Alice's Academy

Caroline Jones, editor

"The Making of Rebecca" and the Education of the Ideal Adult

Naomi Lesley

Naomi Lesley has been a secondary school teacher for several years in public, private, and charter schools.  She is a recent graduate of the San Diego State Masters program in children’s literature, and she is now an independent scholar residing in the Washington, D.C. metro area.

In “‘The Making of Rebecca’: and the Education of the Ideal Adult,” Naomi Lesley undertakes a pedagogical and ideological exploration of the tensions inherent in Kate Douglas Wiggin’s consummately Romantic depiction of childhood, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.   Lesley focuses on the relationship between Wiggin as nostalgic author and Wiggin as educational reformer, and in the problematic constructions of both children and adults by those tensions inherent in American culture at the turn of the twentieth-century.  The subtle subversions of Romantic childhood by Progressive pedagogy—and vice versa—provide provocative areas for further discussion and scholarship. 

(Caroline Jones – editor, Alice’s Academy)


In many ways, Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm appears to offer clear messages about ways to raise an imaginative child and about ways to be an imaginative child.  Rebecca’s pretend-games in the woods and pastures of Riverboro, her untrammeled reading of romances and fairy-tales at Sunnybrook Farm, and her dreamy reveries of composition seem to represent the ideal means to good development, while the attempts of Aunt Miranda and Miss Dearborn to channel, control, and shape her impulses seem to be misguided relics of childrearing practices from the bad old days of the pre-Progressive era.  It would be easy to read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm as a straightforward celebration of the Progressive and Romantic teaching philosophies that Wiggin herself espoused and taught, first as a kindergarten teacher, and later, as a trainer of other teachers.  However, in “Pleasure and Genre,” Perry Nodelman suggests that many works of children’s literature which appear to send clear didactic messages are actually ambivalent, undermining their own didacticism.  Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is an example of one such book which undermines its own messages.  The messages to readers about how to raise an ideal child conflict with those sections that encourage readers to be an ideal child.  The teaching and childrearing philosophies embedded in the novel are also inherently contradictory, revealing some of the cracks and conflicts between different teaching reform movements.  Like Rebecca’s future, these conflicts are never resolved.  Rebecca’s eventual success (at least until the age of eighteen) can allow readers to celebrate the beneficial effects of nostalgic country settings, Romantic childhood freedom and imagination, or Progressive-era school reform, according to their desires; the differences between goals and methods can be glossed over and obscured, as long as Rebecca becomes the child readers wish her to be.  However, Rebecca can never become the adult that readers wish her to be, without resolving the conflicts between the underlying values of nostalgia and reform.

The reader is led to expect, in the beginning, that the book is to be a Bildungsroman about “the making of Rebecca,” a seemingly straightforward subject.  She is a child, and she will be made into a productive adult.  The reason for this goal appears similarly straightforward; Rebecca’s education will relieve her overfull house of one child and will give her access to the economic opportunity necessary to save her family farm from foreclosure.  However, these two expectations are unsettled from the beginning, opening up two questions: 1) What, if anything, is to be the making of Rebecca; and 2) For what purpose is she being made?  Wiggin never resolves either question conclusively; rather, she provides multiple competing and opposing answers.

Many critics have tried to resolve these oppositions, either by examining Rebecca as perpetual child, or by predicting her eventual (sad) adulthood.  Several critics argue that Wiggin seems to want Rebecca to make the adults around her into better children, rather than to be made, herself, into an adult.  Perry Nodelman, in fact, argues that what distinguishes the “making” of Rebecca and of other similar heroines is their resistance to being made—they fail to change as they age, instead making the “overcivilized” adults around them more innocent and childlike (32).  Anne Scott MacLeod and Rob Hardy connect this pattern to late nineteenth century adult nostalgia for the state of childhood.  Both these critics observe that children’s books like Rebecca were read as much by adults as by children; adulthood was viewed as a flat and ugly life stage (MacLeod 117-8), and so, as Hardy says, “ideal girlhood is a fixed and crystalline state; the ideal girl never reaches maturity, but remains an emblem of the past” (34).  For Fred Erisman, this “emblem of the past” is not only the individual past of the adult, but also the historical past of a more rural, wholesome, and innocent America, the “ideal America in which we claim to live” (245).  These critics rightly identify jaded adults as an important audience for the novel and pinpoint adult nostalgia for a romanticized childhood as a powerful attraction.  However, they tend to overlook the critiques of the past and of the “ideal America” that are embedded in the text, reading the novel mainly as a vehicle for adults to recapture a happy and redemptive childhood.  Some critics do see a darker subtext in Rebecca’s impending future; MacLeod suggests that discontent over Rebecca’s future as an assimilated woman is buried but still present (27), Roselee Robison, Sue Kornfeld, and Eve Jackson see a danger of her becoming a fettered domestic (Robison 108, Kornfeld and Jackson 148), and Hardy predicts that she will become a “passive object of male desire” (48).  These critics nevertheless accept the rest of the novel as the tale of a free and untrammeled Romantic child, who enjoys an appropriately idyllic childhood despite cranky Aunt Miranda.

However, if Rebecca is to be read as a reformer of overcivilized adults and an innocent orphan unspoiled by grownup interference (Nodelman 34), then there must be something for her to reform.  The idyllic childhood must frequently have been spoilt by grownup childrearing practices, and most children must not have enjoyed as free a childhood as Rebecca.  Wiggin may have been nostalgic for a childhood in the country, but she was also actively involved in educational reform efforts like the Free Kindergarten movement, which aimed to help poor urban immigrants learn proper middle class patterns of dress, speech and behavior, complete with hygienic housekeeping skills (Nawrotski 183, 190).  In other words, in her teaching practice, she was in favor of imparting the same kinds of internal restraints which most critics of Rebecca have seen as a danger to her childhood.

Some critics have discussed Wiggin’s involvement in educational reform.  Anne Lundin examines Wiggin’s influence on the discourse about childhood, and states that her tracts on the kindergarten movement and children’s rights establish childhood as a “nostalgic vision—a remembrance of what is past—or as a sign of the country’s future—a symbol of what is possible” (188).  She argues that Wiggin’s writing reveals the extent to which women of the Progressive era viewed education as the “foundation for a new social order” (193).  Much of Wiggin’s writing about children’s rights and education was nostalgic and influenced by Romanticism.  However, it would be a mistake to look at only these aspects of Wiggin’s writing and of Progressive educational reform in general.  In fact, various reform movements clashed, both with each other and with the childrearing methods of the not-so-nostalgic past.  The goal of this essay is to point out the ways in which Rebecca fails to conform to the script of a nostalgic Romantic childhood and instead reflects critiques and conflicts within discussions of educational reform.  There are numerous explanations for the novel’s lack of resolution; in addition to the need for Rebecca to remain a perpetual child, the ending also suggests unresolved conflicts between nostalgia and critical reform, between various factions of reformers, and between the desire to reform adult childrearing practices and the desire to re-form the adults themselves into children.

