“From Independence to Isolation: Autonomy in The Saturdays Stifled by Economic Depression, Isolationism, and World War II,” by Sonya Harper

“Sofia’s Lighthouse,” Colored by Fred Giovannitti

Volume 2 (June 2015)
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Abstract:  Many scholars have discussed the visible diminishment of childhood independence that ensues in Elizabeth Enright’s novel, The Saturdays, as indicative of disenchantment with the urban idyll, but neither a false urban idyll nor an affection for the country provides a satisfactory explanation for the Melendy children’s decreasing independence. Harper takes a different approach, aligning the trajectory of children’s urban adventures with an historical timeline of the United States from the 1920s to 1940s. By examining The Saturdays alongside the historical context of the lavish 1920s, the market collapse of 1929, the meager 1930s, and the insecure pre–World War II 1940s, and also considering the prevailing beliefs among 1940s American children’s literature publishers, one discovers a framework for the novel’s gradual disenchantment with childhood independence and a rationale for the Melendy children’s satisfaction in the conclusion.

About the Author:  Sonya Harper is a graduate student at Hollins University, pursuing Children’s Literature. She is fascinated with finding religious themes in secular children’s literature. Her full time job involves the care and feeding of four ferocious librovours.


From the 1920s through the early 1940s, the primarily white middle- and upper-class citizens of the United States experienced extremes in both their economic fortunes and in their national sense of security, sandwiched as they were between World War I and World War II. In 1941, with the economy slowly clicking up the slope of recovery, the United States found itself huddled within its oceanic moat, surveying the escalating European war and concluding a half-decade long debate between isolationism and interventionism. Just months before December 7, 1941, when the global conflict crossed the Pacific Ocean in a military tsunami at Pearl Harbor, Elizabeth Enright published The Saturdays.

Each chapter in this tale depicts the humorous misadventures of a 1940s white middle-class American family and the children’s Saturday afternoon escapades, adventures created by the children to actualize childhood independence. This independence evaporates, however, throughout the course of the novel. The Melendy family consists of “a widowed father and four independent-minded children” lovingly mothered by Cuffy, their live-in housekeeper (Stahl 2). Even in the gradual economic recovery of the forties, an allowance of fifty cents did not go far in New York City, where the family lives. Consequently, the elder three Melendy children—thirteen-year-old Mona, eleven-year-old Rush, and ten-year-old Miranda (Randy)—contrive to combine their individual allowances into one lump sum each week, intent on fostering individual independence through financial empowerment, with the only caveat a pledge that each will do “something really good with it” (14). To that end, the children establish The Independent Saturday Afternoon Adventure Club (I.S.A.A.C.). Each child autonomously plans a thrilling, self-tailored Saturday afternoon to explore their city.

Unfortunately, the freedom is short lived for the Melendy children. The fifth Saturday spells doom for the “glorious independence of the Saturday adventures . . . after Oliver’s disastrous, unauthorized excursion to the circus” (Mills, “Urban Idyll” 217). As Claudia Mills opines, “the reader can only experience this as a terrible disappointment, for it was the independence of the Saturday outings that was so exhilarating and fascinating. And how could going off by themselves not be ‘a good idea’ when it is the idea that has most captured the young reader’s imagination and yearnings?” (“Urban Idyll” 217). Even so, by the time the family finds itself at the ocean at the book’s conclusion, the waves of disaster have swept childhood independence from the pages. If this novel’s apparent intent is to celebrate childhood independence through individual exploration, why do the children of this family move through the narrative from a greater degree of independence to a lesser one?

