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Vicarious Formations: The American Military, Identity and Children's Literature

Vicarious Formations:  The American Military, Identity and Children's Literature

Vicarious Formations:  The American Military, Identity and Children’s Literature

By: Paige Gray

On a warm June morning a few years ago, I gathered with a group of United States Military Academy cadets near the amphitheater at Trophy Point. The Hudson River shimmered with broken rays of sunshine, successfully rendering true those landscapes captured on canvas by the likes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church. A colleague and I were each teaching a section of introductory literature during the first session of West Point’s summer courses, and we had decided to combine our classes that morning in order to create a sizable audience for the day’s featured activity––Shakespearean monologue recitations, an assignment that’s something of a rite of passage for first-year cadets. Most of my students had chosen monologues from the Shakespeare play that we were tackling in class, The Tempest. Thus, our small assembly would be treated to several renditions of Prospero overthrowing his charms, though Ariel, Caliban, and Trinculo also put in some choice appearances. However, our audience soon grew. Looking down from the road onto our performance space stood a group of West Point tourists, adults eager to take in the beauty of the academy and see young cadets at work––or in this case, quite literally, at “play” (in the theatrical sense, anyway). 

It was a surreal moment when the boundaries between public display and private performance were confused given the role that military academies and their cadets play in the shared national imagination. In the liminal space of West Point, national and individual identities conflate through these cadets; American identity is symbolically ascribed to these young bodies. Because of their promise to serve the country, a strange sense of ownership emerges for Americans, perhaps a sense felt by these tourists who watched the students.

A Plebe at West PointIndeed, references to West Point as a marker of optimum American-ness or as a signifier for archetypal American valor frequent the news. Articles on the recent appointment of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tend to highlight that he graduated first in his class at West Point. Headlines took notice of USMA posthumously admitting Peter Wang, a victim of the shooting Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In a prepared statement, the academy said that Wang’s admission “was an appropriate way for USMA to honor this brave young man.” 

On May 1, President Trump presented the Commander-in-Chief trophy to the 2017-2018 West Point football team, telling them, “The lessons you’ve learned on what General Douglas MacArthur called ‘the fields of friendly strife,’ you will soon put into service for our nation.” 

Trump then linked their service on the football field to that of their service to the country.

“I know that each of you will serve with the same commitment, determination, and character that have earned you distinction on the Gridiron,” Trump said to the USMA team. “You will be courageous members of the Long Gray Line that stretches back to the earliest days of our republic.”

West Point cadets––and cadets at other military academies––become characters, agents of sorts, who contribute to shaping an idealized story of youth and national identity. I’m interested in the relationship between the American military and childhood––the ways in which cadets have seemingly provided, and continue to provide, a national performance of young adulthood made for public consumption, and also how American narratives of identity have been fashioned by means of these public bodies. 

In the late nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, the public consumption of American identity and youth came largely through children’s literature and periodicals. Remarking on West Point’s place in the cultural imagination, The late literary scholar Timothy Dow Adams notes in his article “The Long Gray Lie: West Point in Children’s Fiction” that while the military academy has been “often represented in movies and on television, West Point’s most frequent and influential appearance in popular culture has been in children’s literature, most notably in juvenile series books.” Given the nature of a juvenile-centric book focused on what was then an institution that admitted only young white men, these texts additionally reflected and constructed gender ideology, as well as racial ideology. 

While our contemporary understanding of military participation and cadet life includes a spectrum of gender identities, during the Golden Age of children’s literature––approximately the time between the Civil War and World War I––and for decades afterward, texts featuring West Point engaged primarily in ideas of American boyhood and masculinity, and the ways in which they are inextricably tied to ideas of the nation. (Indeed, West Point only began admitting female cadets in 1976.)  

In her book Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911 (2006), Lorinda Cohoon suggests that certain nineteenth-century American texts functioned as a means for boys and young men to better assume and understand American citizenship. She contends that during this time, “an awareness of boyhood citizenship arose . . . and with this interest came ongoing attempts to define, explain, and repair boys and their problems so that they would reach their full potential as citizens.” Such “interest,” Cohoon writes, manifested in the proliferation of boy literature in the nineteenth century, ideological texts which “have continued to shape boyhood citizenships in the United States, so much so that profitable and widespread boyhood industries have flourished for over a century.”

In examining American boy literature––and some girl literature––of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that is set at West Point, we gain a better understanding of our collective ideas surrounding American citizenship, identity, and youth, as well as consider the interdependence between these ideas. The texts work collectively to psychically render a version of the military academy in which readers and the larger public can inhabit and participate. Because of West Point’s historic role in the American Revolution and its legacy of producing national political and military leaders such as Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, George S. Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower (as well as the Confederacy’s seminal figures––Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson), it functions as an emblem of the American narrative. 

The West Point RivalsIn other words, West Point is baked into the country’s national identity, which, for many, national identity plays a large part in the construction of individual identity––and children’s literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely contributed to this symbolic power. Because West Point represents ideas of nation and citizenship––and therefore the ideal self, speaking in strictly nationalistic terms––readers of children’s literature featuring the academy arguably develop a sense of ownership over the space and its avatars, the cadets. 

Extending from this idea, the site of inquiry that especially interests me with West Point children’s literature, as is the case with much of children’s literature scholarship, is that of power.

Where is the agency for the young person who essentially performs youth and patriotism for public consumption? What does it mean to have this performance located within the hierarchical confines of militaristic order?

Works such as Tom Taylor at West Point or The Old Army Officer’s Secret (1915), A Plebe at West Point (1910), “A West Point Wooing” (1899), The West Point Rivals (1903), and Dreams of Glory (1942) are not examples of great literature. I would not teach these texts in an undergraduate course with hopes of instilling a lifelong love for reading among screen-savoring Generation Z’ers. But in critically assessing this popular literature from a bygone era, I discern the reciprocity between power dynamics within the military, childhood, and American citizenship, and see how these dynamics potentially challenge ideas of American individualism and agency (however fraught the concept of “agency” may be). 

West Point children’s literature serves as a type of vicarious military formation––an imaginative space in which the readers can enact and reify an idealized American-ness through the idealized youth of fictional West Point cadets. In essence, the West Point military formation, that of literature and that of those flesh-and-blood cadets, becomes the formation of a national youth narrative for public display and consumption. In short, ideas of American military and American childhood are deeply intertwined.

About the Author

Paige GrayPaige Gray is a professor of liberal arts at the Atlanta campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her book, Cub Reporters: American Children’s Literature and Journalism in the Golden Age, is forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2019.


Adams, Timothy Dow. “The Long Gray Lie: West Point in Children’s Fiction.” Children’s Literature in Education 12.3 (1983): 151-159.

Cohoon, Lorinda B. Serialized Citizenships: Periodicals, Books, and American Boys, 1840-1911. Lanham, MA: Scarecrow-Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.

Kutzer, M. Daphne. Empire's Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children's Books. New York: Garland-Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Weikle-Mills, Courtney. Imaginary Citizens: Child Readers and the Limits of American Independence 1640-1868. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2013.

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. 

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