Growing up is hard to do

Conflicting Paths
November 17, 1995

Harvey Graff's history of growing up in America from the mid-18th to the early 20th century is ambitious. Following in the path of the "new narrative" historians, Graff paraphrases material from some 500 journals and diaries to let the voices of the young tell their own story. This method has several important advantages. By avoiding advice magazines, Graff eliminates the reproduction of adult myths and images about growing up. That in turn removes unuseful (and false) ideas, such as a "decline and fall" or "golden age of youth" theory or its progressive opposite, "the rise and triumph" of youth.

But there is little in the way of historiography or authorial analysis to help the reader achieve a deeper understanding of the stories presented. Graff is silent on the feminist upsurge of the 1870s, a phenomenon that dominated the popular press, even as he chronicles the case study of "new woman" Margaret Campbell Deland, independent more in attitude than in fact. The book's narrative style takes on an anecdotal quality, with occasionally quite jarring shifts.

In the final chapter Graff changes tack. Addressing the contemporary "disappearance of childhood in our own time" debate, he examines some of its assumptions. He challenges notions of a homogenised, mass-educated, consumer culture-shaped youth. Differences in class, race, gender, and region have created numerous youth subcultures while continuing to take a heavy social toll. Divorce, drugs, earlier sexual activity, family violence, child neglect and child poverty contribute to a glut of print and electronic commentary about the "crisis of the child". While not denying that a decline in children's wellbeing has occurred among disadvantaged groups, Graff cites recent research indicating a levelling off and decline of dysfunctional behaviour. Taking a longer view, he harks back to the evidence of history in his earlier chapters, which debunk universalist notions about what "child" and "adolescent" mean. "Growing up has always been hard to do," he reminds us, without the negative expectations of crisis mongerers to further oppress society's least advantaged.

While Growing Up in America is not an easy read, students of the history of childhood will be rewarded by the effort. And Graff's message about the uses and abuses of history cannot be heard often enough.

Rebecca Starr is senior lecturer, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

Conflicting Paths: Growing up in America

Author - Harvey J. Graff
ISBN - 0 674 16066 5
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £31.95
Pages - 426

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