Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, and age as a category of historical analysis

ageinamericaIs age the next new category of analysis in history?  I think it might be, and not just because I’m one of the contributing authors.  From an email from co-editor Nicholas L. Syrett I received this weekend:

Age in America has been published (New York University Press, 2015)! I’m at the Organization of American Historians’ annual meeting this weekend in St. Louis and the very first two advance copies made it here just in time (and both were sold by conference’s end). The assistant editor at NYU Press will send you your copy as soon as the books stock at NYU’s warehouse (Cori and I don’t even have ours yet). I have attached a photo of the book sitting in the NYU Press booth. Within a couple weeks it should be available to order through bookstores, etc.

The co-editors of the volume, Nick Syrett and Corinne T. Field, worked hard with contributors to get a good mix of established and emerging scholars and to cover a pretty broad swath of American history (table of contents here.)  My essay, “‘Keep me With You, So That I Might Not Be Damned:’  Age and Captivity in Colonial Borderlands Warfare,” is the first essay in the collection after Field’s and Syrett’s introduction.  There are thirteen other essays in the volume, which covers not just the expected modern markers of age and how they came to be (age of suffrage, the drinking age, the age of retirement and Social Security benefits), but also essays by Yuki Oda on age and immigration politics (“‘A Day Too Late:’  Age, Immigration Quotas, and Racial Exclusion,”) Stuart Schoenfield on age 13 for American Jews, and Norma E. Cantú on the quinceañera for Latin@ girls.

I’m also eager to read the essay by my Tweep Shane Landrum (@cliotropic), “From Family Bibles to Birth Certificates:  Young People, Proof of Age, and American Political Cultures, 1820-1915,” and the essay by Brigham Young University historian Rebecca de Schweinitz, “‘The Proper Age for Suffrage:’  Vote 18 and the Politics of Age from World War II to the Age of Aquarius.”  The co-editors each have contributed an essay from their current research projects.  Field’s essay, “‘If You Have the Right to Vote at 21 Years, Then I Have:’  Age and Equal Citizenship in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” and Syrett’s essay, “Statutory Marriage Ages and the Gendered Construction of Adulthood in the Nineteenth Century,” suggest the roots of their interests in age as a category for analysis.  (Field is the author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood:  Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum Americaand Syrett, the author of The Company He Keeps:  A History of White College Fraternities, is completing a book manuscript now on child marriage in American history.)

Ever since I wrote my essay for the collection, it seems like age and age-consciousness is everywhere I turn.  For example, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Amanda Vickery  (on Twitter @Amanda_Vickery) here at the Huntington this week, and she alerted me to a fantastic essay she published a few years ago in the Journal of British Studies“Mutton Dressed as Lamb?  Fashioning Age in Georgian England,” on fashion and the life cycle for middle-aged and older women.  (Don’t you just love the title?  British history enthusiasts will perhaps know of Vickery because of her work for BBC-4 radio and on BBC-2 television, “At Home with the Georgians.”)

I think that Vickery, Field, and Syrett are on to something.  Because of my essay on child captives in the Age in America book, I became much more interested in the experience of old age for the subject of my book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, and I think that makes the book richer and more interesting for readers.  After all, Esther Wheelwright became the first and still the only foreign-born Mother Superior of the Ursulines of Québec in 1760 at the age of 64, and so assumed a role in the insular political world of New France at the moment of the British Conquest.

Unlike in protestant cultures in the early modern world, in which marriage (and not religious life) was the only option for adult women and they were highly valued for their ability to produce children, menopause and older age for nuns wasn’t as traumatically life-changing as for their married counterparts.  In fact, in many religious traditions, protestant and Catholic alike, older age was viewed as a sign of spiritual grace and holiness, and people who lived to advanced ages were regarded with respect as Elders in their communities.

(Hey–did you realize that I just used italics for my book title just now?  That means I’ve got a publisher!  This book is going to enter the world as much more than a figment of my imagination!  I hope to share more news on that very soon.  I’m very excited!  And now, I really must get back to those book revisions.)

13 thoughts on “Age in America: The Colonial Era to the Present, and age as a category of historical analysis

  1. Congratulations on *both* of these pieces of good news, Ann! When the italicized sentence goes to blue-link, that’ll mean that it’s out there for reallz, as you say…


  2. Coolio! On a less cheerful note related to age, I’m starting to notice that public figures our age are starting to die suddenly…


  3. That’s a cool collection! I’ve taught a senior seminar on the life cycle that has several weeks devoted to topics such as aging and infirmity. Age could be a position of strength but age compounded by infirmity turned the tables. And Amanda Vickery’s work is just plain AWESOME – I love that article from the JBS. Glad that you do, too.


  4. Some 48 year old actor dude just kicked it. I can’t remember the dude’s name. But, yeah, that’s my plan too. Venerable!! That’s the ticket!!


  5. Congratulations on both pieces of news…. I’ve spent years explaining to students, as well as random adults, that people in early modern England did not usually marry at 14. They are genuinely shocked when I describe the Western European marriage pattern!


  6. HA-ha. Well, Syrett’s new work is all about child marriage, but it’s also all about how it’s totes strange in the 19th C but is generally accepted, and how it becomes less & less acceptable over the course of the 20th C. Syrett, as a women’s & gender historian, makes very strong arguments about the young brides as agents rather than victims of male predation. He sees them using marriage at an early age for their own ends–to escape unhappy or poor natal homes, etc.


  7. Congrats!

    And yes, I’ve noticed this, too–CFPs on age in the Renaissance, a book by a friend on Renaissance girlhood, another friend working on a book on old age in the middle ages, etc.

    Like Susan, I take great pleasure in describing marriage patterns in Early Modern Europe to my students. I also find that I’m spending a lot more time pointing out generational clashes in the literature of the period–young people who are sure the older folks just don’t understand; adults who are complaining about the kids today–as well as the real structural problems faced by teens and twentysomethings of various classes. I’ve ascribed this increased attention on my part to the fact that I teach people of this age, but I think there’s also something in the scholarly air.


  8. Congrats on the collection.
    For anyone interested in age as a category of analysis, check out the work on life stages, generations and cohorts that has been done in African history. Years ago, Western studies of witchcraft benefitted from thinking with some of the ideas emerging from Africa-studying anthropologists who saw social history rather than evil, and changed the basic terms of the historiography.
    Age may be similar–africanists think with age grades and cohorts as they are often basic elements of social organization (along with lineage, clan, etc.). And these can be gendered. We have fast growing historical lit on girlhood and male youth, on the challenges of achieving adulthood, on gerontocracy, etc. I remember talking about this at the Berks a decade ago. Maybe we triggered something.


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