Scholars Claudia Mills and Caroline Hunt have previously noted this dissolution of independence. In “The Ambivalent Urban Idyll: The Saturdays and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown,” Mills proposes that careful readings of these books, both of which appear to celebrate “children’s freedom to savor urban adventures . . . shows that the texts themselves in crucial ways undermine their own premises” (211). Rather than directly addressing the issue of diminishing freedom, Mills describes the “shift from solitary to shared adventures” as an expression of the façade of the urban idyll: “the glorious exploration of New York City by the four Melendy children in The Saturdays gives way to ultimate disenchantment with the city” (“Urban Idyll” 217; “Redemption” 52). Hunt appears to agree that the failure of the solo city forays reflects a greater dissatisfaction with the city. Travelling up the pen and into the psyche of the author, Hunt pins causality on Enright’s love of her extended family’s country home, stating, “[c]hildren in nearly all of Elizabeth Enright’s books spend the summers, ritualistically, in the country, and most eventually move there year round” (17). Mills and Hunt use the dissolution of independence as a supportive argument for their theses, but neither implicates the reverse—that the dwindling degree of independence stems from either urban disillusionment or rural inclination. Despite the Melendy’s eventual move, in a later sequel, to the country, neither a false urban idyll nor an affection for the country provides a satisfactory explanation for the Melendy children’s decreasing independence in The Saturdays.

Rather, examining The Saturdays alongside the historical context of the lavish 1920s, the market collapse of 1929, the meager 1930s, and the insecure pre–World War II 1940s, and considering the prevailing beliefs among 1940s American children’s literature publishers, one discovers a framework for the novel’s gradual disenchantment with childhood independence and a rationale for the Melendy children’s satisfaction in the conclusion. Perhaps this is not surprising. J.D. Stahl praises Enright’s strength of craft in her ability to “capture . . . the flavor” of the time in which the novel is set while “[presenting] a world of childhood that is secure from serious threats” (1). The “flavors” of the decades preceding and encompassing the writing and publication of The Saturdays were volatile and insecure. For white middle-class Americans, the honeyed prosperity of the 1920s evaporated in the scorching economic collapse of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s. Still suffering, Americans of the late 1930s and early 1940s were bombarded by the uncertainty surrounding the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Thus, the average white middle-class American citizen during those decades moved from a position of economic strength, with the financial means to explore the cities of the world, into joblessness and poverty, which had only begun to improve by 1941.

In the 1920s, middle- and upper-class white America seemed to live a charmed life sequined with wealth, youth, and promise. Massive European debts from World War I had induced a “shifting [of] the center of world financial power from London to New York,” elevating the United States head and shoulders “above the rest of the world, youthful, dynamic, and prosperous” (Herring 437; 440). However, embittered after World War I, the United States distanced itself politically from Europe, focusing rather on relationships with its North American neighbors. Concurrently, the “global application of cable, telephone, and radio” and the modernization of transportation shrank the globe, making national and international travel easier (438). With the added advantage of relative wealth, European tourism by middle- and upper-class Americans “skyrocketed in the 1920s” (441).

It is exactly this sort of independence—a 1920s-like financial and self-willed freedom to choose where to go and what to do—with which the Melendy children hope to infuse their Saturday afternoons. The development of this idea consumes the first chapter, from establishing the need and creating the name to debating whether Father and Cuffy will allow it: “if we asked Father first and he said yes Cuffy would say yes too. You know she would” (Enright 15). As the elder trio of the Melendy quartet discuss the feasibility of I.S.A.A.C., the potential for wandering about New York City unsupervised doing “something [we’ve] always wanted to do” invokes a mounting wave of excitement in all four children (14). Economic strength comes when they combine their allowances. Even Oliver, who is “too young” to stride the streets alone, cannot help but beg “in a loud firm voice” to be included; even he comprehends how a pocket full of money will potentiate the prospects for pleasure and adventure on the streets of New York City (16). Accounting for inflation, the combined value of all four children’s allowances, totaling $1.60 in 1941, is equivalent to over $25 today. This provides each explorer with no paltry sum and effectively pushes the children back in financial time to the 1920s. But Mona questions the limits of acceptable independence and “self-consciously” asks, “Is it all right if we do anything we want to? I mean, if I want to do something more than go to a play, can’t I do it?” (17). Randy’s response, “I don’t see why not. And you can even keep it a secret,” expresses her certainty in the comprehensive nature of their independence and exposes her naiveté (17). Even so, Rush agrees, stating categorically that father “believes in children being independent” and will, no doubt, support their endeavor (15). His confidence is confirmed when Father consents, urging the older three to “do something you really want; something you’ll always remember. Don’t waste your Saturdays on unimportant things” (21). This implies that Father believes, as Rush does, that he is an honest advocate of childhood independence.