Critique and Reform—Common Schools, Pragmatic Progressives, and Free Kindergartners

Nineteenth century educators’ reports, and Wiggin’s own memories of schooling, are far from nostalgic about school conditions.  Beginning in the 1830s, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Horace Mann reported that the network of rural and urban schools he visited were chaotic, poorly funded, and badly taught by unprofessional teachers (DeMitchell 80).  In Rhode Island, school commissioner Henry Barnard levied similar criticisms.  Not only were schools badly managed and teachers poorly paid, but the curriculum, he argued, was too divorced from the problems of real life.  He called for the “harmonious development of the whole nature of the child” (Barnard 155), a cry that would later be echoed by Free Kindergartners and Progressives.

Thirty years later, little had apparently changed, despite Barnard’s and Mann’s reform efforts.  Wiggin’s descriptions of the dame school and the district school she attended in Maine are unflattering; the dame school featured a teacher who disciplined Wiggin by putting her under the desk in the dark, and the district school teachers changed every term.  These school experiences provided the models for Miss Dearborn’s school in Riverboro (Wiggin, Garden 45-7).  Even her seminary education was unsatisfactory. Although she found an influential mentor in her Latin teacher, Miss Mary Smith, she also reports that she emerged from the school with uneven mental development and without enough knowledge to teach public school (Wiggin, Garden 52, 88).  By the 1890s, critic and journalist Joseph Mayer Rice seemed to have few new problems to expose.  He, too, found teachers with too little training in classrooms, and reported that methods were “unscientific,” relying on mechanical rote memorization rather than on training for critical thought (Berube 16-17).  Rebecca, attending school in the 1870s under these conditions, would, according to most reports, including those of Wiggin herself, have had neither a happy childhood school experience nor one that would help her to be “made” into a successful, competent adult.  According to these reports, schools taught little that was relevant to students’ daily lives; the irrelevant curriculum that was taught was done badly; and students like Wiggin emerged without enough knowledge in either practical or academic matters to help them to make a living.  It seems unlikely that Wiggin would advocate Romantic nostalgia for this set of conditions.

While most observers agreed that the current state of schools was terrible (in whatever era they were observing), they took different, often clashing, approaches to reform.  Common school advocates like Barnard and Mann wanted to systematize schools and to professionalize teaching (DeMitchell 82, Barnard 155).  Threatened by the upheavals of the Civil War and by waves of immigration, common school reformers wanted a unified, standardized system of graded classrooms taught by well-qualified college graduates, which would preserve democratic values, Americanize immigrants, and provide social stability (DeMitchell 81, Kaestle 102).  While the common school reformers succeeded to some extent in developing a graded school system, later critics like Rice accused the graded classrooms of being mechanical and the teacher appointments of being riddled with corruption (Berube 16-7).  This partial reform effort, the common school system, ironically produced nostalgic tales about the “good old days” of the one-room schoolhouse.  By 1916, Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel Understood Betsy follows the heroine as she escapes from her stultifying and enervating graded common school and rediscovers American independence in the un-systematized country schoolhouse (which is transformed from the dingy and badly taught disgraces described by Mann and Rice into a clean and professionally run Montessori school).  Although Wiggin was not a Montessori reformer, she did participate in some of the reform movements that, like Montessori’s, fought against the systemization and perceived mechanization of the mainstream common school reform movement.

Some conflict over the common school drive toward systematization occurred early on, as the concept of the professional teacher (who was often a woman) clashed with the nineteenth century belief that women were natural caretakers and that the home should be the primary educational experience.  Henry Barnard resolved this contradiction by suggesting that the home was the best place for education, but that not all mothers could provide it, rendering a free common school necessary (Johanningmeier 160).  However, other reformers tended to undercut the case for professionally trained women as teachers.  Catharine Beecher, an antebellum advocate for the education of women, argued that women who served as teachers merely provided a public face for the special nurturing duties of private women in the home (Reddick 78). However, she also suggested that such duties were not natural and inborn when she argued that mothers ought to have a proper education in order to be able to manage the home and family adequately (Johanningmeier 162).  In a further contradiction, she states that “the mind is to be guided chiefly by means of the affections” and that “the social habits and moral feelings are to be regarded before the mere acquisition of knowledge” (qtd in Enoch 285); so perhaps professionalism in the school is not so necessary after all.

Wiggin and her contemporaries were no clearer about the conflict over whether and why women should be rigorously educated.  In the Progressive era, with Dewey’s push toward pragmatic education, the trend in education was to train women for their traditional roles as housekeepers and caretakers.  This trend was supported by both feminists and traditionalists for different reasons.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman argued that there was no such thing as a natural mother, and that women should work outside the home while trained workers took their places inside it (Jenkins 143).  In contrast, Monika Elbert describes Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s belief in women’s innate superiority for the task of nurturing children; she stated that the ideal education for a girl was to be “educated by an accomplished mother, in the sacred retreat of the home” (210-11).  Wiggin was highly influenced by Peabody, and argued that parenting classes and kindergarten teacher training represented the highest level of education for women; such training would prepare them to be the “accomplished mother” that Peabody desired as a primary educator (Wiggin and Smith 179-80; Wiggin, Rights 23-4).  However, historian Jane Hunter argues that, by and large, school did not prepare girls to be, or to think of themselves, as housewives.  Rather, it prepared them to have ambitions of making their mark as writers, actors, and musicians (374-5), just as Rebecca dreams of doing; thus, school prepared them also for conflicts as they reached an adulthood defined by expectations of housewifery.

Despite Wiggin’s admiration of Peabody, Rebecca is not raised by an accomplished mother for the eventual goal of nurturing her own children; and despite her advocacy of professional teacher training, Rebecca is not taught by a competent teacher in a free common school system.  As Regina Puleo points out in “Rebecca’s Revision,” Aurelia is not a particularly competent or nurturing housewife and mother, and the spinster Miranda, who is at least a competent domestic, remains focused on Rebecca’s education outside of the home (357).  If Rebecca needs to be “made” outside of her own home, it is still unclear whether this “making” is to occur in the setting of someone else’s home or in the school system.  Within the context of the novel, neither setting provides Rebecca with the Romantic freedom seen by most critics as the hallmark of her ideal childhood.

Although Rebecca does not benefit from a free kindergarten or an accomplished mother, Wiggin does endow her with some of the qualities praised in Progressive reform writing for children.  The novel employs Romantic metaphors commonly used by Wiggin, in her advocacy for the rights of children; by Friedrich Froebel, whose writing inspired the Free Kindergarten movement in America; and by Elizabeth Peabody, whose mentorship directly influenced Wiggin.  All three writers draw upon the common image of the “garden” to encourage the natural growth of children, just as in the novel, Rebecca is compared to a tree (263), to a bunch of wholesome clover (201), and to a rich profusion of “foliage, blossoms, and fruit” (188).  Froebel advocates “grant[ing] space and time” to children as to young plants and animals (8), and Peabody suggests in the preface to her kindergarten guide that children must be allowed to grow “from within outward” (iv).  Accordingly, Wiggin describes Rebecca’s early childhood:

[W]hatever else there was or was not, there was freedom at Randall’s farm.  The children grew, worked, fought, ate what and slept where they could. … As a result of this method, Hannah, who could only have been developed by forces applied from without, was painstaking, humdrum, and limited; while Rebecca, who apparently needed nothing but space to develop in and a knowledge of terms in which to express herself, grew and grew and grew, always from within outward. (21)          

However, both in Progressive writing for children and in Wiggin’s novel, these images of Romantic freedom do not conform to the notion that ideal children like Rebecca should mould and reform adults.

