Give birth to a child, and all those outmoded gender clichés suddenly spring back to life with a vengeance: sugar and spice, snails and puppy dog tails. I’ve been surprised to discover that, even in my enlightened New York City neighborhood, little boys still play pirates, pretend to shoot at each other, and fantasize (like our president) about conquering outer space. Although we’ve overhauled our ideas about girldom, it’s tempting to see boyhood as a kind of eternal state, outside history. “Boys will be boys,” as the sorry refrain goes.
Yet a new book traces those supposed hallmarks of male childhood as they’ve fluctuated with cultural fashions. Kenneth B. Kidd, associate director of the Center for Children’s Literature and Culture at the University of Florida, plunges into the field of “boyology” in Making American Boys, a richly researched (and deeply academic) text. That catchy term was coined in 1916 by YMCA leader Henry William Gibson, crystallizing “ideas about boyhood and the national character” that were then popular among youth experts. According to Kidd, boyology inspired a whole range of organizations, from church youth groups to boys’ camps and the scouting movement.
Decades before Riot Grrrl’s “girl power” slogans, early-20th-century educators talked about “boy power.” Scouting and YMCAs aimed to harness that unruly power so that boys could grow up to rule the world like all good white American lads should. One 1910 boyologist fantasized about “a modern boy colony . . . isolated from cities and free from adult interference” where he might study boys in the wild and “watch the activities of the unfettered boy will.” Young men are a nation’s prime resource in peacetime and war. So it makes sense that adolescent American masculinity became a focus for fears that the emasculating consumer society was sapping that glorious boy will. As more and more young men left rural America for the big city, boyologists clung to the idea of the countryside as a place where boys could roughhouse and commune with the savage parts of their nature before channeling that virile energy into responsible manhood.
Scouting and camping yanked boys from the bad influences of family and city and put them in the manly hands of camp directors and troop leaders, though this high-testosterone environment inevitably created nervousness about homosexuality. (Hence this amazing advice on camp counselors from a 1911 boyology text: “Beware of effeminate men, men who are morbid in sex matters.”) We think of scouting as the ultimate all-American activity, but the movement was invented by British military man Lord Baden-Powell. He based ideas in his Cub Scout Handbook on Kipling’s Jungle Books, which feature Mowgli, an Indian boy raised by wolves. Kidd offers fascinating evidence that “feral tales”—literature like the Jungle Books and Tarzan novels, but also accounts of real children abandoned to the wilderness—seeped into the minds of childhood experts from the 18th century onward. Not only did it influence 20th-century children’s popular entertainment (think Peter Pan, Where the Wild Things Are) but it indelibly marked the way we think about boyhood.
Savage Girls and Wild Boys, Michael Newton’s entertaining history of feral children, chooses a handful of historical enfants terribles who served as a prism for their societies’ fantasies and popular beliefs. Memmie, a girl found in 18th-century France, attracted monarchs, eccentrics, and thinkers like James Burnett, who saw her as “the living [record] of an evolutionary process that all humanity has passed through,” as Newton writes. Kaspar Hauser’s life is a mystery from beginning to end: He arrived in a small German town in 1828, possibly having been kept in lifelong captivity, and was eventually murdered. Yet he became a focus for believers in pseudosciences like mesmerism, as well as for romantics convinced that he was a kidnap- ped prince. The last creature documented, Genie, wasn’t exactly a feral child, but a severely abused girl in 1970s California who never learned to speak, making her a perfect testing ground for linguistic theories of the era.
Newton often portrays the relationship between child and benefactor as an awkward, unrequited love affair. This is especially true in the chapter about Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron, and Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, his would-be savior. Itard envied Victor’s intense relationship with nature, describing the way he gets “carried away in a sort of contemplative extacy [sic]” by the sight of moonlight. And yet, in order to integrate him into society, Itard had to distance Victor from his sensations, make him conscious of them. Newton writes that “doubts tormented Itard. Had he done wrong in trying to educate the boy at all?”
Ironically, boyologists hoped to cure society’s ills by placing young men in the wild, while actual feral children were plucked out of that very wilderness and “civilized” so they could be alienated from nature like the rest of us. Although Newton is clearly besotted with his subjects, he refuses to romanticize; instead, he sees them as immensely lonely characters “set apart in a no-man’s-land, being neither a rational human being nor an instinctive animal.”