Authors: Robert Coles

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American critic, biographer, and sociologist

Author Works


Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, 1967 (volume 1 of Children of Crisis series)

The Image Is You, 1969

Still Hungry in America, 1969

Uprooted Children: The Early Lives of Migrant Farmers, 1970

Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work, 1970

Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers, 1971 (volume 2 of Children of Crisis series)

The South Goes North, 1971 (volume 3 of Children of Crisis series)

Farewell to the South, 1972 (essays)

Irony in the Mind’s Life: Essays on Novels by James Agee, Elizabeth Bowen, and George Eliot, 1974

William Carlos Williams: The Knack of Survival in America, 1975

The Mind’s Fate: Ways of Seeing Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, 1975

Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians, 1978 (volume 4 of Children of Crisis series)

Privileged Ones: The Well-Off and the Rich in America, 1978 (volume 5 of Children of Crisis series)

Women of Crisis: Lives of Struggle and Hope, 1978 (with Jane Coles)

Walker Percy: An American Search, 1978

Flannery O’Connor’s South, 1980

Women of Crisis, II: Lives of Work and Dreams, 1980 (with Coles)

The Moral Life of Children, 1986

The Political Life of Children, 1986

Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion, 1987

Simone Weil: A Modern Pilgrimage, 1987

That Red Wheelbarrow: Selected Literary Essays, 1988

Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular, 1988

Times of Surrender: Selected Essays, 1988

The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, 1989

The Spiritual Life of Children, 1990

Anna Freud: The Dream of Psychoanalysis, 1992

Conversations with Robert Coles, 1992 (Jay Woodruff and Sarah Carew Woodruff, editors)

The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism, 1993

Doing Documentary Work, 1997

The Moral Intelligence of Children, 1997

School, 1998 (with Nicholas Nixon)

The Secular Mind, 1999

Lives of Moral Leadership, 2000

Edited Texts:

Twelve to Sixteen: Early Adolescence, 1972 (with Jerome Kagan)

The Erik Erikson Reader, 2000

Growing Up Poor: A Literary Anthology, 2001 (with Randy Testa)

A Life in Medicine: A Literary Anthology, 2002 (with Testa)


Robert Martin Coles is a leading authority on the lives of the socially and economically deprived, especially children; he has also produced a substantial body of literary criticism and biography, directed not at fellow academics but at the general reader. He was born to Philip Winston, a politically conservative engineer who was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sandra Young Coles, a deeply religious woman who both praised his accomplishments and warned against pride and self-centeredness. Coles’s excellent education and training began in the prestigious Boston Latin School and continued at Harvard University, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa English major in 1950. He took his M.D. degree in 1952 at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Coles also enrolled in courses at Union Theological Seminary during this period. Between 1955 and 1958 he continued his medical studies at the University of Chicago and in Boston hospitals. Following his service in the military, he continued his training with residences and fellowships in psychiatry.{$I[AN]9810001264}{$I[A]Coles, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Coles, Robert}{$I[tim]1929;Coles, Robert}

It was during his service in the Air Force that Coles’s career took a decisive turn. He was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, as chief of neuropsychiatric services at Keesler Hospital and saw the early efforts at integration in the Deep South. This experience, about which he subsequently wrote often, made an indelible impression on him. When his period of service was over he established a practice in Vinings, Georgia, where he regularly called on black and white families undergoing difficulties because of integration. Coles decided to concentrate his professional work on studying the “children of crisis.” He also became an active member of the Civil Rights movement. He spent eight years collecting data and writing the first volume of Children of Crisis, which appeared in 1967.

The method he created for this and subsequent studies is called “social psychiatry,” which employs techniques of oral history, psychology, and anthropology. Coles frequently gains an understanding of children’s inner worlds by studying their drawings, examples of which he includes in the text of Children of Crisis. The focus of Coles’s work has been on the strength, dignity, and resiliency of children and dispossessed families. This approach has led many scholars and political leaders to praise him for showing the human side–the hopes, frustrations, convictions, and prejudices–of the poor and dispossessed in the United States and abroad.

In 1969 Coles published Still Hungry in America, a book that helped to establish the U.S. government’s food stamp program. In 1971 he published two more volumes of his study of children, Migrants, Sharecroppers, Mountaineers and The South Goes North, followed, in 1978, by Eskimos, Chicanos, Indians and Privileged Ones. In that year he and his wife, Jane Coles, launched a new two-volume study, Women of Crisis. Coles has also carried his studies abroad to examine how nationalism and political loyalty are taught to children in the strife-torn areas of Ireland and South Africa. Two volumes appeared in 1986: The Moral Life of Children and The Political Life of Children.

After a series of biographies, essay collections, and memoirs, Coles published The Call of Service in 1993, a study of the role that idealism plays in individual lives and in society. Doing Documentary Work grew out of Coles’s years of fieldwork investigation, offering his readers the benefits of the lessons he learned the hard way about documenting, both visually and verbally, the raw material of study. The Moral Intelligence of Children is a study of the ways in which children learn moral behavior. The Secular Mind was a work of synthesis for Coles, bringing together his work as a social scientist and as a literary scholar as well as his own spiritual background in a meditation on the replacement of religion by science in the modern world. Lives of Moral Leadership is a collection of short biographies of people who have inspired Coles throughout his life, from Robert Kennedy to a Boston school bus driver.

Coles’s work has received widespread attention from scholars, political leaders, and the public. Scholars generally credit him with developing an important new approach to the study of the ways in which social conditions influence the dispossessed. Political leaders have relied on him for expert testimony on social ills that need to be addressed, and the general public has found that his studies reveal the human side of those on the fringe of society. He has received many awards and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for the second and third volumes of the Children of Crisis series and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for 1981-1986.

Coles is best known for his pioneering work in social psychiatry, yet he has also maintained what might be called a second career teaching and writing about literature. For many years at Harvard University, Coles has taught literature to graduate students in medicine, law, business, theology, and education as well as general undergraduates; his courses, which emphasize the enduring value of literature as a guide to life, are among the most popular at the university. Coles’s studies of writers such as William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor are extensions of his teaching. His book The Call of Stories, published in 1989, makes a compelling case for the importance of teaching literature, drawing heavily on the responses of students over the years.

BibliographyGoodenough, Elizabeth, et al., eds. Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994. A collection of essays on topics influenced by Coles’s work.Hilligoss, Susan. Robert Coles. New York: Twayne, 1997. A literary biography, covering Coles’s works and the critical reactions to them.Kazmek, Francis E. “‘I Know Lots of People Have These Thoughts, They Just Do.’” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 45, no. 5 (2002): 378-380. Discusses the impact of spiritual beliefs on literacy, drawing on Coles’s The Spiritual Life of Children.Kelly, James R. “An Honest Search for Spirituality.” Cross Currents 50, no. 3 (2000): 405-407. A review of The Secular Mind.Ronda, Bruce A. Intellect and Spirit: The Life and Work of Robert Coles. New York: Continuum, 1989. A full-length biography.Smit, David W. “Storytellers, Life, and Death.” Death Studies 18, no. 1 (1994): 87-93. Review of The Call of Stories.Woodruff, Jay, ed. A Piece of Work: Five Writers Discuss Their Revisions. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993. Coles discusses his essay revision process.
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