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An American Story

A new book by a Rutgers–Camden professor views adoption as a defining feature of American literature.

Adopting America book cover
Adopting America looks at the place of adoption from the 17th through the early-20th centuries.

Carol J. Singley, a professor in the Department of English at Rutgers–Camden, is the cofounder and co-chair of the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture, an association that promotes the understanding of adoption through literature and other humanistic disciplines. She sees adoption as a defining feature of American literature, in which it has served as a metaphor, among other things, for salvation and a fresh start. Her latest book is Adopting America: Childhood, Kinship, and National Identity in Literature (Oxford University Press, 2011), which examines the place of adoption from the 17th through the early-20th centuries.

— Nancy A. Ruhling

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: What led to your interest in adoption?
CAROL SINGLEY: My husband and I adopted our two sons, who are blood brothers, at birth in an open adoption. And kinship is a distinguishing feature in literature. Until recently, it has been overlooked.

RM: You see adoption as a metaphor for the birth of America’s independent spirit. How does knowing this enrich our reading experience?
CS: The American story is a kind of adoption story. Colonialists broke away from England, their birth country, and were adopted by a new land, and they measured success by individual achievement, not birthright. Adoption stories show what a person can do without traditional genealogical support.

RM: The most famous orphan in American literature, Huck Finn, had his adventures because he wanted to avoid adoption. What was Twain trying to convey?
CS: Twain was satirizing a sentimental tradition of 19th-century American fiction, which is replete with adoption stories, by portraying Huck fleeing the domesticating and religiously stultifying effects of adoption. Twain wasn’t opposed to adoption per se. After all, the character of Jim, more than anyone in the novel, serves as Huck’s adoptive parent.

RM: What surprises did you uncover in your research?
CS: Openness rather than secrecy is the norm in American adoption literature. In the 20th century, however, with the professionalization of social work and efforts to “match” children with adoptive families, adoption became secret. Open adoptions and the open-records movement returned adoption to its roots, so to speak.

RM: Is there a sequel in the works?
CS: Yes. I am thinking about the themes of 20th-century adoption literature, which is a different, fascinating field. It includes transnational and cross-ethnic adoption narratives, birth mothers’ stories, and adoptees’ memoirs.