Rutgers-Camden Scholar and Adoptive Mom Publishes New Book on Representations of Adoption in American Literature

Rutgers-Camden Scholar and Adoptive Mom Publishes New Book on Representations of Adoption in American Literature

CAMDEN -- Technology may have provided new ways to become a biological parent, but modern public sentiment toward

Singley family
Carol Singley with (left to right) her sons Cole and Ryan and husband Gordon Kinsey.

adoptive families isn’t nearly as progressive as it was centuries ago.

“Nineteenth-century domestic novels that address adoption almost always ended with positive messages, perhaps something today’s adoptive families might need to hear,” says Carol Singley, a professor of English at Rutgers–Camden, adoptive mom, and author of the comprehensive new book Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Singley’s tome showcases representations of adoption over a broad range of both time – the 17th through the early 20th centuries – and texts, from Cotton Mather’s sermons to fictional accounts of children orphaned or adopted. What she has found not only addresses adoption issues, but also contributes to a larger American story, the foundation of our national identity.

“The book traces the arrival of the early English settlers and the Calvinist traditions that they brought with them through the 19th century when adoption literature proliferates in domestic fiction, to the early twentieth century,” states Singley, the mother of two adopted sons, ages 16 and 18. “It’s designed to show the literary and cultural development of non-biological kinship.”

Singley evaluates adoption themes in popular fiction like The Scarlet Letter, Our Nig, and Little Women; in somewhat lesser-known novels like Edith Wharton’s Summer; and in nonfiction texts, like letters from Benjamin Franklin to his illegitimate son William, who served as the Governor of New Jersey. But the hear t of this book, she says, is the 19th century, when American fiction proliferated.

“Adoption fiction reflects the changes going on in society. The domestic novelist writes stories about orphans who find homes. On one hand the fiction says here are problems caused by an increase in orphans,” says Singley, citing parents’ premature death from illnesses and the poverty associated with immigration and urbanization as examples.

“On the other hand,” she continues “the novels show the child being reunited with birth parents or finding a happy home with adoptive parents. The adoption story represents a solution to those social problems and affirms the strength and elasticity of the white middle-class family. The standard, popular adoption plot in the 19th century thus plays a role in nation-making, showing that in the United States, in contrast to Europe, success relies on something more than genealogy.”

For the past decade, Singley’s robust research, which also includes co-editing the book the American Child: A Cultural Studies Reader (Rutgers University Press, 2003), has been matched by her ambitious activism. She co-founded the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture with Marianne Novi, a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. The organization has expanded through the years, sponsoring three international conferences and publishing a newsletter and the journal Adoption and Culture.

“The Alliance has grown to a healthy membership and draws together scholars, activists, parents, and practitioners who have an interest in the interdisciplinary study of adoption. While the book was developing these sorts of advances in adoption studies were also happening... They have been a long time in the making and have defined a new field for me.”

A highly regarded Wharton scholar, Singley is the author of the book Edith Wharton: Matters of Mind and Spirit (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and editor of the books Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton (Broadview Press, forthcoming); Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth: A Casebook (Oxford University Press, 2003); A Historical Guide to Edith Wharton (Oxford University Press, 2003); and The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). She also co-edited the books The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era: Essays on Fiction, Drama, and Poetry (University Press of New England, 1997) and Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women (State University of New York Press, 1993).

Singley earned her doctorate at Brown University and her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Penn State University. She directs the graduate English program at Rutgers–Camden, where she also co-directs the American Studies program.



Media Contact: Cathy K. Donovan