If Rebecca benefits from complete freedom at Randall’s farm, then she is the exception that proves the rule, according to most Progressive reformers.  True, Rebecca is able to grow “from within outward,” but Hannah, a different kind of plant, requires more intensive gardening.  Froebel delicately compares education to the process of trimming a grape-vine (9), and Peabody suggests that human nature, left to grow, must either be checked by God or by the intervention of an adult (v).  While critics like Hardy and Erisman rightly point out that Wiggin evokes a Wordsworthian image of Rebecca as “Romantic child-philosopher who still ‘beholds the light’” (Hardy 44), Progressive reformers inspired by Wordsworth nevertheless believed that adults needed to teach, to protect, and to reform children—especially poor children like Rebecca who did not have the benefit of a middle-class maternal upbringing.  Read from a Romantic perspective, the vision of children who “grew, worked, fought, ate, and slept where they could” is refreshing and healthy.  Read from the perspective of Progressive-era reform, such a phrase raises the specter of unruly, poor, immigrant urchins who would grow up as deprived children and potentially dangerous adults

In fact, part of the impetus for Progressive reforms like the Free Kindergarten movement was a combined fear of and compassion for the urban immigrant poor, who were to be taken care of and Americanized if they were not to become social dangers (Berube 13).  Amy Earhart argues that Elizabeth Peabody believed in the power of education, and a changed environment, to alter racial characteristics that she perceived as negative and to produce a “less rebellious, less troublesome citizen” (78).  Kristen Nawrotski coins the phrase “reformance” to describe the work of Free Kindergarten reformers like Peabody and Wiggin; kindergarten students at Wiggin’s school were especially selected for need, but also for promise of improvement, so as to “perform” a satisfactory transformation for an audience of potential underwriters (187-9).  On the one hand, the Free Kindergarten movement was largely driven by middle-class women who believed in the divinity of children and in their need for a pleasant childhood; on the other hand, their primary goal was to rescue and redeem lower-class child victims, not to benefit from child philosophy (Nawrotski 183-185).

This conflict is illustrated in Wiggin’s own writing.  In The Story of Patsy, a story Wiggin initially wrote for fundraising purposes and then expanded, Wiggin describes her attempts to “bring a little hope and sunshine” (7) into the lives of her charges.  However, while she describes the pleasant environs of the school, and the children’s delight in pretend games and stories, she also worries over “correcting nine years of bad grammar” (52). In one exchange (during which she is supposedly resolving a fight and not giving a writing lesson) she insists that her students say “took” instead of “hooked,” saying that “[my words] mean just as much and sound a little better” (4).  In pursuit of her students’ reformance, she shuts down her students’ vulgar word choices just as surely as Miss Dearborn later disparages Rebecca’s lively phrase “go to smash” as insufficiently “pretty” language for poetry (94).  Thus, despite the Romantic inspiration and language used by many Progressive reformers, these reforming adults do not see themselves as being in need of salvation by their unspoiled orphan charges, the way Nodelman suggests that adults in novels are.  There is undoubtedly a difference between fictions of children who triumph over sour adults and crusading accounts of righteous adults who provide children with sunny childhoods.  In both cases, the writers certainly view some kind of imaginative childhood as being desirable for both children and for adults who were former children.  However, the message for readers is quite different, depending on whether a child audience is meant to envision rescuing adults, an adult audience is meant to reclaim a past happy childhood, or an audience of adult parents and caretakers is meant to consider how best to provide a good childhood for those in their care.

Wiggin was both a novelist and an education advocate, and her writing in both genres reflects this conflict of roles.  Therefore, the problem in Rebecca is to tease out the extent to which Rebecca represents a nostalgic ideal child and the extent to which she reflects Wiggin’s own teaching practices, experiences, and agendas.  In The Story of Patsy, Wiggin nostalgically invokes her own childhood in the country, contrasting it with the crowded, unhealthy urban environs of her charges (32).  Like Wiggin, Rebecca has a country childhood.  However, like Wiggin’s kindergarten charges, Rebecca is poor, underprivileged, and associated with lower-class immigrants; when she drives into Riverboro with Mr. Cobb, she is described as being “black as an Injun” and descended from “Spanish blood” (17).  Although the novel is seemingly dominated by the kind of child-centered language and perspective Nodelman observes in other novels of its type, the messages and metaphors are frequently confused and contradictory when read from the perspective of education reform writing.

The Making of Rebecca—Mixed Metaphors of Reform

Messages about the education of little girls appear, at first, to be quite clear.  The adults in the novel seem to divide into two camps.  Those who are less effective educators believe that Rebecca is raw material to be “made,” constructed, and molded by education, while those who are more effective (and more sympathetic) tend to view children as organic and natural creatures who grow and are not made.  The more old-fashioned adults are not all heartless.  Rather, they represent outdated practices of education prevalent from the time of Horace Mann.  In her autobiography, Wiggin critiques the unsympathetic, unimaginative textbook-based teaching she received, both in local schools and from her father.  The teacher who sequestered her under the dark desk is damned along with her teaching methods when Wiggin notes that she “knew her textbooks, I will say that for her” (Garden 46).  Similarly, she describes her father training his children with rote questions, and flinging textbooks out of the window in rage when she and her sister failed to answer correctly (45).  Significantly, she says her sister always soothed herself with Andersen’s fairy tales; in educational critique as in Rebecca, imagination and free reading are juxtaposed against the evils of rote memorization and rigid adult authority.  Rebecca’s mother, aunts, and first teacher, Miss Dearborn, are thoroughly socialized into this mechanical model of childrearing and teaching; as Nodelman asserts, they seem to represent the pre-reform attitudes of domineering adulthood that need to be converted to an appreciation for Rebecca’s natural and spontaneous gifts (32).

These are the adults who believe that they can “make” Rebecca, rather than allowing Rebecca to re-make them.  Aurelia Randall’s letter to her sisters expresses thanks in advance “that the regular schooling and church privileges, as well as the influence of the Sawyer home, would doubtless be ‘the making of Rebecca’” (Wiggin, Rebecca 24).  The letter names institutions of opportunity and authority—school, church, respectable home—and implies that Rebecca will be “made” in these images.  Aurelia may love her child, but it would clearly never occur to her to include a request for love and emotional development in her letter.  These qualities, for her, are incidental to making a child into an adult.  Such an omission marks her as the kind of parent distrusted by reformers like Beecher and like the Free Kindergarteners, whose children need a public school because she is unable to attend to the social, artistic, and moral aspects of their development.

Aunt Jane and Aunt Miranda similarly neglect to think about these other aspects of Rebecca’s growth.  They primarily focus on the labor that “making Rebecca” will entail: “’Won’t it be kind of a privilege to put her on the right track?’ asked Jane timidly.  ‘I don’t know about the privilege part; it’ll be considerable of a chore, I guess.  If her mother hain’t got her on the right track by now, she won’t take to it herself all of a sudden’ [Miranda answered]” (25).  Even for the kindly Aunt Jane, raising Rebecca will be a feat of mechanical engineering, putting her, like a train, from the wrong track onto the right one.  For Miranda, “making” a child means that someone must perform the work of making her, and this means “considerable of a chore.”