So, with money in their pockets and plans in their heads, the Melendy children regain the financially independent touring glory of a 1920s flâneur. In “Children’s Literature and the Child Flâneur,” Tribunella defines a flâneur as “one who is carefully attentive to the world around him as he walks, a critical observer of the city and its people, and one who learns from them” (64). A flâneur, he asserts, is an outsider, an observer, as post–World War I Americans considered themselves relative to Europe. American citizens explored cosmopolitan cities as foreigners naïve to the oncoming resurgence of war—as flâneurs, “find[ing] and translat[ing] the beauty of the present, of the modern age . . . strolling through the streets of the city, being among the crowd, and gazing upon all that the modern age makes possible” (65). Cuffy reminisces of the 1920s, saying, “It was nice when you could go anyplace; on boats and trains to furrin [sic] cities . . . I guess I wheeled Mona’s baby buggy through most of the parks in Europe.” Her description exhibits the hallmarks of flâneurie (Enright 160). Fortunately for the Melendy children, transcontinental travel is not a prerequisite for flâneurie. The literary flâneur is “a useful device for unfolding the city before the reader and for transforming it into a thing of aesthetic and critical contemplation”; thus, Tribunella finds in “The Saturdays . . . one of the clearest examples of a children’s novel evidencing the possibility of the child flâneur” (66; 70).

Despite being confined to New York City, Randy and Rush, with their European-themed excursions, harness the aura of the 1920s American flâneur. “Home,” for the Melendy children, “contrasts with the city; you go away to the city and then you come home from it” (Mills, “Urban Idyll” 217). As the original idea generator, Randy scores the first independent Saturday abroad, her pocket full of 1920s economic clout, and imagines, in characteristic flâneur style, the opportunity as “a door opening into an enchanted country which nobody had ever seen before; all her own to do with as she liked” (19). She is swept to France while gazing at an old French painting of a girl playing the piano; she meets that same girl—as old Mrs. Oliphant now—who exclaims of Randy’s independent outing, “What a lucky girl you are!” (32). Later, the two enjoy English tea, during which Mrs. Oliphant provides a breathless tour of Paris via tales from her youth after running away from her chateau and being kidnapped by gypsies.

Like Randy, Rush focuses his excursion on the European arts, attending a performance of Wagner’s opera Siegfried. Through the German opera, the French paintings, and Mrs. Oliphant’s childhood adventures in France told over English tea, Enright broadens the field of the New York City flâneurie to Europe. Randy and Rush are “linked with a geographical world even beyond the city’s own expansive boundaries,” to stroll, in their imaginations, through places where Americans of the 1920s wandered (Mills, “Urban Idyll” 216). Not only does this strengthen the “away” feeling of the city, as Mills says, but it also increases the sense of independence and lends the adventures a patina of the economic extravagance and international flâneurie of the 1920s.

An aspiring actor and quintessential flâneur, Mona exemplifies the naiveté of the middle-class white American of 1929 whose flâneurie ended abruptly in the economic collapse. Mona, like her siblings, wanders through New York City finding “its crowds, buildings, and advertisements” beautiful (Tribunella 73). With money in her pocket and a “keen eye for the fashions of the day,” the thirteen-year-old takes full advantage of her independent afternoon to slip guiltily into a beauty salon; after all, long golden braids are not movie-star style (Tribunella 73). Mona executes her threat to chop them off and has her hair styled in “a long bob; about shoulder length. Fluffy. Soft. Youthful”—an echo of the bob of the 1920s (Enright 79). While her new ’do dries, her nails are manicured and painted a shocking red, another innovation of the 1920s. Mona is enraptured with the results of her unilateral decisions, which “exceed her wildest expectations” (94). Her red nails sparkle and her silky curls caress her cheeks. Independence and 1920s flâneurie allow Mona to discover she is “going to grow up beautiful instead of ugly” (95).

