In this paper, I explore how treehouses operate symbolically in tandem with culture. Through an analysis of British and American print culture, I argue that the treehouse building project became bound to boyhood at the turn of the twentieth century as the naturalist movement spread and youth organizations embraced treehouses as part of their vision for the development of boys. Parents and youth leaders intend for treehouse projects to build self-reliance, independence, imagination, and courage in their boys. Congruously, this activity associated with a child’s personal growth takes place in an actual growing organism. I analyze how treehouses juxtapose humans and nature, civility and “savagery,” and civilization and the wild, allowing treehouse builders to play at being colonizers or become cultivated by nature. I highlight how the castaway novels Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe contribute significantly to the appeal of treehouses for children through their promotion of adventure and self-reliance. I analyze the implications of the treehouse project for children, observing how the meanings associated with treehouses typically contrast by gender: boys escape to adventure, while girls perform domestic duties. I incorporate treehouse history from ancient Roman times, Renaissance Europe, and the Romantic period to demonstrate how throughout history, treehouses have served as an exploration of nature and elite space for entertainment.
Treehouse, American culture, British literature, American literature, Naturalism, Swiss Family Robinson, Boyhood, Nature, Transcendentalism
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McKinney, Courtney, "Treehouses: Civilizing the Wildness of Men and Nature" (2018). English Undergraduate Distinction Projects. 1.
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