When Aunt Miranda finally begins to accept Rebecca, it is partly due to pride in her own diligent work, as the narrator observes: “Everything that was interesting in Rebecca … Miranda ascribed to the brick-house training, and this gave her a feeling of honest pride—the pride of a master workman who had built success out of the most unpromising material” (174).  Rebecca is to be built in the image of the Brick House women, except with less sturdy raw materials.  She is to replicate Miranda’s own uncompromising and unimaginative work ethic, as Miranda notes: “‘I never see a child improve in her work as Rebecca has today … That settin’ down I gave her was probably just what she needed, and I dare say it’ll last for a month.’  ‘I’m glad you’re pleased,’ returned Jane.  ‘A cringing worm is what you want, not a bright, smiling child’” (88-9). Miranda’s idea of improvement and development is obedience and an ability to perform unimaginative household tasks.  Jane, however, is beginning to adopt alternate, more organic metaphors for child development, in which mechanical obedience renders Rebecca a subhuman “cringing worm” rather than a “bright, smiling child.”  Within Nodelman’s outline of the “progressive utopia” pattern for the orphan girl’s novel, Aunt Jane is moving toward reclaiming her childhood by adopting Progressive philosophies and Romantic metaphors.

These Progressive, nature-based metaphors of child development also contain pitfalls, however, as Wiggin points out in her portrayal of Rebecca’s formal education.  Miss Dearborn, the well-meaning and sympathetic young teacher, nevertheless comes in for criticism from Wiggin for her lack of training and her emphasis on dull, rigid facts:

Miss Dearborn, it may be said in passing, had had no special preparation in the art of teaching.  It came to her naturally, so her family said; and perhaps for this reason she…‘set about it with that uniformity of method and independence of circumstances which distinguish the actions of animals understood to be under the immediate teaching of Nature.’ You remember the beaver which a naturalist tells us ‘busied himself as earnestly in constructing a dam in a room up three pair of stairs in London as if he had been laying his foundation in a lake in Upper Canada.  It was his function to build; the absence of water or possible progeny was an accident for which he was not accountable.’  In the same manner did Miss Dearborn lay what she fondly imagined to be foundations in the infant mind. (40)       

Miss Dearborn’s style of education is both natural and mechanical.  She follows her beaver’s instinct; however, this “natural” instinct leads her, not to teach, but to build--and moreover, to build inappropriately.  While the comparison to a busy and industrious beaver might have found favor with old-fashioned Aunt Miranda, Wiggin is contemptuous both of the animal that would build a dam with no attention to the water underneath and of the teacher who would construct educational “foundations” with no attention to her pupils’ organic, internal flow of ideas.  Miss Dearborn tells Rebecca to use correctly spelled but inaccurate words like “angel” rather than to risk misspelling words with resonance like “seraphim” (38).  Despite Rebecca’s reading skills, Miss Dearborn nearly places her in the baby class for her failure to repeat the seventh multiplication table (37). Finally, rather than assigning topics about which Rebecca has something to say, she teaches her pupil how to use the awkward pronoun “one” and how to cut out all specific and vivid images (92).  The memorization of spelling and grammar, which Miss Dearborn “fondly imagines to be foundations” of education, turn out to be misplaced labor, like the beaver’s dam on the dry stairs.  The qualities of “knowledge and vision, experience and imagination” (185) which the more progressive Miss Maxwell believes are necessary for the making of a good poet, and which would have provided the flow of ideas under the dam, have been neglected by Miss Dearborn and Aunt Miranda alike.

Wiggin’s scathing dismissal of Miss Dearborn as a “natural” teacher echoes many reformers’ calls for professionalization of the teaching field, and her sendups of Miss Dearborn’s writing lessons recall Rice’s arguments that the goal of education should not be to stuff children full of memorized facts, but to teach them to observe and to think (Berube 17).  In her own reform tracts, Wiggin advocated training women for their traditional tasks of motherhood and early education: 

Let [women] make one more struggle, and that for the highest education, which shall include a specific training for parenthood. …The mistaken idea that instinct is a sufficient guide in so delicate and sacred and vital a matter, the comfortable superstition that babies bring their own directions with them—these fictions have existed long enough. (Rights 23-4)

The educational task for which she felt women should be trained was, paradoxically, to step back and refrain from making and molding children like the diligent Aunt Miranda.  In one essay on childrearing, she implores readers:  “If we could only keep from untwisting the morning-glory, only be willing to let the sunshine do it!” (Rights 10)  This imagery of natural, flowerlike growth is characteristic of Romantic ideas of childhood.  In some ways, then, this section of Rebecca supports those critics who read the novel as a manifesto for a Romantic childhood.  Certainly, it can be read as a reflection of Wiggin’s Progressive beliefs in whole child education and professional teacher training; however, it also reveals a conflict within Progressive reform and Romantic philosophy.  Children like Rebecca should be left alone to develop naturally, but teachers and caretakers must be trained and “made” into their roles, if they are to be effective.  In her descriptions of Aurelia, Miranda, and Miss Dearborn, Wiggin seems to dramatize how not to raise children.

The adults in the opposite, more sympathetic camp draw upon Romantic philosophies, in that they do not believe that they can “make” Rebecca.  The “experience, vision and imagination” which Miss Maxwell deems so important cannot be taught by Miss Dearborn or tracked by the aunts, as Aurelia naively believes.  Mr. Cobb, Mr. Ladd, and Miss Maxwell—even Aunt Jane, eventually—preside over the development of Rebecca as a Progressive whole child, either by giving her a refuge from being assiduously “made” or by subtly encouraging her organic growth.  In their opinions, Rebecca is her own most effective educator; the Cobbs believe she can do no wrong, and Miss Maxwell suggests that Rebecca lacks only experience and “something to say” in order to write good poetry (185).  In this view, the harried Aurelia, instead of being neglectful, has unwittingly provided a reasonably healthy basis for Rebecca’s education by having given her the early opportunity to grow and to read on her own terms.

From the point of view of a common school reformer like Mann, or even of a Progressive reformer like Rice, Rebecca has had a dreadful set of educational opportunities.  But from the point of view of Romantic transcendentalists and Free Kindergarteners, Rebecca has had an idyllic childhood in a natural setting.  Aurelia, an avid reader, has managed to expose Rebecca to a variety of imaginative and romantic tales of the kind Wiggin preferred for developing young minds and tastes (MacLeod 121).  Despite Rebecca’s frustrations inside the one-room schoolhouse, she uses the woodsy walk to school as an opportunity to act out Friday recitation pieces with drama and imagination, thereby transforming an exercise in rote memorization into a free play activity which develops her imagination, creativity, and sympathy for threatened trees and hungry Irish children (Wiggin, Rebecca 42-3; Robison 327).

n keeping with Free Kindergarten ideas, Rebecca is consistently associated with flowers and plants; she loves the woods, decorates the house with flowers, and is directly compared to flowers and trees.  Just as unsurprisingly, Miranda’s dislike for flowers parallels her belief that Rebecca must be “made”; Miranda, in her treatment of Rebecca, is trying (unsuccessfully) to “untwist the morning glory.”  To the extent that adults do aid in Rebecca’s growth, they do it by providing a congenial setting and opportunities.  The Cobbs welcome the whole Rebecca and provide her with an audience for her creative activities.  Aunt Jane, in revealing her sad romantic past, gives Rebecca the opportunity to develop spiritually.  As Rebecca listens to her aunt’s story: “The girl’s eyes were soft and tender, and the heart within her stretched a little and grew—grew in sweetness and intuition and depth of feeling.  It had looked into another heart, felt it beat, and heard it sigh” (137). This kind of learning is exactly the kind which Wiggin and other reformers value, and which Aunt Miranda does not.