The results exceed Cuffy and Father’s wildest expectations as well. In complete opposition to his previous policy of encouraging childhood independence, Father can “hardly believe that she had done such a thing without consulting him,” and Cuffy is “frankly disgusted” (97). Anarchic, artistic Mona is shamed and reprimanded, not just by Father and Cuffy, but also by Rush and Randy. This censorship of Mona’s independent choices demonstrates the limits of childhood independence particularly for Father, and for the Melendy family in general. Mona’s overextension of the privileges of independence and financial prosperity reflects the extravagance of the 1920s; her censorship represents the end of the Roaring Twenties and constitutes the turning point in The Saturdays—the beginning of the end of the Melendy children’s independence. Mona’s departure from family ideals leads the family to exert pressure on her to scrape off the evidence of independence—her blood-red polish. Like Mona, citizens of the 1930s had to draw the reins on their independence, peel off their polish, and attend to the grim realities of working together to survive in the Great Depression. Cleansed of any of their own errant desires by Mona’s drastic misappropriation of her independent day out, the three elder Melendy children voluntarily restrict themselves on their second solo Saturday afternoons to family-approved, and therefore safer, activities.

Through the Great Depression of the 1930s, the isolationist movement, with its vision of a Fortress America, grew more vocal and powerful. Isolationists of the 1930s “preferred to concentrate on domestic issues, shun international cooperation, retain complete freedom of action, and avoid war at virtually any cost” (Herring 502). The American attitude had progressed from the “misty idealism of the pre–World War I period . . . to a hard-eyed, determined isolationism” (41). A 1935 poll found that most Americans believed involvement in World War I had been a mistake, and ninety-nine percent believed it would be foolish for the United States to become involved with another European war. Even the United States military “believed in the idea of a Fortress America and . . . [opposed] the idea of getting involved in another European conflict” (Olson 42). Many Americans also harbored the idea that safety and happiness were to be found at home, rather than in exploration and involvement with the global community. To the isolationist, for an American to leave “home” to explore the “city streets” of the world was to invite disaster.

Contradicting the isolationists and embodying the young, but growing, interventionist movement of the late 1930s, Oliver steps out into the world, immersing himself fully in the foreign culture and cuisine of the circus. Oliver maintains his belief in complete childhood independence, expressing his individuality by approving Mona’s transformation in direct contrast with the rest of the family. As the remaining individualist, the six-year-old not only plans, despite full knowledge of the family rule forbidding any unsupervised city excursions until the age of ten, but also sets in motion a covert circus campaign. Combining the moneys retained from stashing his weekly dime with the financial return on his I.S.A.A.C. investment and slipping the same into his pocket, Oliver sneaks away on his independent jaunt to the circus while he is thought to be napping. When asked by a policeman if he isn’t too young to go out alone, Oliver replies, “No, I don’t think so” (106), and enjoys himself immensely. Trouble strikes, however, when the boy tries to return home. He is overwhelmed by acute indigestion and a sudden, intense fear he is lost, paralleling the widespread fear that if the United States rushed into the war in Europe, only suffering and loss would follow. Oliver is saved by an enormous, strong, handsome policeman with “white gloved hands the size of baseball mitts” on “a big square horse” (118, 117). Returning the frightened boy to the safety of home, Oliver’s stout savior with pristine white gloves symbolizes isolationist Fortress America guiding the nation with peaceful, un-bloodied hands. Father decides Oliver’s disobedience has been justly punished by his physical and emotional discomfort and requires only a promise from the penitent boy that he will never go off alone again. Oliver concedes and the last strands of interventionism and individualism in The Saturdays fade.

