearest mark of social disintegration.11 Wai Chee Dimock's observation that "leisure is class-inflected" not because "it is tied to one particular class" but because it is "variously nuanced and accented, when it is invoked as the salient characteristic for different groups" can thus be pressed one step further, with the recognition that street-traders are simultaneously seen to occupy a number of quite "different groups" with quite differently "accented" conceptions of leisure: they are workers, children, unproductive scamps, and entrepreneurs (or as they were often called by apologists, "little merchants").12

Literary representations of street-children ricochet between seeing them as spunky and resourceful (childhood insouciance simply taking the city and the labor it requires as conditions for a new kind of play) and seeing them as vulnerable and exploited (childhood innocence abused by economic and urban circumstances). In both versions the association of these children with the streets, the ease with which their stories serve as potent figurations of urban life, conflicts with the traditionally domestic accents of childhood. Take, for example, the newsboy:

"Can you tell me, my lad, the way to Broadway?" "Another insult by gorry," thought Bob, and quick as thought he touched his thumb to the tip of his nose, and wheeling his fingers in the air answered, "no you don't, you don't come it over this child"; and he looked back and relieved himself of a great laugh, while the questioner remained standing and looking after him in utter amazement. "Just as if he didn't know he was in Broadway," thought Bob, and he gave an extra key to the compass of his voice to show his contempt for all fooling.13 A world where adults must ask the aid of children is a topsy-turvy place, one in which traditional models of deference, due to age or class, no longer hold. In a clash of cultures, Bob is as unwilling to recognize the depths of this gentleman's ignorance of the city as the gentleman is incapable of recognizing Broadway or comprehending Bob's response to his question. Bob's insistence that "you don't come it over this child" rejects all middle-class notions of what a child should be -- innocent, ignorant, docile -- and instead represents the child as the master of urban spaces; thumbing his nose at the very notion of deference, he is himself the champion of "fooling."

The alternative to Bob's jeering autonomy is sympathetic pain. "I had not gone far," writes Lydia Maria Child in one of her Letters from New York,

when I met a little ragged urchin, about four years old, with a heap of newspapers, "more big as he could carry," under his little arm, and another clenched in his small red fist. The sweet voice of childhood was prematurely cracked into shrillness, by screaming street cries at the top of his lungs; and he looked blue, cold, and disconsolate. . . . I stood looking after him as he went shivering along. Imagination followed him to the miserable cellar where he probably slept on dirty straw . . . 14

Child's Letters blend social criticism with rich accounts of the development of a moral and aesthetic imagination. They are thus simultaneously engaged in creating and elevating bourgeois subjectivity and in critiquing the social inequities that have historically made that subjectivity possible. Thus this letter, in which Child invites her readers to follow her imagination as it fabricates a future of abuse and ultimate criminality for the newsboy, presses on to ask: "When, oh when, will men learn that society makes and cherishes the very crimes it so fiercely punishes and in punishing reproduces?" (L, 84). The surprising word here is "cherishes," a word that seems deeply descriptive of Child's own imaginative procedures, and unsettlingly perceptive of the ways in which society may foster crime. To be cherished is just what the nineteenth-century middle class had understood as the child's ideal but necessary role. The lisping, child voice, with its awkward grammar that proclaims the pile of newspapers "more big as he could carry," is not, of course, the newsboy's. It speaks in the third-person, and besides, among the first things that Child notices about this newsboy is that he lacks "the sweet voice of childhood." By interpolating such a "sweet voice" into her letter, by the evident fondness with which she produces its little errors, Child demonstrates how a cherished childhood should sound.

One literary use of the newsboy is thus to define and value middle-class childhoods through the depiction of their antithesis. In Louisa May Alcott's "Our Little Newsboy," the possessive and the diminutive function to claim the newsboy for the middle-class home, and indeed the scene of the story is not Jo's encounter with the newsboy, but her retrospective telling of that meeting as a bedtime story.