While the less educated Cobbs and Aunt Jane feed Rebecca’s growth without articulating what they are doing, the openly Progressive Adam Ladd and Miss Maxwell directly compare Rebecca to a plant that needs nurturing, just as Froebel and Peabody cite the need to “garden” their child-plants.  Adam, her benefactor, explains his generosity by remarking, “I could not bear to see even a young tree trying its best to grow without light or air—how much less a gifted child!” (216).  Significantly, however, Adam Ladd edits the images of gardening which dominate Free Kindergarten writing.  He does not advocate pruning the tree, as Froebel and Peabody do; money and education should merely clear space and provide sufficient nourishment for the child to realize her full potential.  The clash between Romantic faith in the child and the Progressive desire to save her is resolved in favor of faith.

However, Miss Maxwell’s metaphors of plants and organic nourishment are slightly less Romantic, and are correspondingly more confused and conflicted.  She describes teaching, not as the process of building a dam, but as the process of sowing seeds

You, too, know the discouragement of sowing lovely seed in rocky earth, in sand, in water…knowing that if anything comes up at all it will be some poor starveling plant.  Fancy the joy of finding a real mind—of dropping seed in a soil so warm, so fertile, that one knows there is sure to be foliage, blossoms, and fruit all in good time! (188)

In this metaphor, Rebecca is not herself the plant; rather, she is the rich soil that will produce them as she develops, if she is lovingly sown with Wordsworth, Emerson, and improving conversation.  However, she must be provided with seeds.  The intervention of an expert adult gardener is necessary if the rich soil is not to lie fallow and be wasted.  Rebecca cannot remain completely neglected, and completely unspoiled.

There appears to be a deep and satisfying divide between Rebecca’s early, autocratic training and her later blossoming, and between the adults who wish to “make” Rebecca and those who wish to help her grow.  However, some of these distinctions collapse upon closer examination.  Miss Maxwell, for example, gains the reader’s sympathy and approval because she recognizes Rebecca’s potential as “rich soil,” while Aunt Miranda is suspect because she mistakes Rebecca for “unpromising material”; however, both regard Rebecca as a source of raw material with some kind of inherent potential which will determine her fate.  This deterministic attitude potentially limits the Progressive education of child-plants just as it limits the fate of children who are unpromising building material.  Elizabeth Peabody, in fact, emphasized that teachers have no control over the type of “plants” they cultivate (13).  More seriously, Amy Earhart argues that Peabody’s belief in education as an agent of change conflicted with an opposing belief in a biologically-based theory of historical progression and racial superiority (77).

If Progressive reform is to be limited to those students deemed most inherently worthy and promising, then the freely blossoming Rebecca is not the exemplar of an ideal childhood, to be imitated, but rather a handpicked specimen whose treatment should not necessarily serve as a model for childrearing.  Miss Maxwell, in fact, says that most of her students are “rocky earth” incapable of producing anything other than a “starveling plant.”  Her alternate metaphor for teaching is opening oysters and looking for pearls (187).  While she still thinks of teaching as a process of discovery rather than of building, this metaphor involves “shell splitting,” not gentle growth, and it is even more deterministic than Aunt Miranda’s brand of teaching.  The oyster either has a pearl or does not, and Miss Maxwell is interested only in naturally occurring pearls and not in the kind of cultured pearls which dedicated teaching might be able to produce.  Wiggin does not critique this attitude as she does the “natural” teaching ability of Miss Dearborn; rather, the narrator glories in Rebecca’s specialness.  Of course, this specialness is part of the attraction for child and adult readers alike; as Nodelman suggests, we like to glory in a child hero’s successes (“Pleasure and Genre” 4).  However, within the context of Progressive determinism, Rebecca’s ability to blossom when encouraged and left alone does not necessarily mean that she has an ideal girlhood, only that she is an ideal girl.  Neither Wiggin’s mentor Elizabeth Peabody nor her representative good teacher Miss Maxwell would apply the same philosophies of development to other, less ideal pupils.

Wiggin, having been a teacher, does not deny the existence of dull children.  She shows sympathy for Miss Maxwell’s and Peabody’s position by emphasizing that most children are not like Rebecca; Hannah does not benefit from the freedom at Randall’s farm, and Emma Jane does not benefit from her exposure to Wordsworth and Emerson. While she seems to suggest that children should be aided to grow naturally and encouraged to “follow their saints,” only Rebecca seems to have a saint to follow.  Furthermore, her natural growth will only be exemplary till adulthood.  After criticizing eighteen-year-old Miss Dearborn for following her insufficient “natural instincts” without further teacher training, Wiggin interrupts Rebecca’s similar career trajectory; before Aurelia Randall is bedridden, Rebecca is prepared to take up teaching at the age of seventeen without any professional training whatsoever, and even without sufficient training in her subject matter of music.  In many respects in the novel, the guidance of nature is not sufficient.  Wiggin tacitly acknowledges in several ways that training has its uses; she even acknowledges that adults might benefit children by believing that they can all be made, with sufficient effort.

Aunt Miranda’s despised household training, in fact, enables Rebecca to become a “handy little creature” with the practical skills to entertain the Burches when her aunts are sick (164).  Rebecca herself longs for more education and training, fearing that she does not have sufficient formal knowledge to be a good writer (222).  Miss Maxwell downplays Rebecca’s fears; however, Wiggin’s own experience seems to support them, as she admits in her autobiography that she graduated high school in a “disordered, unfinished, and unsymmetrical state of mental development” (Garden 52) and that despite having been spiritually awakened and creatively stirred, she did not have enough knowledge or training to pursue any profession (Garden 88).  While Rebecca’s school experience echoes Wiggin’s, her home training does not.  Unlike Wiggin, Rebecca has received the benefit of Aunt Miranda’s “making,” albeit unwillingly.  At the end, it is Rebecca who cries that Aunt Miranda “had been the making of [her], just as mother says,” and Aunt Jane who maintains, “God made you in the first place, and you’ve done considerable yourself to help Him along; but she gave you the wherewithal to work with” (274).  Rebecca sets out to be “made;” then Wiggin insists that she needs, rather, to grow.  At last, Rebecca discovers that the aunts who were supposed to “make” her have indeed done so; however, they have done so by giving her the “wherewithal” to develop her natural, God-given materials.  Somehow, Rebecca has been “made,” but despite the distinctions between sympathetic and unsympathetic adults, Wiggin has not conclusively established a set of do’s and don’ts for effective childrearing; God, Rebecca, Aunt Miranda, and Progressive mentors have all contributed resources to the production.  And, perhaps because so many adults with competing philosophies are implicated in “the making of Rebecca,” they argue over what she is to be made into, and for what purpose.

