Short Histories of Small People
By: James Marten and Lisa Lamson
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Years ago, my favorite novel was T. R Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place (1985). It’s a classic piece of southern, small-town literature, Faulknerian in its evocation of the dignity of even the most mundane lives. I thought of that title quite often while writing my latest book, an incredibly brief history of the world’s children (in the back of my mind the title was always “A Short History of Small People”), mainly because of the responsibility we historians of childhood have to represent with dignity the least powerful and least articulate members of the human family.
Recently I sat down with Lisa Lamson, a PhD candidate studying children’s history at Marquette, to talk about the contributions that can be made to the field by such broadly conceived works. We started by talking a bit about some examples of the genre—Steven Mintz’s, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); Colin Heywood’s, A History of Childhood (Cambridge: Polity, 2001), and Peter Stearns’s, Childhood in World History (New York: Routledge, 2006). I had for some time rather wanted to try my hand at a book like that, so when I was given opportunity to write the Very Short Introduction to the History of Childhood for Oxford, I jumped. Oxford is very serious about the very short moniker—they cannot exceed 35,000 words—and not only was I to write about global childhood rather than just the United States (my personal wheelhouse), and to start at, well, the beginning. I’m a historian of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I have only a vague notion of ancient history, so that was also a stretch.
But for me this was a kind of experiment: could I crowd the history of childhood throughout the world and since the beginning of recorded history into such a tiny book? In a larger sense, it was also a chance to test the value of synthesis and to try my hand at writing for a non-expert audience. Lisa and I talked about the value and limitations of such a broad, synthetic approach to the history of childhood, both in terms of the ways in which such books can contribute to the literature of a field that, like most historical fields, lives and dies on the backs of monographs, and in terms of the logistics of writing such a tightly focused book (with an equally tight deadline).
Among the topics Lisa and I discussed were:
The layering of children’s history:
Virtually nothing about childhood ever goes away—it’s a layered experience. In other words, conceptions of childhood and experiences of children, have extraordinary staying power, although different ideas and conditions are layered onto them over the generations.
The salient themes that emerge from a long view:
War—its effects on children, and children’s roles in armed conflict—was one of the themes that emerged, as was the “invention” of childhood in 1924, when the League of Nations set out five simple “rights” of childhood, and expectations of parents and governments, in the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was both a summary of child welfare reform efforts from the 1830s on and an aspirational document meant to inspire further reform.
The contributions of big-picture syntheses:
They allow you to locate threads throughout history that more detailed, narrower, approaches might miss. By pulling back, we can find continuities and similarities that are useful to understanding the histories of children and childhood. The broad approach can get past the details of the specific circumstances, forces, and conditions that are incredibly important to children and parents and policy makers at the time, but it can also cloud historians’ efforts to develop clear picture of lives of children and their status in society over time. There is, of course, a danger to limiting oneself to only the long view; monographs, the building blocks of synthetic works, still provide the primary windows into the lives of children and the expectations their communities imposed on them.
Lisa asked whether I would recommend an undertaking like this to other historians. I said sure. It gives one a chance to make some big statements that the conventions shaping monographs or articles might not allow, to join a scholarly dialogue about some pretty important things, and to give new life to more detailed scholarship on which they’re built. At the personal level, it’s a chance to get outside what you already know, to learn from other historians in other fields, and to get out of the brambles of monographic convention to explore in compelling ways the values and expectations of societies through time and space.
About James Marten
James Marten has maintained scholarly agendas in two fields: the Civil War era and the histories of children and youth. The former includes The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), a Choice “Outstanding Academic Title” and winner of the Alpha Sigma Nu Jesuit Book Award, as well as more recent books on Civil War veterans, including Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011) and America’s Corporal: James Tanner in War and Peace, a short biography of the disabled Civil War veteran and activist James “Corporal” Tanner (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014). His work on children and youth consists of a number of edited anthologies, including the six-volume A Cultural History of Childhood and Family (co-edited with Elizabeth Foyster and published by Berg in 2010). He is professor and chair of the history department at Marquette University. He is founding secretary-treasurer, a past President of the Society for the History of Children and Youth, and of the Society of Civil War Historians. He is the former editor of the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (2013-2018). He is author, editor, or co-editor of twenty books, including The Children's Civil War (1998); Children and War: A Historical Anthology (2002); Childhood and Child Welfare in the Progressive Era: A Brief History with Documents (2004); Children and Youth in a New Nation (2009); and War and Childhood in the Era of the World Wars (2019—with Mischa Honeck).
About Lisa Lamson
Lisa Lamson is a PhD candidate at Marquette University, where she is writing a dissertation called “’A Great Good May Proceed from the Education of These Poor Colored Girls’: Black Girlhood and Schooling in Baltimore City, 1820-1900.” She will be Arthur J. Schmitt Leadership Fellow in 2019-20 and was the Lord Baltimore Research fellow at the Maryland Historical Society in 2018-2019. Lisa was the “featured student” on the Society for the History of Children and Youth website in January 2019.
Banner image credit
Detail from Pieter Bruegel, Children’s Games, 1560, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, GG 1017
This feature is part of the SHCY Commentary series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.