"If I saw that poor little boy, Aunt Jo, I'd love him lots!" Said Freddy, with a world of pity in his beautiful child's eyes. And believing that others would be kind to little Jack and such as he I tell the story. When busy fathers hurry home at night I hope they'll buy their papers of the small boys. . . . For love of the little sons and daughters safe at home, say a kind word, buy a paper, even if you don't want it; and never pass by, leaving them to sleep forgotten in the streets at midnight, with no pillow but a stone.15

Here the middle-class child's response to the story of a homeless newsboy is itself definitive of a childlike vision -- Freddy has "beautiful child's eyes" -- and this vision urges charity upon busy middle-class men. In this realm of middle-class benevolence, commercial interactions come to seem like moral attributes, and to buy "even if you don't want it" a mark of virtue. It is after all just as preposterous an imposition of possession for fathers to speak of "their papers" as it is for Aunt Jo to claim "our little newsboy," but middle-class identity is being constituted in scenes like these so as to make the emotional traits of interest and concern indistinguishable from the economic processes of purchase and ownership. Read sentimentally, it is the middle-class child's compassion that marks him as a good child. It is the middle-class father's love of this child that affirms his class position and inaugurates the charitable social responsibilities of that position. Read commercially, middle-class affluence buys both comfort (material distance from need) and conscience (empathic proximity to need). Aunt Jo's bedtime terms -- from Freddy's nursery to the newsboy's stone -- resonate with the end of Child's letter, which finds her unable to sleep. The voices of street-hawkers outside her window "proved too much for my overloaded sympathies. I hid my face in the pillow and wept; for 'my heart was almost breaking with the misery of my kind'" (L, 86).

Class identity, it seems, is largely a question of pillows. Soft beds support sentimental suffering; they create a safe space for imaginative identification and so teach the comfortable virtues of feeling for someone else the very pain that this class position, this soft pillow, protects one from feeling in one's own person. As Child represents herself weeping into her pillow, the "confusing elision between sentimentality and domesticity" that June Howard incisively charges us to interrogate appears remarkably palpable, suggesting how very much it is the material conditions of middle-class households that provide the contours and possibilities of sentimentality's imaginative form.16 It is these comfortable and private spaces that enable reader and writer to luxuriate in feeling.

The hard beds of street-children are perceived as teaching other lessons, but are just as certainly the source of class identities to be learned. "I know an old wagon, up an alley, where I can sleep like a top" (Y, 158), Horatio Alger's bootblack Tim explains to Sam Barker, a greenhorn newly escaped to city life from the abundance and hard work of a New England farm. At day's end the boys climb into the wagon together: "There is everything in getting used to things, and that is where Tim had the advantage. He did not mind the hardness of his couch, while Sam, who had always been accustomed to a regular bed, did" (Y, 164). This lesson of hard beds produces a certain hardiness and resilience that Alger marks as an "advantage." Clearly the recognition that "there is everything in getting used to things" proves a comfortable antidote to the tears brought on by "overloaded sympathies." But it is also true that such hardiness is one of the strongest attractions of Alger's fiction. Sam's sly resilience does after all keep him and the novel's plot "adrift in the streets"; his scams carry him and his readers humorously from one scrape to the next while Alger's anxious narrator "warn[s] my boy readers that I by no means recommend them to pattern after him" (Y, 84). Thus, as with Bob thumbing his nose, such stories of badly-behaved boys celebrate the play of street life even as they press their young heroes towards softer beds and office jobs.

Novelistic images of the "child wage earner as an urban folk hero" and "seedling entrepreneur" run, of course, counter to the historical record -- very few if any children actually prospered through street-trading.17 But to note the falsity of such images, or on the other hand to question the presumptions that underlie Lydia Maria Child's imaginings of the newsboy's dismal prospects, should initiate, not foreclose, explorations of the representational work done by street-children. The simultaneous popularity of these two opposing images, in their very opposition, produces a middle space of exploitation and survival that may more accurately represent the non-continuous manner in which class identity is lived. Thus while these stock figures tell us a great deal about middle-class constructions of class identity, they do not end there for, as I will show, street-children themselves learned how to move within and manipulate these stereotypes. The annual reports of the Children's Aid Society were bolstered with appendices of miscellaneous documents, examples of newspaper coverage of the Society's work, reports and diary excerpts by visitors and Society staff detailing specific daily events, and most remarkable of all, large collections of letters written by children who had been helped by the Society and by the families that took in such children. These are obviously biased and mediated sources, but for all their limitations they provide a rich cache of documentation about the attitudes and experiences of particular, individual, nineteenth-century street-children. The understandings of childhood work and play voiced by these children overlap with and diverge from the representations offered by philanthropists and novelists. Thus the standard stories of street-child pathos or hardiness do not simply prove false, but rather provide a projected context which actual street-children strove to use as best they could....

[Footnotes omitted. The full article is available to those with individual or institutional access to Project Muse at <>.] *****

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