This essay draws attention to how the institutionalization of childhood studies in American literary criticism unwittingly privileges youth over all other ages and reifies the stages of life themselves as essential categories rather than as cultural constructs. Given that age emerged as a primary identity category between 1820 and 1900, this essay argues that age offers an especially pertinent lens for nineteenth-century literary scholars. Louisa May Alcott's 1873 novel Work makes the political and social significance of age its central subject. Work acknowledges age as a newly meaningful coordinate of identity in the mid-nineteenth century, but it denaturalizes the seeming inevitability of gendered age norms and the developmental teleology that under-writes them. Ultimately, Work envisions alternative versions of female maturity that depart from linear models of aging as decline.

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