The BUZZ | The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth | Reading the Antimodern Way: G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence and Imperialist Reading for White American Boys

by MicKenzie Fasteland

Fasteland, MicKenzie. “Reading the Antimodern Way: G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence and Imperialist Reading for White American Boys.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth vol. 12, no. 1 (2019): 7–25.

Critics, authors, and librarians have long argued that young adult literature with complex, accurate representations of BIPOC adolescents and their cultures can provide a crucial mirror for marginalized youth facing inaccurate stereotypes. And yet, a survey of children’s books published in 2018 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) shows that out of 3,312 books received from U.S publishers, only 946 books (about 28.6%) contained BIPOC characters with a specific cultural background, and only 708 (about 21.4%) were written by and/or illustrated by BIPOC authors.1 While these numbers have doubled since 2015 thanks to the work of #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #Ownvoices movements, the CCBC’s numbers include any BIPOC characters from the text. According to David Huyck and Sarah Park Dahlen’s infographic, Diversity in Children’s Books 2018, only 23% of books included had BIPOC protagonists, four percent less than books with Animals/Other protagonists. Low and Lee’s 2019 Baseline Diversity study shows that the problem stems from the majority white population (76%) who solicit, edit, publish, and review these texts. This white bias, as Ebony Elizabeth Thomas writes, leads “publishers [to] think the bulk of the reading public is just not that interested in multicultural stories (except when for political correctness’ sake they have to be), and is most comfortable seeing minoritized children and youth in acceptable or expected roles.”2 In short, contemporary YA publishing maintains that white, straight, able-bodied, middle-class experience is universal, in which BIPOC teens and children can (and should) identify with white protagonists, while white teens would not purchase, much less read, books about BIPOC teens. My article, “Reading the Ephebic Way: G. Stanley Hall’s Adolescence and Imperialist Reading for White American Boys” historicizes these publishing standards by examining psychologist G. Stanley Hall’s 1904 monograph Adolescence and his early attempt to create young adult literature—called ephebic literature—based in white supremacist and imperialist ideologies. 

Why start with a psychologist, especially one who was widely dismissed by the very academic field he helped create not long after Adolescence’s publication?3 First, young adult scholars frequently point to Hall’s Adolescence as foundational to institutionalizing adolescence as a distinct life stage that requires careful management, but few connect him to publishing practices. And yet, as Kenneth Kidd argues, Hall’s ephebic literature “paved the way not only for the rise of teen-affiliated identity and identity politics but also for the prescriptive approach to adolescent literature now called bibliotherapeutic.” 4 In Adolescence, Hall collated biographies, plays, myths, and novels under the title ephebic literature that would support teen’s psychological development, as “here the young appeal to and listen to each other as they do not to adults.”5 Although the genre didn’t catch on, influential children’s librarians—like Caroline Hewins and Anne Carroll Moore—cited Hall’s theories to legitimize their recommendations for teens, an intellectual lineage that heavily influenced subsequent generations of librarians driving children’s and young adult literature after WWI and WWII.  

While Kidd argues that Hall created an adolescent ideal in his text that was a “model of middle-class WASP identity” and its “deviations,” he largely dismisses ephebic literature as too disconnected from Hall’s broader theories about adolescent “types.” In contrast, I argue that the ephebic type is central to Hall’s imperialist and white supremacist vision of the United States. In Ancient Greece, the term ephebe explicitly tied citizenship to the military, referring to those young men of the right age and lineage to receive the military training required to take the ephebic oath, who would dedicate themselves to the nation-state as citizens/soldiers. For Hall, the ephebe, and by extension ephebic literature, represented a solution to the threat to white masculinity posed by Black pedagogues, feminists, immigrants, and working class men, as well as by rapid changes in technology and a highly sentimental Victorian culture; altogether, he argued, these threats made young white men effeminate, resulting in diseases like neurasthenia, or “nervous exhaustion.”6 Hall utilized Lamarckian theory to argue that if evolution was a singular line of development from simple to complex, then white men were at the zenith of humanity’s evolutionary process; however, since characteristics acquired by one generation passed on to the next, adolescence was a particularly dangerous crucible, in which the storm and stress of the life stage could wreck both the individual and the white race. Recapitulation theory, however, posited that individual development could be mapped upon those of the entire race, meaning that as children grew, they would not only display signs of previous stages of civilization, but for proper growth, they also should emulate the culture of those civilizations. With this in mind, ephebic literature became therapeutic, inoculating white men against the effeminizing effects of contemporary culture by coupling individual fulfillment to national duty. 

Subsequently, I articulate how Hall created an assimilationist reading practice by including only those voices that matched his ephebic type, i.e., white men. Recapitulation allowed Hall to further disenfranchise people of color, for he argued that nonwhite races were deviations of white masculinity incapable of developing beyond adolescence. Thus, they required the intervention of and ongoing supervision from white men through what Vincent L. Rafael calls “benevolent assimilation.”7 For instance, Hall supported American imperialist action in the Philippines to both monitor the “race” and gain access to Filipino myths and rituals Hall could use as ephebic literature; however, I argue those texts about nonwhite subjectivities were only included if said subjectivities were altered into recognizable types. 

I end by arguing that the ephebic type normalized white male subjectivity as standard, and ephebic literature is the medium by which Hall made this subjectivity visible, knowable, consumable, and replicable on a massive scale that supported white supremacy at home and imperialist action abroad. It’s crucial that we turn to the early development of young adult literature. By limiting our study of young adult literature to the 1940s and the junior novel or the 1960s and the problem novel, we frame young adult literature as a commercial development as opposed to a genre that developed out of colonial logics that still reverberate throughout publishing today. 

1 Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

2 Thomas, Ebony Elizabeth. 2013. “African American Children’s Literature: Liminal Terrains and Strategies for Selfhood.” In Diversity in Youth Literature: Opening Doors through Reading, edited by Jame Campell Naidoo and Sarah Park Dahlen, 33–43. Chicago: ALA Editions, p. 40.

3 For more, see Ross, Dorothy. 1972. G. Stanley Hall: The Psychologist as Prophet. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

4 Kidd, Kenneth B. 2011. Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

5 Hall, G. Stanley. 1904. Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. Vol. 1. 2 vols. New York: D. Appleton and Company., p. 589.

6 For more, see Bederman, Gail. 1995. Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural  History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. Kindle. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

7 Rafael, Vincente L. 2000. White Love and Other Events in Filipino History. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


MicKenzie Fasteland is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where she teaches American children’s and women’s literature and composition. She received her PhD in English and Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where she examined how early debates around young adult reading practices yoked literary images of American adolescence to white imperialist citizenship.


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