Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s critical work has become increasingly focused on recovering children’s voices through archival research. Currently a professor at Amherst College, Sánchez-Eppler’s most recent book, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, argues that while nineteenth-century children were far from fully autonomous subjects, they still possessed powerful voices and some agency within their families and society. We recently sat down with Sánchez-Eppler while she visited the University of Pittsburgh to present a talk about the Hale family, nineteenth-century Americans whose children created an impressive library of homemade books that often played with the conventions of popular literary genres. We chatted with her about the link between literary criticism and activism, children’s voices, and the status of the child in today’s culture.
Hot Metal Bridge: In the introduction to your most recent book, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture, you align your historical project with the work of current Child Rights campaigns. What can literary scholars add to the concerns of such campaigns, and how do you see your work as being part of that movement?
Karen Sánchez-Eppler: In the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, one of the things we decided to do—we were trying to figure out what should this journal have in it—is a section that’s on social policy questions. I think I believe about social policy now, not that history repeats itself, but that we have a responsibility to learn from history, and that there are ways in which you can understand things better and differently with that greater vantage of other instances and other possibilities that they bring. And so one of the goals of the journal was to try to get historical descriptions and contemporary problems in the lives of children to be at least between the same covers in some kind of conversation with each other, in the hope that that would be fruitful both ways: that people would think about the historical research or literary research that responds to contemporary situations but also that people working on contemporary problems could situate [the problems] better.…I would say too that [historical research and activism] are linked in another way. That is, that the same blind spots that don’t think about children as historical actors, that don’t think about children’s perspectives as adding anything to our historical understanding, are then the blind spots that permit the juvenilization of poverty in the United States now. That is, we are using the child sentimentally and rhetorically but not actually thinking that children are people with insights, perspectives, and understandings that matter. And so, almost none of the programs for any of the institutions that have to do with conditions of children’s lives presently are structured in ways that gain critique from the children who are their users. That when one goes to set up a school, or an orphanage, or welfare system, or health care nobody says, “Well, what is it the children are understanding about this….”
HMB: In Dependent States you quote from nineteenth-century children’s diaries and discuss photographs of dead children in addition to analyzing canonical novels; what are the advantages to using various archival materials in your work?
KSE: I started this project [Dependent States] sort of by chance in that my first book [Touching Liberty] had been about the abolitionist and feminist movements, and I was teaching a course on reform in nineteenth-century American literature and I thought that I should include something on the temperance movement because it was a really big reform movement even if we don’t like it very much … I didn’t really know widely about temperance literature in the nineteenth century. And Amherst College is a nineteenth-century institution and so it has lots of publications from my period that it got because it got them then, not because anybody collected them as rare books later.
And [Amherst College] actually has a bunch of shelves of publications of the American Temperance Union that were ordered by the temperance organization on campus. Many of them, when I got to them in the early 1990s, still had uncut pages. That is, they had managed to get them to Amherst to try to keep these boys from drinking but they had not actually gotten anybody to read them. But I was struck there, in those tales, by the role that children were playing in those stories that I picked really quite by chance to just try to get different genres on my syllabus for temperance fiction….And so that [project] was all about representation, and it was the early 90s so it was a very, I think, Foucauldian moment in the academy in general and in my own thinking in particular. And I really understood this project when I realized that there was a book—not just a little chapter on temperance tales—and I understood it as a Foucauldian project about discourse. I think when I started doing the children’s death chapter [in Dependent States]…when I started looking at postmortem photographs [of dead children], I was looking at them still inside that discourse mode. That is, they were conventional poses, they were a highly formulaic image base, and I was trying to think about what those codes meant, but at the same time they were individual little faces and there were actual children there and there was no way looking at those photographs to just keep putting them into this discourse box. And it made me realize, I guess, that I was part of the problem. That blind spot thing that we were talking about. That it would never have occurred to me writing my book on feminism and abolition that I could do a responsible job without slave voices and black voices and without women’s voices … and yet here I was halfway into the third chapter of writing a book about childhood that had had no intention at all to think about having children’s voices. And so I think it was those photographs that just kind of shocked me into realizing that. So then I went out hunting for children’s voices. And I think it is as essential for children [to be included in discussions of childhood] as it is for women’s voices to have part in discussions in figurations of femininity….And so that’s required archival work because very little by way of children’s writing has gotten into the published record….
HMB: Many theorists have suggested that childhood and the child become repositories for various social desires and anxieties. How do you see that playing out in today’s culture as opposed to in nineteenth-century American culture?
