The concept of the “bad seed,” a child whose negative hereditary traits will unleash chaos on an unsuspecting family, has to this day informed responses to adoption, a relic of William March’s 1954 novel, The Bad Seed, and its 1956 film adaptation. A closer look at other mid-twentieth-century American adoption narratives suggests, however, that inherited traits were not the only concerns, an argument this essay pursues by considering March’s novel and its film adaptation alongside Richard Wright’s posthumously published novella Rite of Passage. All of the texts share certain formal features, such as the adopted/fostered characters’ abrupt discovery of their adoptive status and the presence of psychological discourses in representing the distress of learning that new information. They come to very different conclusions, however, about the root cause of the adopted characters’ tragic outcomes. While The Bad Seed novel and film imagine an adoptee compelled by violent ancestral urges, in Wright’s text the fate of the adopted/foster child is most profoundly shaped by the structures of the social system itself. Rite of Passage provides a useful corrective to the stubborn endurance of the bad seed narratives’ determinism, drawing on many of the same discourses that inform both novel and film to offer an alternative perspective on race, gender, heredity, and adoption from the 1940s and 1950s.
Bad Seeds and Wayward Boys in Postwar Adoption Fiction
Cynthia Callahan is associate professor of English at the Ohio State University at Mansfield, where she teaches American and ethnic American literature. Her current book project examines African American adoptive families in post–World War II American literature.
Cynthia Callahan; Bad Seeds and Wayward Boys in Postwar Adoption Fiction. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 March 2021; 67 (1): 75–99. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-8912286
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