Adult Readers and the Growing "New Girl" in Major American Girls' Fiction, 1900-1920
The early twentieth century was a time of high-profile commentary in the U.S. regarding new roles for women, the convention-defying “New Woman,” and adolescence in the context of girls’ lives. Girls’ fiction included family-oriented texts, as well as, to borrow from Nancy Tillman Romolav, “series books” that “did not attempt to woo the adult through their language, subject or pedagogical value . . .” (90). This study explores major books (from both kinds of girls’ fiction, namely Wiggin’s Rebecca books and the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Ruth Fielding series, along with, to a lesser extent, its first Dorothy Dale text) concerned with “New Girls” as they grow from their pre-teen/early-teen years to young womanhood; I examine whether differences relating to whether adult readership is sought affect how the books compare in terms of addressing adult-imposed impediments that the girls face. I argue that, underneath such differences, the books share the assumption that young-girl readers—as imagined by the texts—are not the right audience, or at least not the right primary audience, for a comprehensive look at the mixture of ageism and patriarchy. The books assume that outright dislodging adult-imposed limitations is beyond what young-girl readers can do. This assumption constitutes a unifying feature of major American coming-of-age “New Girl” fiction for girls of the time. At a broader political level, in lacking signs of a belief that the imagined girl readers deserve to be fully aware of their social situation, the texts themselves actually confirm the pervasiveness in their society of a lamentable adult conservative attitude towards girls. This finding is relevant to discussing the social context and this genre in 1900-1920, and should also matter more generally to scholars of American girls’ fiction (including works of our era, given how girls and women are still oppressed), as well as to critics who might pursue cross-national comparisons. Crucially, this study is not about what actual child readers know, think, or understand; rather, it discusses how the texts imagine girl readers. As Lukens, Smith, and Coffel note, “Children’s literature is written by adults for children as adults imagine children to be” (6).