Biopolitics, Boyhood, and Narratives of Development in St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys | Allison Giffen

Biopolitics, Boyhood, and Narratives of Development in St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys

by Allison Giffen

Professor of English
Western Washington University
Paper presented at the MLA 2022 Roundtable: The Biopolitics of Childhood
Washington DC, January 8, 2022
[Please do not circulate or cite without permission of the author.]

In November 1873, in their “Topics of the Time” column, Scribner’s Monthly proudly announced the arrival of St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys. Figuring the new children’s periodical as a member of the family, a handsome, fresh-faced schoolboy, we are told: “it will be a pleasure to have him at our side, to watch his growth and development, and to minister, as we may, to his prosperity” (115). Scribner’s birth announcement of their new “issue” presciently reveals St. Nicholas’s preoccupation with narratives of development specifically as they pertain to white and Black boys, and as they relate to economic success. I argue that through iteration, St. Nicholas naturalizes a racialized model of child development, one that offers white boys as models of “normal” development, and Black boys as figures of what I term “arrested development.” The arrested development of the Black boy in St. Nicholas can be read as part of a larger biopolitical project to control and exploit the newly enfranchised Black workforce in the Post Reconstruction moment of the 1870s and 1880s.

Narratives of development lie at the heart of the biopolitics of childhood and are productively explored by way of disability studies scholarship. Scholars such as Mitchell and Snyder, Douglass Baynton, Nirmala Erevelles, and Ellen Samuels, among others, have enlarged our thinking on the relationship between race and disability, often by exploring their intertwined relationship within nineteenth-century eugenics discourse. My project introduces childhood into these conversations.  All three identities— disability, childhood, and racial identities like whiteness and Blackness—have a shared genealogy, emerging as codified social formations in the nineteenth century by way of enlightenment rationality, empirical science, and the nineteenth-century’s drive to classify. Taking my cue from Ellen Samuels, I suggest that these social formations are not merely analogous but mutually constitutive. Such an understanding offers productive opportunities for thinking through nineteenth-century representations of Black boyhood and the biopolitical work they perform in the pages of St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas ran for more than 60 years, becoming one of the most important and influential children’s periodicals of the period. Boasting contributions from such luminaries as Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Frances Hodgson Burnett, it was run by the celebrated writer and editor, Mary Mapes Dodge until her death in 1905. It’s worth noting that the inauguration of the periodical occurs at about the same time as the collapse of the bank Jay Cooke and Co., which triggered the Financial Panic of 1873 and ushered in the Great Depression and the Great Railroad Strike. Fear of alliances between Northern workers and Southern freedmen produced a sense of urgency on the part of the white ruling elite to reaffirm racial hierarchies and recommit to a campaign of white supremacy. Northern periodicals contributed to this white supremacist campaign, participating in a project of North-South reconciliation that sought to consolidate wealth and economic growth along a racial axis. Scribner’s, one of the great promoters of plantation literature, along with St. Nicholas, were important players in this project.

St. Nicholas published poems, letters, games, essays, and stories, along with lavish illustrations, offering a capacious curriculum for impressible child readers. Its monthly issues are also filled with degrading caricatured depictions of Black boys that would have been readily legible to contemporary audiences as “pickaninnies.”  In her landmark study, Racial Innocence, Robin Bernstein tracks the racialized construction of childhood in the nineteenth century and identifies some of the pickaninny’s defining characteristics, focusing particularly on the figure’s imperviousness to pain, a dehumanizing feature that serves to justify and rationalize the exploitation of and violence against Black children. While the invulnerability of, to use Bernstein’s phrase, “the insensate pickaninny” is one of its principal features, my project foregrounds the significance of another defining characteristic: cognitive impairment, what eugenics discourse terms “feeblemindedness.” The figure of the boy pickaninny repeatedly appears in narratives that highlight his failure to meet developmental markers in the trajectory to adulthood. Figures of arrested development, these boys will never achieve manhood and the political and economic privileges that attend it. Such portrayals can be read as a product of the white anxiety that circulated furiously around the newly enfranchised Black man in the 1870s and 1880s.

