Privileged Ones is the fifth and last of Robert Coles’s Children of Crisis series. In four earlier volumes Dr. Coles interviewed a wide range of American children—Eskimos, Appalachians, migrant workers. Now he deals with the children of what he calls “The Well-Off and the Rich in America.”
Dr. Coles is a professional child psychiatrist (“There are, after all, only a few hundred such men and women in the country”); he is currently at Harvard. According to the publisher, he has written twenty-four books. Except for Children of Crisis, I cannot say that I really know his work. From time to time I see articles by him; whenever I do, I feel a warm glow. I like thee, Dr. Coles, I know not why. Perhaps it is because I am interested in many of his large subjects (economic injustice, children, Middle America). Certainly, I admire his uninhibited liberalism; his obvious compassion for those he deals with. The fact that I seldom actually finish reading anything that he writes probably has to do with my own perhaps irrational conviction that Dr. Coles’s heart is so entirely in all the right places (mouth, boots, upon the sleeve) that nothing he has to say will ever surprise me despite the fact that he has traveled far and reasonably wide because “One hopes; one hopes against hope that somehow it will make a little difference; only a little, but still some, if people mostly unknown to almost all of us get better known to more of us.” This generous sentiment is from the preface to the penultimate volume Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians.* Yet no matter how far afield Dr. Coles goes, he is seldom able to tell us anything that we did not already know.
I suspect that this gift for inducing déjà vu may very well be the most subtle form of teaching. Where Plato makes us think by asking questions, Dr. Coles makes us feel by giving answers—in the form of monologues attributed to various children, an enjoyable if somewhat questionable technique (even Dr. Coles is disturbed by a form of “narrative that excludes myself as much as possible, and brings [the reader] directly to the children…. I may well have made a mistake, given the limitations of words, not to mention my own shortcomings”).
Children of Crisis is a work of high seriousness, and a great deal of labor (if not work) has gone into the compilation of so many interviews with so many children over so many years. The persona of Dr. Coles is truly attractive… and it is the persona that one is most conscious of while reading him. Thanks no doubt to “the limitations of words” he is present, like God, in every aspect of his creation and, unlike God, he must be a most agreeable companion for a child, causing a minimum of that sort of dislocation Lévi-Strauss notes in Tristes tropiques: the moment that the anthropologist appears on the scene a pristine culture ceases, by definition, to be what it was and becomes something else again in order to accommodate the researcher-invader and his preconceptions.
Dr. Coles is attractively modest; he does not claim to know all the questions—as opposed to answers. In a sense, Children of Crisis could be called The Education of Robert Coles. Although he has a strong if oddly undefined sense of the way the world ought to be, he knows perfectly well that he is apt to impose his own world view on the children he talks to. In fact, the most beguiling aspect of his work is the pains that he takes not to do what, of course, he cannot help doing: expressing through the children his outrage at a monstrously unjust society. As a result, we get to know a lot about the mind (or feelings) of Dr. Coles. This is no bad thing. On the other hand, the children he interviewed during the last twenty years are somewhat shadowy.
In Privileged Ones Dr. Coles talks to the children of the rich. As he describes his method of work, he worries whether or not the phrase “children of crisis” really applies to them. The original “crisis” of the earlier studies was the integration of America’s public schools and its effect on not-rich children. In theory, the rich don’t have to worry about integrated public schools if they don’t want to; their children can always go elsewhere. Finally (and rightly, I think), Dr. Coles thinks that the “crisis” does include the squire’s children (Dr. Coles’s approach is not unlike Horatio Alger’s, whose cast of characters always included a “purseproud” squire’s son who treats badly poor pluck-and-luck Luke, who eventually works hard and makes money and has the satisfaction of one day condescending to his old enemy who has lost all his money). It was a black parent who told Dr. Coles that the rich are the people he should be talking to because “they own us” (this was in New Orleans). A sensible observation; and suggestion.
Dr. Coles set about the work at hand in his usual way. “I do not interview children with tests, tape-recorders, questions. I call upon them as a visitor and eventually, one hopes, a friend.” How he comes to meet them is somewhat mysterious. He tells us, “In 1960 I started visiting regularly five quite well-to-do New Orleans families…. These were not the ‘first’ families of New Orleans, but they were far from the last in rank.” He tells us that he had been so much with the victims of our economic system that he felt “ill at ease” with the New Orleans bourgeoisie, although they were “my own kind.” So St. Francis must have felt whenever he stopped off in Assisi to visit the folks, only to find them still busy netting and eating those very same little birds he liked to chat with. Yet Dr. Coles is able to give the rich almost the same compassionate attention that he gave the less “advantaged” (his verb) families.