A lingering shadow of independence limps through a couple more chapters in the form of unsupervised group outings. In line with Father’s official stance, in which he encourages childhood independence, he does not forbid the continuation of the independent Saturdays. However, when the three elder Melendy children suggest that the “business of going off by ourselves isn’t such a good idea after all,” Father agrees (119). “A sound idea,” he says. “I was going to suggest it myself, but I much prefer having it come from you” (119). This statement epitomizes Father’s philosophy to overtly encourage childhood independence, while covertly allowing transpiring events to shepherd the children back into the safety of the family fold. Thus, the individually independent phase of I.S.A.A.C. is concluded. And yet the children do not seem to feel disappointed or misled. This may be because the Saturday afternoons continue to fulfill the promise of adventure as the Melendy children venture out together for a couple unsupervised Saturday afternoons to experience the thrill of New York City with the supposed safety of numbers. Unfortunately, the disasters resulting from two final Saturday excursions are even more dangerous—and potentially deadly. On Saturday six, Randy’s tumble into Central Park Lake leads directly to a near-fatal carbon monoxide poisoning of the family. Saturday seven begins with the Melendy equivalent of the 1929 stock market crash when Father pronounces that “a new oil furnace costs at least two hundred dollars . . . there are taxes. In addition to that [the house] needs new wallpaper, the roof has to be fixed and the third-floor stairway has to be repaired” (140). The greatest sacrifice involves forgoing their annual summer exodus from the city to the valley. The children are appalled, but they must tighten their belts, just as Americans did through the 1930s. Randy, as I.S.A.A.C. president, volunteers a reduction of allowances by half, saying, “After all money isn’t everything” (141). For a while, “all felt self-sacrificing and practiced economy with zeal” (142). “In their economical mood, the I.S.A.A.C. members had planned no excursion for themselves”; the good life is over, the Great Depression is at hand (144). But for the Melendy family, more than a decade of American financial recovery is condensed into less than a week. Mrs. Oliphant cuts short the financial famine by inviting them to join her at the zoo for tea, which “means ice cream” (145). While enjoying this treat, their benefactress invites them to “all come and spend the summer” in her lighthouse at the seaside (151). The children saunter home, glowing with anticipation, only to find their house surrounded by fire fighters who have just extinguished an attic fire caused by a dress Randy had left hanging on a bare light bulb. The Saturday adventures fizzle out with the embers in the attic and the Melendys prepare for the isolation of Mrs. Oliphant’s lighthouse retreat.

By preparing to leave their city house, the Melendy family commits to isolationism, departing from the historical ideological trajectory of pre–World War II Americans. During the late 1930s and prewar 1940s, the internal struggle between isolationism and interventionism had developed into a “passionate prewar battle over America’s destiny” (Olson 12). In 1937, “[seventy] percent of the American people thought it had been a mistake for the country to enter the [First World] war,” and ninety-four percent still supported an isolationist policy (41). However, by the very late 1930s public opinion began to shift, swayed by reports from the war in Europe, political rallies both for and against isolationism, and debates conducted by a broad range of groups, including college students, feminists, and politicians. Isolationism continued to lose ground to interventionism through the pre-war 1940s. A poll conducted a few months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor found “a substantial majority of the U.S. population now regarded ‘Defeating Nazism’ as ‘the biggest job facing their country’” and a general preference for going into war to prevent a German victory over Britain (Olson 16).

In the face of this growing American acknowledgement that Britain needed United States military support, pre–World War II American children’s literature continued to promote isolationism. Hunt, discussing children’s literature written in the United States during the years approaching and encompassing World War II, states that “books [set and published in the early 1940s] do not simply omit war-related plots and overseas settings; in most of them, people go about their business as if there were no war on at all” (190). This policy supports Nodelman’s assertion that “the first audience for any book that might be published is not children at all, but rather the adults who edit, publish, teach, and review the books.” Hunt further suggests the blatant exclusion of the war from World War II era United States children’s literature “shows how late isolationism lingered and how strenuously, by resorting either to fantasy or to a spurious normalcy, writers denied the possibility of war” (Enciso et al. 253; 191).

In direct contrast with this position, Enright’s entire Melendy family, including the children, express an acute awareness of the European conflict. Hunt suggests The Saturdays was published despite its references to World War II, thus running contrary to the blind-eyed preferences of children’s literature, particularly in light of Enright’s 1939 Newbery Medal for Gone Away Lake. Hunt states “no further Newbery winners would be working against the current” by acknowledging the overwhelming presence of the war and concludes, “writers for children mirror very accurately the mood and expectations of the country. Although most adults (including writers) were aware of the inevitability of the U.S. involvement in [World War II], a reluctance to think about the implications kept even distant echoes of it out of most children’s books” (195; 205). Although descriptions of the battles are excluded from the narrative of The Saturdays, Enright provides glimpses of the family’s knowledge of and feelings about the war. Lounging in their upstairs playroom dubbed “the office,” the children discuss a water stain blotched across the ceiling. Artist Randy gestures at the blots and cracks, demonstrating how they merge to form the infamous mustached face of Adolf Hitler.