We can read the cultural work that these depictions of Black boyhood perform as “neo-Lamarckian,” which in The Biopolitics of Feeling, Kyla Schuller describes as an extension of Lamarkian theory produced by a threatened ruling elite during Post Reconstruction. She notes that “the US neo-Lamarckians outlined the evolution of the civilized race through the varied capacity of impressibility or receptivity to impression, and the regulatory faculty of feeling” (151). The feebleminded pickaninny, as represented in St. Nicholas, has no capacity for impressibility and is thus denied any access to this schema, and by extension, excluded from evolutionary process at the level of the individual. In addition, the many depictions of boy pickaninnies offer a numbing sameness, such that these characters seem interchangeable, and thus the fungibility of the feebleminded pickaninny positions him as a mediating figure between the individual and the population. Elaborating on the idea of unimpressibility, Schuller identifies the mutually constitutive relationship of disability and race: “The racialized body was a disabled body (and vice versa) deemed unfit for social life due to its reduced cognitive and corporal capacity, which rendered it incapable of self-constitution” (15). Such representations served, for better or worse, to justify the exclusion of Black children from biophilanthropy and the energies of reform organizations like the Children’s Aid Society. Denied futurity, these children do not require such interventions—for example, from this perspective, there is no point in seeking resources for their education. 

In many of the stories published in St. Nicholas, the central function of Black boys is to serve the white boys, and such depictions limn the boundaries of “normal” (white) development. In his landmark study Enforcing Normalcy, Lennard Davis explains how the notion of the normal—and by extension, the abnormal or deviant—emerges in the nineteenth century by way of eugenics discourse to produce our contemporary understanding of disability as a social and political construct.  Such stories offer lessons for child readers about how boys can successfully navigate the developmental journey to manhood, while at the same time making clear that such journeys belong to white boys. The Black boys are relegated to the sidelines of normal development, a location signaled by their depiction as feebleminded. “Feeblemindedness” pathologizes those identified as not “normal,” marking them as inferior and unfit, thus justifying the medicalizing, surveilling, institutionalizing, and expelling of such undesirables. Calling attention to the way the idea of “feeblemindedness” has been utilized to justify racial oppression, disability scholars have variously articulated the intimate relationship between Blackness and disability. Ellen Samuels suggests that the essentializing gesture of nineteenth century constructions of race “drew both explicitly and implicitly on disability’s symbolic power” (14). The social construction of childhood also exerts symbolic power, a power that participates in, even amplifies, the symbolic work of disability to justify oppression. The pickaninny, as a figure of stalled development, offers a dramatic example of this amplification.  Like disability, nineteenth-century constructions of childhood are born of enlightenment science and the drive to classify, what Mitchell and Snyder neatly refer to as the rise of “scientific management systems.” For the first time “normal” or “healthy” childhood gets measured by fixed developmental standards that lead to the rise of codified narratives of “normal” child development. 

We can find a vivid example of these racialized narratives of normal development in two stories written within a year of each other, Sarah Winter Kellogg’s “How It Went” and Irwin Russell’s “Sam’s 4 Bits,” both of which treat the topic of money management. Kellogg’s story begins with two white boys, cousins, who have earned what to them is a princely sum of money by entering into a contract with their fathers. The story tracks how they manage it through investment, speculation, and charity. For example, they “invest” in, as yet, unneeded shaving accessories, an investment that highlights the promise of manhood. And, when they find themselves with surplus from a risky strawberry speculation, they extend charity to the needy Black children who live in the part of town called “Africa.” In Irwin Russell’s story, the protagonist Sam, an enslaved boy on a Southern plantation, also finds himself with a princely sum, though his shiny coin magically appears as a Christmas gift. Unlike Kellogg’s white boys, Sam doesn’t understand the significance of money and values his prize only as a shiny object. Sam has a number of adventures in which he struggles not to lose the coin, one of which involves a battle with a greedy rooster. He then tries to clean his coin, but when he dries it by the fire, significantly, it burns both his and his mother’s hand. Ultimately the coin falls down a well, but for Sam this is a happy ending because, as he wisely concludes, the coin was more trouble than it was worth. This story speaks to white fears about the economic competition posed by newly enfranchised Black entrepreneurs, offering a consoling narrative about the way that economic control belongs in white not Black hands. When read alongside Kellogg’s story, it also vividly demonstrates the way that narratives of development are racialized. While the white boys in Kellogg’s story rehearse the rituals of manhood (contracts, investment, speculation, charity), Sam is denied this role. Russell’s story reminds its readers that Sam is not an actor but a commodity to be managed and exploited.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. NYU Press, 2011.

Kellogg, Sarah Winter. “How It Went.”  St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys. vol 2, Oct 1875, 743-48.

Russell, Irwin. “Sam’s 4 Bits.” St. Nicholas: Scribner’s Illustrated Magazine for Girls and Boys vol 3, Aug 1876, 657-60.

Samuels, Ellen. Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race. NYU Press, 2014.

Schuller, Kyla. The Biopolitics of Feeling. Race Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century. Duke UP, 2018

“Talk of the Time.” Scribner’s Monthly. Vol 7, Nov 1873, 115.


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