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Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood [Paperback]

by Steven Mintz
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 30, 2006 0674019989 978-0674019980

Like Huck's raft, the experience of American childhood has been both adventurous and terrifying. For more than three centuries, adults have agonized over raising children while children have followed their own paths to development and expression. Now, Steven Mintz gives us the first comprehensive history of American childhood encompassing both the child's and the adult's tumultuous early years of life.

Underscoring diversity through time and across regions, Mintz traces the transformation of children from the sinful creatures perceived by Puritans to the productive workers of nineteenth-century farms and factories, from the cosseted cherubs of the Victorian era to the confident consumers of our own. He explores their role in revolutionary upheaval, westward expansion, industrial growth, wartime mobilization, and the modern welfare state. Revealing the harsh realities of children's lives through history--the rigors of physical labor, the fear of chronic ailments, the heartbreak of premature death--he also acknowledges the freedom children once possessed to discover their world as well as themselves.

Whether at work or play, at home or school, the transition from childhood to adulthood has required generations of Americans to tackle tremendously difficult challenges. Today, adults impose ever-increasing demands on the young for self-discipline, cognitive development, and academic achievement, even as the influence of the mass media and consumer culture has grown. With a nod to the past, Mintz revisits an alternative to the goal-driven realities of contemporary childhood. An odyssey of psychological self-discovery and growth, this book suggests a vision of childhood that embraces risk and freedom--like the daring adventure on Huck's raft.


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

No aspect of American life is as shrouded in idealizing myth as childhood. In this compelling work of historical synthesis, University of Houston history professor Mintz argues forcefully—if not originally—that for most of the past three centuries childhood has been the exception rather than the norm. Responding to the exigencies of colonial life, Mintz writes, the Puritans unsentimentally mentored children as "adults in training." With the explosive rise of an urban, factory-based economy in the mid-19th century, childhood first emerged as a discrete period of development. Limited, home-based instruction was replaced by compulsory instruction in public schools—but not all children benefited. For most young people in the years after the Industrial Revolution—despite the mixed results of reformers—childhood meant grim factory or farm labor, poverty, loneliness, exploitation (economic and sexual) and often unspeakable cruelty. Poor, immigrant and black children suffered disproportionately as the class gap widened. More recently, Mintz recounts, childhood has been refined and extended into the phenomenon of protracted adolescence. That childhood has mostly been less than ideal is not surprising. What may be, for many readers, is Mintz's portrait of just how far from the ideal this country has been—and perhaps continues to be—in meeting the health needs, education and welfare of all its children. 36 b&w photos.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Mintz uses Huck Finn's raft as the image of the quintessential ideal American childhood, filled with adventure and exploration. But he reminds readers of the seriousness of Huck's life and the grim realities of American childhood from the early colonies, through the progressive era, and up to modern times. Mintz confers special attention on the childhoods of American slaves, Native Americans, and immigrants. Tracking the major social, economic, and cultural developments in the nation's history, Mintz focuses on their impact on the lives of children and adolescents. Culturally, children have been viewed as both inherently corrupt and as innocent, eventually coming to be seen as objects of affection; economically, they have been viewed as property, financial contributors, and major consumers; socially, they have spurred the creation of asylums, orphanages, and reform schools. Mintz traces changes in the legal status of children and in such laws as those establishing the age of sexual consent and restricting child labor. He also examines the evolving image of adolescents and their impact on modern culture and commerce. Readers who enjoyed Ann Hulbert's Raising America [BKL Mr 15 03] will love the breadth of perspective in this engrossing book. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (May 30, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674019989
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674019980
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #216,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The More Things Change? April 4, 2005
Format:Hardcover
An excellent scholarly work that brings together a lot of work on the history of childhood in America. Mintz is concerned with looking at the way in which we have mythologized childhood and to what degree the truth is reflected in that mythology. What he discovers is that our recent conception of childhood is a fairly modern phenomenon. Along the way, he constantly draws our attention to the fact that childhood experience varies greatly depending on class, race, religion, etc.

The thing I found most interesting about his work is the degree to which adults have defined how children experience childhood for most of this nation's history. It was only in the last part of the century that youth began to define their own culture. For the vast majority of the history of childhood, children have faced a difficult road fraught with perils and privation. In contrast, modern-day parents work hard to shield children from the reality of culture and the world around them. Part of what Mintz argues here is that modern day children need to return to some of that freedom while parents and government works to ensure their health and access to a home, food, clothing, etc.

This is an incredibly broad work that sets itself up to cover a huge time span--both in terms of history and childhood. Mintz covers all stages of childhood and youth. This is my only criticism of this wonderful book. I wish he had focused more closely on the different stages of youth. At some point he focuses on infancy and in others the teen years; this leads to a somewhat scattershot narrative. This is the sole thing that prevents me from giving this book an enthusiastic five stars. Having said this, I will say this is a small criticism for an otherwise fantastic and highly readable work.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superb! December 24, 2005
By Reader
Format:Hardcover
I used "Huck's Raft" in a senior seminar I taught in the fall 2005 semester on Children's Health, Education & Welfare, and it was one of my students' favorites. It works especially well as a first book in a course, because it is so comprehensive and engrossing. Seldom do academic books read as well as this one. It is literally hard to put it down and, at the same time, one learns so from it much chapter after chapter. For a history of childhood in the U.S., this is probably the best book available. I cannot recommend it more highly.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars good general discussion, loses detail toward end April 4, 2005
Format:Hardcover
Delving into the complete history of childhood in America is a huge undertaking, and for the most part Mintz handles the difficulties with detailed aplomb. Surveying the culture of childhood as lived by children and as represented and mythologized by current or later society, Mintz moves from pre-colonial times to the very-near present.

