The BUZZ | J19 | Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child

by Laura Soderberg

Soderberg, Laura. “Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child.” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, vol. 6, no. 2, Nov. 2018, pp. 307–34.

In my article, I argue that antebellum theories of the child self arose in conjunction with developing penal theories about juvenile delinquency. It reads the day-to-day records of the New York House of Refuge, the first U.S. prison specifically designed for children, alongside popular parenting books ranging from John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education to Lydia Maria Child’s The Mother’s Book. What emerges is a belief on the part of wealthier white parents that they have a physical and emotional connection with their children’s innermost self – a connection that can eventually broaden to their social sphere at large and one that can be severed by corporal punishment.

For juvenile prison systems, though, the same logic worked to justify the belief that many of their child prisoners were fundamentally and perhaps permanently antisocial, a legal status known as “incorrigible.” To be labeled incorrigible meant not only that children could be held, without specific charges, until they reached adulthood – a common situation for all child prisoners. Incorrigibility also marked a specific belief held by prison officials that any good behavior was a deliberate deception, meant to trick them into relaxing their guard. It was, in other words, a Catch-22; an incorrigible child was either being bad or merely acting good with a deliberate intent.

Because the cultural beliefs that backed incorrigibility were built on the idea that physical bonds between parent and child would someday form the foundation for emotional bonds between the adult and their society, incorrigibility was a direct product and tool of white supremacy. As I discuss, in the earliest decade of its operation, the prison disproportionately targeted first- and second-generation immigrant children. For these children, incorrigibility acted as a tool for policing the boundaries of whiteness, dramatizing concerns by prison officials about whether these mainly poor and Irish American children could ever actually be citizens.

I was honored to receive a very thoughtful response to the article by Brigitte Fielder. Fielder argues that, since juvenile delinquency was just one among many institutions that have held children captive, we should further trace the ways that incorrigibility derived from and enabled the oppression of children of color. I fully agree that there’s much more work to be done. To note one example of a possible lead, my article cites Hawthorne’s Pearl as a representation of the popular understanding of incorrigibility; scholars have also read Pearl as a product of Hawthorne’s anti-Native racism. One such scholar, Sophie Bell, describes the “inexplicable perversity with which Hawthorne associates Indians and other would-be letter-learners like Pearl” (16). Further study into the possible links between settler colonialism and juvenile delinquency could tell us whether “inexplicable perversity” is incorrigibility by another name or perhaps a related formation.[1] Similarly, the longer legacy of juvenile delinquency is a legacy of warehousing Black and Latinx children.

Perhaps more fundamentally, Fielder also urges further study from the perspective of children of color and from the perspective of adults of color who loved and protected them, pointing very rightly to the work that Black Girlhood Studies has already undertaken. One of the limits of my research is that, not only does it focus on children who were eligible for whiteness (even if that status was understood as tenuous or suspect), but it also focuses on adult ways of looking at children. In that respect, it’s very much a study of how white adults understood the inheritance of whiteness, and we shouldn’t stay only with that perspective.

As part of my larger research, I find incorrigibility a useful case study for a model of childhood that looks and acts utterly differently than what we associate with the idea of children, and yet one that is inextricably tied to notions of age. Rather than focusing on the idea of children denied childhood, which forces us to see a singular and universally recognized model of childhood, it pushes us to think about how categories of childhood were levered not as endowments of humanity but as weapons. Equally, this pushes us to think about a whole range of ways that authors of color found new languages for what it meant to prize childhood that operated well outside of narrow models of national futurity or sentimental innocence. Broadening the scope of what we recognize as a narrative of childhood allows us to better understand both the lives that children historically led and the activist potential of childhood to recognize and value marginalized lives.

Incorrigibility is far from gone. When I began to poke around the concept several years ago, one of the first things I found was a series of teenagers posting online about how they were afraid of being charged with incorrigibility, desperate to know whether there was anything they could do to avoid going to prison. I also had to change archives almost immediately, because the juvenile prison I’d intended to focus on turned out to be still in operation – albeit with an updated vocabulary – and therefore still in private possession of its records. Studying the history of juvenile delinquency underscores a host of continuities in how the U.S. treats the children whom adults in power fear or pretend to fear. Childhood Studies, therefore, can and should be an activist field, pushing for broader recognition of the ways that, because our notion of childhood is tightly linked to our notion of humanity, it can also act as a gatekeeper for who will count as fully human.

[1] I’d also like to tentatively suggest another possible extension in disability studies, as I’ve been struck by similarities between delinquency records and early ableist descriptions of autism as a form of insularity or mental inaccessibility. These descriptions were then used to justify violent abuse of autistic children, a pattern which at least superficially follows incorrigibility’s role in justifying violence towards children who supposedly cannot be “reached” otherwise.


Bell, Sophie. “Misreading The Scarlet Letter: Race, Sentimental Pedagogy, and Antebellum Indian Literacy.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 42, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–27.

Fielder, Brigitte. “Considering the Racially ‘Inscrutable’ Child: Letter Response to Laura Soderberg, ‘Writing the Criminal Child: Antebellum Prison Records, Parenting Manuals, and the Rise of the Incorrigible Child.’” J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, vol. 7, no. 2, 2019, pp. 223–25.

Laura Soderberg is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Indiana, specializing in early African American and multiethnic American literature. Her current research looks at how narratives about supposedly deviant children – including juvenile delinquents, immigrant children, children with disabilities, and enslaved children – structured ideas of population, race, and reproduction in the nineteenth century U.S. She has held fellowships from the McNeil Center for Early American Studies and the Winterthur Museum, and her work can be found in American LiteratureJ19, Modern Philology, and Social Text.

One comment

  • Thanks so much for this extension of your work, Laura. You’re so right that the expanse of (collective and necessarily activist) work still to be done here is key. And I myself have been thinking more and more about the foundational and continuing logics of incorrigibility, particularly around the close relationship between notions of childhood and notions of humanity that you mention here. Looking forward to further work in conversation with you!


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