The Education of Women--What Are Little Girls Made For?

Both questions about the “making of Rebecca” are answered with conflicts between adults in the text which reflect cultural conflicts outside the text.  Rebecca’s guardians and mentors disagree about how, or even if, to make Rebecca, just as contemporary educators and reformers expressed clashing views of childrearing.  Similarly, questions about the end and purpose of Rebecca’s “making” produce a host of conflicting answers, both within the world of the text and in Wiggin’s society.  Just as Rebecca’s plethora of adult influences reflects turmoil over methods and philosophy in the world outside the text, so her mentors’ debates about her future reflect similar debates over the purpose of education, especially for girls, in turn-of-the-century America.

Literary critics tend to see Wiggin leaning toward one side or another in the debate between whether Rebecca should become a “New Woman” who enters the male world of public achievement or a “True Woman” who enjoys schoolgirl success only in preparation for a lifetime in the domestic sphere.  Anne Scott MacLeod suggests that Rebecca seemingly transitions seamlessly from ambitious schoolgirl to caretaking adult, with any regret or mourning for lost opportunities being buried under the surface (27).  Similarly, Roselee Robison argues that Rebecca becomes fettered by the demands of True Womanhood and the curse of domesticity (108), and Rob Hardy predicts that Rebecca will inevitably end as a “passive object of male desire” (48).  In contrast, Eve Kornfeld and Sue Jackson suggest that Wiggin portrays marriage and housework as unrewarding, thus suggesting other options for the grown Rebecca (148-9).  Regina Puleo develops this point further and argues that “Wiggin, through Aunt Miranda, was not preparing Rebecca for a life of wife and motherhood” (356).  Puleo observes that Wiggin resisted reinforcing a marriage ending, despite great pressure from her readers, and that in many ways, she allows Rebecca’s story to depart from the script of True Womanhood; she suggests that Wiggin’s refusal to “revise” Rebecca in accordance with contemporary expectations leads readers to imagine an adult womanhood “brimming with an array of exciting possibilities” (375).  In fact, since Rebecca’s future is never revealed, the lack of resolution draws attention to the confusing and contradictory nature of the debate itself.

Rebecca’s future is the subject of several arguments in the novel.  The Cobbs seem to be influenced by visions of female suffrage and equality; they squabble over whether she will have a brilliant career as a lady doctor or as a writer and elocutionist (91).  Aunt Miranda believes in education for economic opportunity, and wants to see her “earning a good income somewheres else.”  Meanwhile, Aunt Jane adheres to more traditional notions that women should remain within the family and contends that “[h]er first duty’s to her mother” (256).  Miss Maxwell and Adam Ladd demonstrate Progressive reformers’ uncertainty about gender as they debate the trajectory of a “whole child.”  In adulthood, one aspect of a woman might develop in a different direction than another.

‘I confess I want Rebecca to have a career.’
‘I don’t,’ said Adam promptly.
‘Of course you don’t.  Men have no interest in the careers of women.  But I know Rebecca better than you.’
‘You understand her mind better, but not necessarily her heart.  You are considering her for the moment as prodigy; I am thinking of her more as pearl.’ (251)

All of these debates either reference or hint at the problem of gender, and of what the purpose of educating girls ought to be.

For Aunt Miranda and for Aurelia, Rebecca’s education is an investment, an “outlay” scraped together by “saving and doing without” (262). It should be repaid by Rebecca’s future “good income,” with which she will pay the mortgage.  Rebecca herself, when Miss Dearborn asks the children what the object of education is, understands that the object of her own education is to pay the mortgage (38).  She is punished for this assertion, as she does not understand the shame of debt; however, the initial question is noticeably dropped.  Miss Dearborn, who presumably knows the correct answer to every question she asks, never tells her what the object of her education ought to be.  The purpose of Rebecca’s education thus becomes unclear, to the reader if not to Rebecca.  In the end, Rebecca does not even pay off the mortgage herself, because Adam Ladd arranges for the farm to be bought off by the railroad.  For him, Rebecca is not a monetary investment, but a “pearl” whose feminine heart would be more ornament in a household than in a career; similarly, Aunt Jane asserts that Rebecca’s “first duty” is to be a caretaker for her mother and to return to her family.

These conflicts reflect some of the tensions developing in education reform movements regarding the various purposes of education for the poor, for immigrants, for women, and for children in general.  Despite Aunt Miranda’s old-fashioned views on educational methods, she espouses the surprisingly Progressive belief that the purpose of education is to provide economic opportunity and stability.  Progressives like Dewey and Free Kindergarten reformers like Peabody and Wiggin called for universal education specifically in order to benefit the poor and working classes (Berube 1, Kaestle 102).  However, these reformers’ beliefs that one should educate the whole child conflicted with such a narrowly defined goal; middle-class Free Kindergartners, especially, emphasized that the growth of imagination should be valued for its own sake and not merely for future economic utility (Robison 327).  Miss Maxwell reflects this more Romantic view of education.  When Rebecca laments her inadequate preparation, Miss Maxwell remarks, “You will only have had a high-school course, but the most famous universities do not always succeed in making men and women”(222).  “Making men and women” is thus more important than solid foundational knowledge; however, Miss Maxwell also reflects a Romantic view of poverty when she exclaims that she doesn’t “regret one burden Rebecca has borne” (216).  Once again, the beloved Miss Maxwell betrays a less attractive element of Progressive philosophy in private discussions of her charges; not only are they either worth seeding with education or not, they are also rendered blessed, exotic, and interesting by their hardships.  There is an implicit criticism here of the sentimental views of poverty common among Progressives.  Rebecca and Adam Ladd, after all, spend time comparing the unhappiness of their needy, poverty-stricken childhoods; and given Rebecca’s fierce drawing of the mortgage looming over her house, she might not agree with Miss Maxwell’s dismissal of economic opportunity.

Wiggin displays similar ambivalence about reformers’ aims to educate immigrants. Both common school reformers and Progressives wished to stabilize the national culture and to better the lives of immigrants by teaching assimilation into a common American culture (Berube 13, Kaestle 102).  The dark-complected Rebecca, who is rumored to have “Spanish blood” (17) and whose father’s family were “aliens” in Riverboro (53) becomes sufficiently assimilated into the Brick House ways that Miranda accepts her as being “all Sawyer” and there is no more talk in the town of her Spanish blood.  She is conspicuously patriotic, earning praise for her drawings of the flag and of the lady Columbia (69).  However, while Wiggin celebrates Rebecca’s success, she also celebrates Rebecca’s difference, hedging on the benefits on complete assimilation and cultural unity: “if Lorenzo had never done anything else in the world, he might have glorified himself that he had prevented Rebecca from being all Sawyer” (175).  The goals of equality and opportunity through assimilation are, in some ways, incompatible with educational ideals of individuality and creativity.