KSE: I think that there’s a double anxiety in the way that we talk about childhood now; there’s a worry that childhood is altogether disappearing and that at the same time, and maybe that’s out of the same worry, there’s increasing anxiety about protecting children….One of the phrases people have used to talk about this is the islanding of childhood….the notion that there’s an effort to try to protect children by making their experiences separate from adults’ [experiences]. The nineteenth century is, like today, a period where there’s enormous class and racial and international, obviously, diversity in what childhood looks like. And our accounts of childhood that presume that a middle-class highly protected childhood is the most advisable form of childhood is, I think, still suspect. And it’s really interesting, you know, these sorts of models of play that become ever more house bound, in fact room bound, in fact maybe computer bound, but because of the ways in which the internet actually gives you access to a world that’s not just a child’s world….It’s actually the most internal, domestic spaces in which children have the greatest likelihood now to come into contact with things which have less to do with the social milieu in which they’ve grown up….
My work on the nineteenth century is work on the period that’s creating the image of the leisured, ideal, domestic childhood, and so it’s sort of understanding that image of childhood that middle-class families are working so hard to replicate in the present moment. One of things people have said for a long time … there is a real loss in that childhood too. That is, those highly domestic, emotionally centered, precious childhoods are childhoods that don’t feel like they have a lot of utility or autonomy or the sense of value that comes from working in the family farm. That’s not to over-idealize those places of child labor either … but I think it is to recognize that it’s not just gain. And that some of the malaise of childhood, the sort of at loose ends or more hyper structured into too many … apprenticed-to-adult-like activities that children have, comes out of our difficulty of imagining how it is that you could make children be useful and feel themselves as active, valuable parts of society….
HMB: Once you’ve decided on a new project, how do you start to tackle it? What is your drafting and writing process like?
KSE: It often takes me a long time to recognize the value of things.
So, for instance, once I decided I wanted to get children’s voices into Dependent States and I had written this chapter on missionary stuff already, I wanted to see if I could get some children’s voices into [the chapter]. I knew about the Cornwall Foreign Mission School which was in Cornwall, Connecticut….I went there and I found this friendship album made in 1824 by one of the young men who was schooled there. It was just full of conventional Christian poetry and some lovely watercolor drawings. It was very beautiful and seemed really interesting to me and it was made by a young man from China and that was kind of cool. It had a lot of writing in it in Chinese which I couldn’t read. And it was clear from the materials around it and from a self-portrait that he had drawn in it that this was a young man with a beard and he was nineteen. So he was too old for Dependent States….So, the two things that I’ve done since [Dependent States was published], came out of stuff that when I first found it I kind of just felt like oh, this isn’t of any use to me. At that point I did not know enough about U.S.-China relations and Chinese-American writing in the U.S. to know that an album that had been made in 1824 by a young man from China was in fact, by a generation, the earliest piece of writing produced by a Chinese American, and that in fact I had found something that was really important in literary history….So then when Dependent States was out and I was thinking, “What do I want to do?” I thought, “That was really a cool thing; I should go back and look at it.” I think that’s a big instance of I had to do a lot of learning about things I didn’t know about….
HMB: Have you ever dabbled in writing in other genres besides literary criticism? If so, how has that influenced the way you write literary criticism?
KSE: I wrote a lot of fiction and poetry through college….Being a literary scholar I came to see the limits of my poetry. And in my department I still have a number of colleagues who still feel wrenched [from poetry] or sad being critics and not poets, and I understand that and I have sympathy, but I am glad I realized that it’s fine for me. Having worked as a poet makes me a better reader.
HMB: You currently teach at Amherst College in Massachusetts. How does the history of Amherst influence your writing and teaching?
KSE: Amherst belongs to Emily Dickinson. I’ve done a lot of work with the Emily Dickinson Museum—she will obviously be the last chapter in my manuscript book…It’s a total delight to be working with the museum.…[on writing short critical pieces for the Emily Dickinson Museum website]. And so that’s trying to write, not for a literary critical audience, but for an interested public. And then designing exhibits for the museum and all of those things has really been thinking about how do you get this excitement about the literary out to a wider public. I think that we are more and more living in a world that is not at all sure how to value the humanities. And I’m trying to find ways to share my sense that that is a life necessity: that there be poetry, that there be art, that thinking without immediate utility as a common goal is an important thing for a society to foster and cherish. And that it should be something that should be accessible to everybody and not just to educated elite.…I’m also—working on nineteenth-century America—I’m just so lucky at the density of astounding archival resources near me, so I think my work has in part become more and more archival in nature [because I work in Amherst].
HMB: What books of literary criticism or theory have been most influential in your own thinking and approach to literature and culture?
KSE: I think I’ll say Carolyn Steedman has been feeling really important to me. And she’s not a literary critic, she’s a historian. I think Landscape for a Good Woman is extraordinary….What I’m happiest about in my own writing is moments when I have historical-find recovery work, close textual analysis, and theoretical insight all come together. And there are moments when that happens, when suddenly those things happen, and I think that, in a way, I feel like I’ve learned the different pieces of that from different critics, but that, for me, what I’m always aiming for is to see if I can make those three things enable each other.