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'American ABC': Children in Our Image

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

One of the most famous poems of British writer Phillip Larkin begins (in the bowdlerized version required in a family newspaper): "They [mess] you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do. / They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you."

"American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America," a touring exhibition on loan to the Smithsonian American Art Museum from the Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, shows that process at work.

The exhibition's paintings, sculptures, prints and photos (only a few of those) make clear how much a society invests in its children and in shaping them in the image it prefers.

The art itself is only rarely any good. The worst of it is so sweet it hurts your teeth. (That's on purpose: It's been chosen to illustrate the era's taste for all things saccharine.)

All of it, however, gives a wonderful -- often terrifying -- view of how we go about messing with our kids and misrepresenting them.

Rural black children -- in the period's art, at least -- are usually happy scoundrels, cheerful in their rags. They hang out with their white playmates, chowing down on watermelon.

In the cities, white beggar children seem equally content in their starvation.

Life on the street must have been more fun then than now. (A few photographs by Jacob Riis were meant to give a bleaker look at things, as part of a nascent push for social reform.)

Little boys are naughty -- but not so bad a good lickin' won't settle 'em right down, and teach them manly fortitude.

Little girls are on their way to womanhood and mothering, and to administering licks: One noxious little marble statue shows a child practicing "reproving" on her cat.

Only a few pictures by Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer are more interested in watching children than in shaping them.

Most of the rest almost make you buy into Larkin's closing lines: "Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don't have any kids yourself."

But then comes the fact that every parent knows: Child-rearing is a two-way street; kids get their own back, by bringing out the worst in us .

American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America, at the American Art Museum, runs through Sept. 17.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company