With so much to cover, not just chronologically but socially as well (after all, "childhood" isn't the same for all at any given time--race, class, ethnicity, etc. all create separate spheres of childhood rather than an all-conclusive web), one might expect some problems. Luckily, the strongest parts of the book are also those which will probably be most insightful and new to readers.

The sections that deal with pre-colonial and colonial times are especially detailed. Richly vivid, they open up a world most people are unfamiliar with or, if they are familiar with it, are so through less-than-accurate myth or romanticism, the kind of "history" we all "know" to be true.

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more difficult to keep that level of detail and richness as the topic literally grows larger and larger. Slavery, war, immigration, race, class, economics all force Mintz to deal with different subsets of childhood as well as with the relatively simple chronological changes and so some detail is shed, some richness lost, and the book begins to feel a bit scattershot, a bit unwieldy. By the time we get to the last 20-30 years, one feels Mintz is running to keep in place. The sections are more generalized, the conclusions not so deeply explored.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Worried About The Kids, For Three Centuries February 21, 2005
Format:Hardcover
We know that American children these days lack respect for their elders, that they lose their innocence too soon, that they dress inappropriately, that they are sexually promiscuous and violent. We bemoan these changes, and according to Steven Mintz in _Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood_, we are merely taking part in a tradition that has gone on for over three hundred years. (Mintz doesn't mention it, but the same complaints can be found among the ancient Romans, and probably further back.) You could go back to the Puritans, who believed that children, even infants, were full of the corruption bequeathed to all by Adam and Eve. The Reverend Benjamin Wadsworth sermonized that babies were "filthy, guilty, odious, abominable... both by nature and practice." So, in the beginning there was no "Golden Age of Childhood," the sort of adventure in Eden that the raft supposedly provided to Huckleberry Finn. Mintz points out, for instance, that idealizing childhood in such a way glosses over that Huck was an abused child fleeing his father. Mintz examines fully the myths and nostalgia that have made the longing for an idealized childhood, and the criticism of youth for spoiling it, part of our national character.

The Puritans regarded child's play as frivolous and trifling; children were imperfect adults who needed to be subjected to intense moral, religious, and vocational training. For all that, the young people were still addicted to Sabbath-breaking, blasphemy, maypole dancing, and fornication. Mintz explains that the elders' combination of hope and fear about the next generation is a lasting legacy even for us today. Girls and boys took part in roles within the American Revolution, making "sons and daughters of liberty" not just an accidental phrase.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
The book was in better condition then I thought it would have been because I have had some bad experience with ordering books so sometimes I expect the worse. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Desiree
3.0 out of 5 stars Customer service
I never knew when the items were shipped. When I checked it always said shipping soon, maybe it was an Amazon gliche. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Ashley
5.0 out of 5 stars Huck's Raft
Huck's Raft is a very readable survey of the history of childhood in America. It includes copious notes at the back with sources for more information on any subject it touches. Read more
Published on March 12, 2012 by jerry h.
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Informative
I have mixed feelings about this book. It was required for a class on the history of childhood and was very interesting. There is a lot of information laid out very quickly. Read more
Published on May 26, 2011 by Ella Taylor
2.0 out of 5 stars Couldn't Get Through It
I was really excited to read this book. But although the information itself was good, the author's style was just unbearable to me. Read more
Published on February 7, 2009 by Elizabeth A. Hartwig
5.0 out of 5 stars Children at play....and at work.
I initially purchased this book because the subject matter interested me, but lo and behold,subsequently it was the required text for a college history course I was enrolled in. Read more
Published on June 19, 2008 by KOP ESF
5.0 out of 5 stars How Huck Lost his Raft
I overheard an interview with the author of this book on NPR, and I sensed he attributed much of the malaise of modern youth to this same thing that bothers me -- basically a lack... Read more
Published on October 24, 2007 by Margaret Magnus
5.0 out of 5 stars WONDERFUL CONDITION!
THIS BOOK CAME IN PERFECT CONDITION! NOT A MARK ON IT! I LOVED THE CONTENT TOO... THIS BOOK OPENED MY EYES TO THE UNIQUENESS OF AMERICAN CHILDHOOD, AND ITS HISTORY! Read more
Published on May 12, 2007 by A. Gottschalk
5.0 out of 5 stars An American childhood
I have read two truly outstanding reviews of this book. One is by Joyce Carol Oates in the Times Literary Supplement. Another is by R. Hardy on this Amazon site. Read more
Published on March 10, 2005 by Shalom Freedman
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