Other philosophical clashes occur regarding education for women.  A common school education in culture and humanism might be ideal for a genderless and abstract child.  However, by the turn of the century, Dewey encouraged the education of females in home economics and traditional feminine tasks, since education should prepare students for life; and women, presumably, would spend their lives sewing and keeping house (Jenkins 144-5).  As noted earlier, Wiggin used similar reasoning in arguing that women would not be rendered “unfit” for motherhood and housewifery by professional teacher training (Wiggin and Smith 180).  In fact, she also used the Progressive language of nurturing the whole child in order to argue on behalf of education for True Womanhood.  Although Wiggin herself had a varied career in teaching, acting, and writing, she expressed concern that higher education for women “leaves many tracts of feminine nature unexplored and uncultivated…it needs supplementing by some course of training which shall address the heart and soul as much as it does the intellect” (Wiggin and Smith 178).  Thus, the unfortunate Rebecca, who prefers writing poetry to sweeping and hemming, would be even more likely to be steered toward those hated tasks if she were being educated according to Progressive, child-centered philosophies.  Part of the uncertainty, in an era of increased calls for women’s suffrage and higher education, was about what kinds of lives female students would be expected to lead.  Within her educational writing, Wiggin resolves this conflict by assuming that teaching training will satisfy both the ambitious and the homebodies.  Within the world of Rebecca, however, she resolves it by leaving the reader to assume that parts of Rebecca’s nature (and therefore her education) are still in development—in other words, she does not resolve it at all.

Rebecca, herself, reflects much of the ambivalence about her future swirling around her from various sources.  She must reconcile the use of “all her natural, God-given outlets” with an exclusive focus on her “heart and soul” which would prepare her for traditional feminine roles.  Thus, she vacillates between these two ideals.  While she wishes to rescue her family’s finances, dreams of being a painter and then a writer, and succeeds in breaking the gender barrier for the editorship of the Wareham school paper, she eventually tempers her ambitious fire and adopts traditional feminine goals of support and caretaking as her own (MacLeod 25-6).  Emma Jane offers to keep house for her so that she can be a writer, but she refuses on the grounds that she is going to keep house so that her brother can be a doctor (Rebecca 210).  When she must give up her teaching position to care for her mother, she rebels at first, but soon rallies: “No consciousness of self interposed between her and her filial service.  Then, as the weeks passed, little blighted hopes began to stir and ache in her breast, defeated ambitions raised their heads as if to sting her”(259).  However, this denial of self leads to more “education of the heart” for Rebecca; “[a] new sense was born in Rebecca as she hung over her mother’s bed of pain and unrest” (260).  Rebecca’s “new sense” born of “ministering” recalls Wiggin’s concern for the training of women’s “hearts and souls” and seems to assure the reader that her ambition has not made her unfeminine.

Wiggin also, however, believed that women should be offered higher education, and Rebecca, in the end, neither gives up her ambitions nor relinquishes her feminine family duties.  Kept away from her job and her future, she reassuringly describes herself as a long-lived maple tree, going through a “rooting season” (263) with hope to grow in the future.  However, in the same passage she also embraces the compensations of limits to her feminine horizons, announcing that “it’s enough joy just to be here in the world on a day like this” (264); it is not necessary to fulfill her ambitions and leave home.    Rebecca, biding her time in her “rooting season,” does not give up the struggle between her youthful ambitions and her adult constraints permanently; she simply does not make a decision.  Therefore, none of the adults around her get the last, victorious word on the purpose of her education.  Rob Hardy notes that, until the end of the book, Rebecca seems to belong to all adults (37).  As Adam Ladd moves closer to possessing her exclusively, arranging for the railroad sale to rescue her family from the mortgage, the impending destruction of the farm also foreshadows the destruction of Rebecca’s youth (32).  This is also the moment when she achieves independence from adult definitions and chooses her own metaphor of the tree; however, the tree is slated to be destroyed by the very engine of economic growth which will confer her family’s financial independence.  The book ends with her last few moments of childhood precariously preserved, at the instant when she achieves both mental and financial independence.

None of the arguments about Rebecca are resolved.  In the end, Rebecca’s future is never revealed, and she is therefore never made into anything for any definite purpose.  Her education has made her ready to be an adult woman, but she is frozen forever in childhood (Griswold 83-4).  While, as Jerry Griswold notes, this frozen state means that Rebecca is denied sexual maturity, it also means that she can enjoy a double state of innocence and maturity without having to permanently give up either.  Griswold reads Rebecca’s truncated development as Wiggin’s attempt to avoid having her marry her father figure, Adam Ladd (86).  For MacLeod, such a marriage means, not defiance of an oedipal taboo, but the sacrifice of Rebecca’s girlhood freedom and promise in exchange for the narrower sphere of womanhood (MacLeod 27).  Arresting Rebecca’s development thus means that the reader can enjoy Rebecca’s successful education and development without having to mourn for the possibility and opportunity which she would lose with the choices and realities of adulthood (Nodelman 4).  At the turn of the century, when children were considered to be innately virtuous, innocent, and perfect, the attainment of adulthood would mean potential corruption and damage to the child (MacLeod 23-4).  While questions of childrearing and educational methods seem aimed at the reform of adults for the improvement of childhood, questions of educational purpose seem to encourage nostalgia and Romantic idealism for the improvement of adulthood.

Conflicting Audiences/Conflicting Messages

Rebecca certainly reflects some unpleasant observations about adulthood as well as about educationWhile Wiggin may have elevated feminine traits of service and self-sacrifice, she also portrays Rebecca’s options in adulthood as being grim.  Miss Dearborn, only eighteen, is frequently humorless.  The once educated and pretty Aurelia is worn down: “[c]ontent to work from sunrise to sunset to gain a mere subsistence for her children, she lived in their future, not in her own present” (142).  Aunt Jane’s fate is similarly cheerless, after her one chance at happiness dies.  Even Adam Ladd, whose childhood was unhappy and who has attained prosperity and distinction in adulthood, is disappointed despite his economic success: “…though he looked handsome, well-fed, and prosperous, any child could see that his eyes were tired and his mouth was sad when he was not speaking” (120).  All of the endpoints for Rebecca’s education seem to be false goals; motherhood and housework result in shriveling joylessness, teaching results in frustration, and economic success results in sad wistfulness.

Given such depressing adult role models, readers might reasonably wish Rebecca not to be made into an adult for any of these purposes.  Rather than resolve adult conflicts over how and toward what end Rebecca should be made, Wiggin hints at another answer to these questions.  Instead of Rebecca being made to fill an established role in the adult world, the adult world must make room for people like Rebecca, as Nodelman suggests in “Progressive Utopias”.  In fact, he argues that Rebecca’s main function is not only to be educated into adulthood, but simultaneously to remind the adults around her of how to be children.  She recovers Miss Dearborn’s lost girlish sense of humor; from being unable to “enjoy jokes neither made nor understood by herself” (46), Miss Dearborn is able to share a laugh at Rebecca’s funny poem, and becomes correspondingly more childlike: “Miss Dearborn laughed too; she was little more than a girl, and the training of the young idea seldom appealed to the sense of humour” (93).  This more girlish Miss Dearborn is correspondingly more sympathetic and a better teacher; she responds “smilingly” to Rebecca, instead of sternly, as at first.  Similarly, as Aunt Jane becomes Rebecca’s advocate, she simultaneously renews her youth and gains a source of joy: “Her narrow, humdrum existence bloomed under the dews that fell from this fresh spirit; her dullness brightened under the kindling touch of the younger mind” (141). Adam Ladd, who “doesn’t like grown-up young ladies,” fears both that Rebecca will lose her “sweet and fragrant and wholesome” childlike qualities and also that he will lose his “comforting little friend” (200-1).  However, even in emphasizing the re-making of adults, Wiggin undermines both halves of a didactic binary.  Rebecca and Adam both remember their childhoods as having been unpleasant, and Rebecca spends much of her childhood fighting against misguided adult philosophies of child nurture which frustrate her ability to be a whole, organic child.  Nevertheless, childhood is still an idyll for which adults nostalgically pine.

