Book Review: Vicious Infants: Dangerous Childhoods in Antebellum U.S. Literature

Soderberg, Laura. Vicious Infants: Dangerous Childhoods in Antebellum U.S. Literature. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021. 200 pp. ISBN (paperback): 978-1-62534-588-2.

By Marlis Schweitzer, York University (Toronto)

Vicious Infants is a tremendous book, a significant scholarly achievement that should be read by anyone looking to deepen their understanding of the historical inequities that shape contemporary life in the United States. Organized into four chapters, with an introduction and conclusion, it skillfully challenges existing scholarship by identifying underexamined categories of antebellum childhood and asking why these categories have slipped from view. Reading literary and non-literary texts together, it offers a nuanced, interdisciplinary analysis of the institutional alignments that facilitated and sustained the exclusion of certain kinds of children from national belonging.

To date, most studies of antebellum childhood have focused on the sentimentalist formation of the “innocent child,” a category that purposefully excluded children who existed outside the normative confines of whiteness, gender-conformity, affluence, or able-bodied-ness. While recognizing the innocent child as a powerful category, Vicious Infants “pushes against any singular type of antebellum childhood, to which one is either admired or refused,” and instead advocates for “a broader vocabulary of multiple childhoods that each have their own relationship to civic and family life” (4). This vocabulary includes the indentured or bound child, the incorrigible child or juvenile delinquent, and the prodigious child, categories of childhood that threatened to destabilize the social fabric and thus required careful management. In attending to these multiple childhoods, Vicious Infants traces the social discourses that systematically named them as aberrant, vicious, or antisocial, and unworthy of membership in American society (4).

Soderberg exhibits great facility in reading across literary and non-literary texts, revealing how the narratives of childhood that arose in the antebellum era circulated within and across periodicals, newspapers, novels, institutional documents, prison records, and medical journals. The category of the “incorrigible delinquent,” for example, first emerged in the written observations of officials working in juvenile prisons, but in time cohered into “an interpretative framework for narrative the social body and those who fall outside it” (14). Soderberg resists privileging one kind of text over another yet remains attentive to key distinctions in form and aim—most notably the emphasis on multiplicity/group identity in institutional writing compared with literature’s focus on individual subjectivity. In so doing, Soderberg demonstrates that the creation of multiple categories of dangerous or vicious childhood was a collective endeavour, pursued by multiple authors in the aims of defining which children would be welcomed into the nation when they attained adulthood.

In chapter 1, “Bound Children: Sidestepping the Social Contract in Apprenticeship Literature,” Soderberg examines the figure of the indentured child, pairing William Apess’s autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829) with Harriet Wilson’s semi-autobiographical novel, Our Nig (1859). In both texts, an impoverished child enters a contractual relationship with a white family, consenting (at least in legal terms) to a period of indenture in exchange for food and shelter. Soderberg traces the way both texts subvert the conventions of the bildungsroman and reveal the heavy physical toll exacted on those compelled to accept an indentured life. Whereas most coming-of-age narratives conclude with a subject’s arrival of adulthood marked by a willingness to accept the terms of the social contract and thereby assert individual freedom, the Black girl (Frado) and Indigenous boy (William) who appear in Wilson’s and Apess’s texts remain in their communities because they have no viable alternatives. “For Wilson and Apess,” Soderberg writes, “participation in a community might mean nothing more than that someone was born into it and that they rely on it for survival, but it does not imply approval or even acceptance” (47). Both authors reject the promise of conformity, assimilation, and reconciliation that attend to most bildungsroman and instead offer ambiguous endings that invite readers to reflect on alternative possibilities.

In chapter 2, “The Incorrigible Child: Juvenile Delinquency and the Fearful Rise of the Child Self,” Soderberg turns from the indentured child to the “incorrigible child,” an individual beyond reform or redemption, who emerged in the 1820s and 1830s as waves of poor, immigrant children arrived in northeastern cities seeking employment in factories and other industrialized workplaces. As Soderberg writes, “The development of the social category of the criminal child required a reworking of both labels, reconciling the guilt attached to the former with the innocence attached to the other” (52). This reworking occurred across the pages of parenting manuals and the records kept by the staff at New York City juvenile prisons; whereas parenting manuals advised caregivers on how to wield authority and enforce good behavior in children without resorting to excessive physical punishment, the institutional reports document the limits of authority when dealing with those who exhibit no capacity for reform. In this way, ideas of delinquency became fused with the bodies of poor and immigrant children, marking them as inappropriate subjects for socialization and thereby justifying their exclusion from the national community (50).

Soderberg’s third chapter, “Prodigious Births: Black Infancy, Antebellum Medicine, and the Racialization of Heredity,” takes up nineteenth-century medical discourse about Black infants as articulated in medical journals, short stories, novels, and biography. Reading across multiple texts, Soderberg details how the concept of the “prodigy” not only worked to deny Black infants kinship ties by placing them apart from genealogy, but also positioned African American populations as disconnected and unstable (84). Simultaneously monster and miracle, the figure of prodigy is estranged from all others by virtue of her unique qualities; her singularity erases the body that bore her as well as the bodies of all descendants, denying her past and future by implying that her existence is nothing but an accident. The category of “the prodigy” thus served the needs of white supremacy in the antebellum era by “pathologiz[ing] remarkable lives as flukes or oddities” (108), without family, community, or nation.

Soderberg continues to examine white anxieties about Black babies and birth rates in the final chapter, “Too Many Children: U.S. Malthusianism, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Novel-Ending Births.” Through a comparison of Stowe’s famous depiction of white innocence in Uncle Tom’s Cabin with her more complicated treatment of white girlhood in Dred (1856), Soderberg identifies shifts in the author’s thinking about reproduction and population control and her engagement with the conventions of the reform novel: “Whereas Little Eva dies for the cause of freedom, the white girls of Dred perpetuate the violence around them by their very birth” (123). For Soderberg, this change in perspective offers evidence of Stowe’s engagement with Malthusian thought, which circulated broadly at this time. Rather than uphold the optimism of the marriage plot, which concludes with the birth or expectation of children and the promise of a better future, Stowe uses Dred to issue a dystopian warning about the risks of overpopulation and the entanglement of white girlhood with Black suffering: As Soderberg concludes, “the white children of Dred are part of the problem and no source of relief” (146).

It is difficult within the constraints of a book review to give a full account of the sophisticated arguments and insightful readings that make Vicious Infants such a scholarly achievement. This book should engage readers in multiple fields of study, including but not limited to childhood studies, gender studies, critical race, c19 cultural history, English, cultural studies, and American Studies. It is a brilliant example of the kind of scholarship that is urgently needed today.