Infant Nation: Childhood Innocence and the Politics of Race in Contemporary American Fiction
Werrlein, Debra Tonkin
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Infant Nation considers literary representations of childhood as sites where anxieties about race, class and gender inequalities converge. Popular and canonical representations of American childhood often revere it as a condition that precedes history, lacks knowledge, and thus, avoids accountability. I argue that invocations of this depoliticized ideal mask systems of privilege, particularly relating to white middle-class masculinity. My study highlights literature published between 1970 and 1999, a period marked by growing concern regarding boundaries of race and nation. With special attention to postcolonial and critical race theories, I argue that the authors here portray the United States as a nation infantilized by its desire to reclaim a mythically innocent past. In untidy formulations of nation that mirror their disjointed narrative styles, the novels interfere with the operation of nostalgia in American memory. They revise the ideal of innocent childhood to model a form of citizenship deeply engaged in acts of historical recuperation. I respond to theories of postmodern literature and cultural studies that emphasize the central role memory plays in shaping our future, presenting an analysis I feel is especially urgent at a time when neo-conservative policy-makers subscribe to a Trent Lott-style nostalgia for a mythically innocent pre-Civil Rights era. Chapter One examines Jessica Hagedorn&#8217;s Dogeaters (1990). I argue that Hagedorn cedes authentic history to the corrosive powers of assimilationism and consumerism, invoking multiple stories of history&#8217;s loss instead. In Chapter Two, I shift focus to the white middle class of Don DeLillo&#8217;s White Noise (1984). I argue that DeLillo implicates patriarchal families and profiteering universities in the cultivation of &#8220;innocent&#8221; consumer identities that ultimately turn violent. In Chapter Three I discuss Toni Morrison&#8217;s The Bluest Eye (1970). Morrison challenges the myth of American meritocracy, I contend, suggesting that race, class and gender oppressions exist not only in American culture, but in American childhoods. Finally, I examine Lois Ann Yamanaka&#8217;s Blu&#8217;s Hanging (1997). I argue that by representing children as historically savvy social critics and not as innocents, Yamanaka models a new adult citizenry. With the other novelists here, she warns a forgetful nation against embracing the infantilized present.