This nostalgia is part of what made Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm popular among adults as well as children, and there is evidence that different audiences responded to different messages.  Wiggin recounted letters and invitations from girls’ schools at which enthusiastic fans had formed “Rebecca Composition Clubs” and had dramatically re-enacted favorite scenes, in imitation of their heroine’s favorite activities (Wiggin, Garden 396).  However, when Wiggin eventually adapted the book for the stage, she found that most of the audience members were adults, and she correspondingly emphasized the nostalgic aspects.  “I longed to make a verdant little spot in the heat and dust of Forty-Second Street… and coax all the men and women who had been country boys and girls to come in and rest their tired nerves with a vision of their ‘little past’…”(Garden 398).  Although more and more children lived in the city, Wiggin wished to maintain the ideal of a childhood lived in a “verdant spot” (Erisman 245).  Hardy suggests that this nostalgic vision was even more appealing to men than to women, as men were more likely to live a humdrum, citified working-day existence (32).  Her producers wished her to push this idealization even further for the adult audience, encouraging her to cut out all the unhappy and pathetic scenes and to rewrite them as uplifting and lighthearted (Garden 399).  Rebecca undoubtedly contains didactic messages for adults, but these messages serve a double purpose.  Wiggin portrays a view of a free and whole childhood in order to coach adults in how to bring up healthy children (McLeod 102); however, this ideal childhood also invites adult readers to “come in and rest their tired nerves” and to renew their better, more innocent and virtuous natures by sharing in the ideal experience of childhood through literature (MacLeod 120).  However, in encouraging adult readers and playgoers to focus on the refreshing and nostalgic aspects of Rebecca’s childhood, she correspondingly had to de-emphasize Rebecca’s hardships, thus undercutting her didactic messages about childrearing.  In order for adults to effectively help children like Rebecca to grow, they must recognize the difficulties and problems inherent in contemporary childrearing practices; but in order for adults to be effectively “re-made” into ideal children, they must recognize childhood as a lost idyll which they must strive to recreate.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is intended for both children and adults, but many of its didactic messages are directed toward adult readers.  Wiggin encourages children to “grow,” to read, and to imagine, preferably in a country setting; however, it is adults who must provide appropriate food for the child’s imagination and loving encouragement to grow.  Throughout, idealistic visions and mirrors of reality co-exist, allowing the reader to simultaneously accept and question both ideals and realities.  Rebecca lives a frustrating, unhappy childhood in which she is deprived and scolded, yet her verdant growth represents the ideal growth of a student according to Progressive philosophies.  She receives a flawed and stultifying education, but her unhappiness enables her to develop the sympathy and patience lauded by Progressive educators and advocates of traditional femininity.  She embodies both groundbreaking ambition and traditional feminine virtues, and never has to choose; and she proves her ability and willingness to function as an adult woman without having to give up the innocence and freedom of her childhood.  Her development into an adult is stunted and truncated by her story’s premature ending; however, this same premature ending prevents her from being further stunted by inhabiting a limiting and suffocating adult role.

This constant process of shifting between hope for the ideal and critiques of current reality means that Wiggin never resolves the two main questions which she sets up at the beginning of her heroine’s journey: what is to be the making of Rebecca, and for what purpose is she being made?  Wiggin’s own beliefs about reform come through clearly, but Rebecca, as a text, is deceptively ambivalent, both about critiques of the “bad old days” and about solutions for the future.  Rebecca ends with an uneasy truce between ideals and reality and between childhood and adulthood.  Rebecca does not get to experience adult knowledge, and her child readers do not get to experience it vicariously through her.  However, Rebecca also turns the tables on adulthood.  Instead of being “made” into the image of adults, she re-makes them in her own image; and while she allows all adults to feel pride in her success, she does not fulfill any adult’s vision of her future.  Although Wiggin may have had a specific vision of how childhood ought to be, she also exposes the adult squabbles and philosophical wrangling that accompanies the adult process of defining childhood.  Rebecca ends the book in solitude; for a moment, she has the ability to step away from the adults who have surrounded her, neither defined by them nor one of them. 


Works Cited

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Earhart, Amy.  “Elizabeth Peabody on the ‘Temperament of the Colored Classes’: African Americans, Progressive History, and Education in a Democratic System.”  Reinventing the Peabody Sisters.  Ed. Monika M. Elbert, Julie E. Hall, and Katharine Rodier. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.  77-90.

Elbert, Monika M.  “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Problematic Feminism and the Feminization of Transcendentalism.”  Reinventing the Peabody Sisters.  Ed. Monika M. Elbert, Julie E. Hall, and Katharine Rodier.  Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2006.  199-215.

Enoch, Jessica M.  “A Woman’s Place is in the School: Rhetorics of Gendered Space in Nineteenth-Century America.”  College English 70.3 (2008): 275-295.

Erisman, Fred.  “Transcendentalism for American Youth: The Children’s Books of Kate Douglas Wiggin.”  New England Quarterly 41.2 (1968): 238-47.

Fisher, Dorothy Canfield.  Understood Betsy.  1916.  Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999.

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Griswold, Jerry.  The Classic American Children’s Story: Novels of the Golden Age. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Hardy, Rob.  “The Male Readers of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.”  The Lion and the Unicorn 28.1 (2004): 31-52.

Jenkins, William D.  “Housewifery and Motherhood: The Question of Role Change in then Progressive Era.”  Woman’s Being, Woman’s Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Ed. Mary Kelley.Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1979. 142-153.

Johanningmeier, Erwin.  “Nineteenth-Century Architects of Children’s Minds and Children’s Spaces.”  American Educational History Journal 32.2 (2005): 160-165.

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Lundin, Anne.  “The Cultural Work of Kate Douglas Wiggin: Cultivating the Child’s Garden.”  Enterprising Youth: Social Values and Acculturation in Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Literature.  Ed. Monika M. Elbert. New York: Routledge, 2008.  179-194.

MacLeod, Anne Scott.  American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1994.

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---.  “Progressive Utopia: Or, How to Grow Up Without Growing Up.”  Such a Simple Little Tale: Critical Responses to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green GablesEd. Mavis Reimer.  Metuchen: Children’s Literature Association and The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1992. 29-38.

Puleo, Regina.”Rebecca’s Revision: Expectations of the Girls’ Novel and Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and New Chronicles of Rebecca.”  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 34.4 (2009): 353-378.

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Wiggin, Kate Douglas.  Children’s Rights: A Book of Nursery Logic.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1892.

---.  My Garden of Memory: An Autobiography.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.

---.  Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  1903.  New York: Puffin Books, 1994.

---.  The Story of Patsy.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1890.

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Naomi Lesley

Volume 14, Issue 1 The Looking Glass January/February, 2010

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