I never came to their parents as a stranger, suddenly at the door with a brazenly insistent set of inquiries. I met these upper-income families as an outgrowth of work that often they had good reason to know about: as growers and plantation owners; as important citizens.
This does not explain very much. For instance, was Dr. Coles ever called in professionally? Several of the children he talked to had already had dealings with that somber eminence known as “the school psychologist.” Were they difficult children? And did the parents turn to Dr. Coles? If so, did they know what he was doing?
The most extraordinary omission in this work is the parents. Although we hear a good deal about them at second-hand through the children, Dr. Coles seldom records his own impression of the parents. As a result, his Privileged Ones often sound like voices in one of Beckett’s enervating plays—literally unrelated to any recognizable world. He does warn us that his method requires, “at times, not only changes of name and place of residence, but the substantial alteration of other significant information. The point has been to struggle for representative accounts. I have not hesitated, at times, to condense remarks drastically or to draw upon the experiences of several children in the interest of a composite picture.” I am afraid that the result not only makes the children sound all alike (Dr. Coles has no ear for the way people speak) but since we are given so little precise data about any of the families, there is a flat sameness of tone as well as of subject. Dr. Coles’s education (like that of Henry Adams) starts with certain things already absolutely known and contrary data is either excluded or made to fit certain preconceptions.
What are Dr. Coles’s absolutes? At the start, he makes clear “my political sympathies, my social and economic views…. I worked for years in the South with SNCC and CORE, the civil rights movement.” He reminds us that the first volume of the series was the result of the crisis brought on by the integration of Mississippi schools and that the second volume dealt with the perpetual crisis (exploitation) of migrant workers: “I dedicated a book I wrote on Erik H. Erikson’s psychoanalytic work to Cesar Chavez.” Also, “I have written an assortment of muckraking articles in connection with the social, racial, and economic problems of the South,” etc. Finally, “My heroes—of this century, at least—are James Agee and George Orwell, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, Simone Weil and Georges Bernanos, William Carlos Williams, and Dorothy Day—none of them great admirers of this nation’s upper-income, propertied families.”
Although I have not read every work by the writers named, I have read something of each and I think that one can safely say that Bernanos never had a word to say about America’s propertied families. Flannery O’Connor was interested not in class but in grace. Walker Percy is a Southern aristocrat who has not shown, to date, any leveling social tendencies. No doubt Orwell deplored our “well-off and rich families” as he did their British equivalents, but he did not write about them. Neither Simone Weil nor William Carlos Williams, MD, seems quite relevant. Dorothy Day obviously contributed to Dr. Coles’s education as did, I fear, James Agee, whose early ersatz-Biblical style has not had a good influence on Dr. Coles’s over-fluent prose. Like so many good-hearted, sort-headed admirers of the Saint James (Agee) version of poverty in America, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Dr. Coles is enthralled by the windy, woolly style of the saint, unaware that the only numinous presence in that book is Walker Evans, whose austere photographs are so at odds with Agee’s tumescent (the pornographers have stolen “turgid”; we’ll never get it back) text.
In any case, somehow or other, Dr. Coles got to talk to a number of nicely “advantaged” children in, variously, Alaska, New Mexico, New Orleans, a San Antonio barrio, an Atlanta black ghetto, “north of Boston,” “west of Boston,” and “well north of Boston” (the last three phrases reverberate for the Massachusetts-bred author in much the same way that Combray and Balbec did for Proust). The geographic range is wide, and interesting. Once Dr. Coles got to know the children (aged, roughly, six to eleven or twelve at first encounter), he would encourage them to draw pictures for him. The pictures are included in the book and I am sure that they reveal a good deal about the artists.
Since Dr. Coles gives the impression of being a thoroughly nice man, the children were probably as candid as he thinks they were. Rather sweetly, he admits that he liked them even though, with his credentials (Cesar Chavez, Georges Bernanos, Walker Percy), he feared that he might be put off by their advantaged-ness. I am sure that they liked him, too. But then it is not possible to dislike an author who dedicates a book: “To America’s children, rich and well-off as well as poor, in the hope that some day, one day soon, all boys and girls everywhere in the world will have a decent chance to survive, grow, and affirm themselves as human beings.” Plainly, Bishop Coles will not rest easy as long as a single child on this earth is obliged to negate himself as a vegetable or mineral.
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 587 pp., $15.00↩
Atlantic-Little, Brown, 587 pp., $15.00↩