Even so, the Melendy family surrenders to the isolationist ideology of contemporary American children’s literature when they leave New York City for the seclusion of Mrs. Oliphant’s lighthouse. There, independence and interventionism dissipate from the pages like sea foam on the seashore. Mrs. Oliphant directs her employee Wilkins to “teach [the children] how to sail, pull them out of the water when they start to drown, and keep them out of mischief generally” (168). Although Wilkins is there, ostensibly, to provide adventure—learning to sail particularly catches the children’s attention—his main purpose is to provide additional supervision, ensuring the safety of children who have demonstrated, in previous chapters, the ability to save themselves from drowning. Sequestered at Mrs. Oliphant’s lighthouse complex, the Melendy children can explore the domestic tide pools and swim and sail in the sheltered bay, safe and secluded.

Considering The Saturdays through the bifocal lenses of history and political ideology, the reader can trace the Melendy children’s journey from independence to isolation. Just as the American flâneur of the 1920s waltzed through Europe, Randy and Rush dance through their first Saturdays, savoring the artistry of New York City delicately spiced with flavors of France, England, and Germany. America’s fall from prosperity into poverty and the necessity of eschewing extravagance during the Great Depression of the 1930s is mirrored in Mona’s overextension of privilege, subsequent censorship, and the Melendy family’s financial woes. But as the Melendys move through The Saturdays’ final chapters, the family’s journey departs from the ideological path toward the interventionism of mainstream white middle-class America. Instead, as insecurity and fear of the impending war sweep over America, the Melendy family bows to the ideological pressure of isolationist American children’s literature. The conclusion of The Saturdays encapsulates the dream of living in isolation—in a Fortress America—and of thereby escaping the danger of global interventionism. The Melendys enjoy the security of a long summer at a secluded lighthouse preserve, exploring a private seashore, protected all the while by both the wide seas and an army of strong, white-gloved policemen and muscle-bound Wilkinses.

*For more about The Saturdays, see J.D. Stahl’s consideration of Enright’s works, “A Secure World of Childhood: The Artistry of Elizabeth Enright,” recently reprinted in Children’s Literature, Volume 43 (2015).

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Works Cited

Attebery, Brian. “Elizabeth Enright and the Family Story as Genre.” Children’s Literature 37.1 (2009): 114-36. Project MUSE. Web. 26 June 2013.

“CPI Inflation Calculator.” N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

Enciso, Patricia, et al. “Children’s Literature: Standing in the Shadow of Adults.” Reading Research Quarterly 45.2 (2010): 252-63. Print.

Enright, Elizabeth. The Saturdays. New York: Rinehart, 1941. Print.

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.

Hunt, Caroline. “Elizabeth Enright and the Family Story.” The Lion and the Unicorn 14.2 (1990): 16-29. Project MUSE. Web. 26 June 2013.

Hunt, Caroline C. “U.S. Children’s Books about the World War II Period: From Isolationism to Internationalism, 1940-1990.” The Lion and the Unicorn 18.2 (1994): 190-208. Project MUSE. Web. 31 Aug. 2014.

Mills, Claudia. “Redemption through the Rural: The Teen Novels of Rosamond Du Jardin.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 38.1 (2013): 48-65. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

—. “The Ambivalent Urban Idyll: The Saturdays and Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.” Children’s Literature in Education 29.4 (1998): 211-21. Print.

Olson, Lynne. Those Angry Days [eBook (downloadable)]: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.

Stahl, J.D. “A Secure World of Childhood: The Artistry of Elizabeth Enright.” Hollins Critic 35.2 (1998): 1+. Print. (See note above)

Tribunella, Eric L. “Children’s Literature and the Child Flâneur.” Children’s Literature 38.1 (2010): 64-91. Print.

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