Researcher Traces Influence of Early Developmental Psychology on the Modern Novel

By Tom McLaughlin

In the late 19th century, the theory of evolution would have a profound impact on theories of the developing human mind, explains Rutgers University–Camden researcher Holly Blackford.

“This was especially evident in child development, which was newly studied to demonstrate how evolution works,” says the professor of English.

According to Blackford, modern novels became both a reflection of, and contribution to, the world’s understanding of the wonders and limits of child consciousness.

Based on 13 years of intensive research, the Rutgers–Camden professor traces the influence of early developmental psychology – notably, Darwin and Freud – on the modern novel in her forthcoming book, Alice to Algernon: The Evolution of Child Consciousness in the Novel (University of Tennessee Press, 2018).

The treatise examines many works of literature, influenced by the period of 1871 to 1911, to show how various disciplines – such as psychology, biology, criminal justice, and sociology – conceptualized the child in a new way and made the child/teen the focal point of intellectual inquiry.

In the opening chapter, Blackford looks at two influential American novels published only several years apart – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Henry James’ What Maisie Knew (1897) – to show how their respective focus on youths’ thinking processes, along with their personal critiques of society, formed a vast departure from earlier Victorian era literature.

“Prior to these novels, children’s actions and moral development were of interest, but pages and pages were never devoted to their cognition, to how they reason,” says Blackford, who credits her curiosity of these two works for providing the impetus for her book.

The classic texts are stark examples of the influence of the theory of evolution, she says, noting that the theory had been circulating for years, but gained immense popularity seemingly overnight when Darwin published his “A Biographical Sketch of An Infant” in 1877. Babies, she says, were suddenly being studied to show how their behaviors were evidence of how people evolved and adapted to their environment.

“These prevailing notions shifted how children were represented in novels,” she says. “For example, Huck Finn’s stream of consciousness essentially is the story. That was of great interest at the time.”

In another chapter, Blackford shows how new understandings of childhood started to reconstruct how people viewed juvenile delinquency and helped to usher in court and educational reforms. The Rutgers–Camden researcher examines the novel Native Son (1940) – a stirring work that tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year old African American male who commits a crime – to show how the new childhood study movement utilized a more objective approach, and broke from childhood psychologists who espoused racist points of view claiming that anyone not white and British was less evolved.

“The child study movement led to observing the child where they were and seeing how they could fit in society instead of the Victorian approach of ‘getting the savage out of them,’” she says. “This approach was a little more child-friendly.”

She notes that, during that period, seminal works such as G. Stanley Hall’s tome “Adolescence” in 1904 and “boys stories,” firsthand accounts of juvenile delinquents published by the Chicago School of Sociology, were part of the burgeoning study of human environmental adaptation, which helped lead to an effort to understand delinquent adolescents in their own voices and thinking patterns.

In light of these developments, says Blackford, literature of the period depicts child characters that aren’t treated necessarily as moral agents, but detached objects whose reasoning can be studied and analyzed for their biased qualities.

Make no mistake, there’s a bit of irony in this newfound approach, says Blackford.

“A lot of this book shows how very racist and homophobic perspectives ironically led to more liberating perspectives, because they allowed ‘others’ to be studied in a new way, without judgment as scientific objects,” explains Blackford, who notes that sexologists insisted that any disgust of homosexuals interfered with scientific learning about development.

In another chapter, Blackford shows how such social and scientific changes also led to a new understanding – and depiction – of children with disabilities. In looking at novels such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Blackford shows how “disabled consciousness” is used to destabilize and show flaws in what was viewed as “normal” reasoning and rationale.

The latter story, she explains, is narrated by a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, a “very Huck Finn-ish, deadpan narrator,” who doesn’t process norms the same way as most people, just as Huck Finn didn’t process racist norms the same way. The consciousness of the title character in each book, she says, becomes the focus of each respective story.

“We see that these characters are more abled than disabled,” says Blackford. “Because the world is so crazy, the way that they see the world is actually much more logical than the world actually is.”

In essence, notes the Rutgers–Camden researcher, the child characters in the novels that she examines represent a wide range of cognitions. However, she says, these novels universally show that it is problematic to view children as evolving – and it’s a false pretense that still has implications in child developmental psychology today.

“This view has less to do with real children,” she says, “and more to do with a culturally biased viewpoint that sees children as always on an evolutionary path – as always in progress – toward intellectual maturity.”

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