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Goethe’s Flower Child: Mignon in the American Educational Garden

Justin Thomas Nevin

Pages 463 - 488



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Thomas Carlyle’s translation of "Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship" appeared in Britain in 1824. The American edition did not appear until 1828. By the 1820s, indentured apprenticeship, long a transitional institution for young White males, was frequently an arrangement of convenience between apprentices and masters. While indentured apprenticeship had involved a small percentage of American youth, changes to the practice were both a sign of the times and indicative of socio-economic shifts. Amid national expansion, educational leaders offered localized visions of republican praxes in schools in order to integrate children into the national fold. While some recent literature exists on Goethe’s American reception, this article focuses on these educational circumstances. I theorize that Goethe / Carlyle articulated a vocabulary that could help educators manage pedagogical uncertainties in a praxis-oriented space that I call “the educational garden.” A strong botanical subtext that is pertinent to the educational garden underwrites the central plot of "Wilhelm". The child-sojourners Mignon and Felix perform critical aesthetic, thematic, and narrative roles in Wilhelm’s presumed transition to adulthood. I mean to examine the specific association of these two children with plants in "Wilhelm" and, in turn, these child-plants’ pivotal roles as supplements to Wilhelm’s loosely structured transition. This association, this supplement, and this transition collectively delineate a mass instructional strategy—the child-plant—at the moment when American apprenticeship was being adapted to self-fashioning. Therefore, the plant is a historically generative device that reveals ways in which socio-cultural forces respond to and shape epochal categories of the child. I speculate that "Wilhelm" played an early role in articulating this strategy.

Keywords: schooling; Bildung; child-plant; cartography; morphology

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