The Rise of English Literary Study in America: 1750-1900
[This is a lecture given at a session of the International Association of Professors of English, in Bamberg, Germany, in the summer of 2001. It is a work in progress. Please do not quote from it without permission.]
1. Theism and Reading (The New England Primer)
2. Civic Virtue and Elocution (Webster and McGuffey)
3. Taste and Criticism (Kames and Blair)
4. Philology (Harvard and Johns Hopkins)
5. Culture (Matthew Arnold and his followers)
Theism and Reading
Colonial instruction in literacy began with The New-England Primer, which is as much a book for teaching Christianity as for teaching the basics of spelling and reading. In the good old days, one learned to read in order to read The Good Old Book. In fact, one learned to read by reading that Book and other Christian texts. The New England Primer was the most important textbook in colonial America: "For over a hundred years it was without serious challenge as the instrument of beginning reading instruction in America, and for another hundred years it was frequently reprinted" (Applebee 2). The Primer first appeared in Boston a a decade or more before 1700. As I write I have before me facsimiles of the 1777 and 1790 Boston reprints. In the 1777 Primer, the basics of reading were taught via the prayers and poems of Isaac Watts, and by such devices as an alphabet accompanied by tiny woodcuts and two-line homilies. Here are the first four letters of this alphabet:
And so on down to Z and Zaccheus climbing a tree to see the Lord. The only texts that we might call "literature" that appeared in this primer were the prayers and songs. There is also a charming woodcut depicting an event described below it in the following terms:
In Adams Fall
We Sinned all.
Heaven to find;
The Bible mind.
For Sinners died.
The Deluge Drowned
The Earth Around.
To this is appended a poem said to have been written by Rogers to his children "some few days before his death." My point here is that one could not learn English reading from this primer without also imbibing a heavy dose of Christian--and militantly Protestant--ideology. And, as if that were not enough, many editions had bound in with the spelling book a "Shorter Catechism" of a hundred and seven questions and answers approved by the Assembly of Divines, followed by John Cotton's "Spiritual Milk for American Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments for their Souls Nourishment," which included sixty-four additional questions and answers. At some point, however, which I have not yet determined precisely, the Primer began to be secularized. For example, between the 1774 and 1790 versions I have examined, the teaching of the alphabet was modified, by such devices as changing the jingle for the letter C from
Mr. John Rogers, minister of the gospel in London, was the first martyr in Queen Mary's reign, and was burned at Smithfield, February 14, 1554. His wife, with nine small children and one at her breast, following him to the stake; with which sorrowful sight he was not in the least daunted, but with wonderful patience died courageously for the gospel of JESUS CHRIST.
For Sinners died.
The Cat doth play,
And after slay.
A thorough study of the editions of this book would provide a rough chart of the process of secularization in basic language instruction over a period of two centuries--a process which was accelerated by the texts that extended and replaced The New England Primer in the nineteenth century.
Civic Virtue and Elocution
Books like the New England Primer were gradually replaced by other spellers and readers, including those of Noah Webster, which had a strong patriotic bias, as did all of Webster's work. As his first biographer, Horace Scudder, put it in 1881, Webster "was by no means restricted in his ambition to the teaching of correct spelling; he aimed to have a hand in the molding of the national mind and the national manners" Scudder 38). Scudder also noted that successive editions of Webster's book went further and further in this direction. In them Webster paid increasing attention to "the more substantial matter of good morals," so that in the later editions "there came to be inserted those fables and moral and industrial injunctions, with sly reminders of the virtue of Washington, which have sunk into the soft minds of generations of Americans" (Scudder 39). Webster's book, with the general title of A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, consisted of three volumes. The first, called the Blue-Backed Speller was published in 1783, and, by 1847, according to Scudder, it had sold 24,000,000 copies and was continuing to sell at the rate of a million copies a year (Scudder 71)--and this in a country whose total population in 1850 was around 23,000,000. Webster's Speller did all that the New England Primer had done and also included a reader in which secular morality, such as precepts for young women on choosing a suitor, began to replace the puritan religious instruction of the earlier book.
The second volume of the Institute was a Grammar, and the third, published in 1795, bore the following subtitle: An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking; calculated to improve the Minds and refine the Taste of Youth, and also to instruct them in the Geography, History, and Politics of the United States. To which are prefixed Rules in Elocution and Directions for expressing the Principal Passions of the Mind. All three parts of this subtitle are important: (1) its emphasis on American matters, (2) its concern for both mental improvement and the refinement of taste, and (3) its strong interest in the oral expression of emotion in public speaking and reading aloud. Webster's patriotism was toned down a bit, but his other emphases persisted in the extraordinary series of books that replaced his in the hearts, homes, and classrooms of America: The Eclectic Readers of William Holmes McGuffey, which first appeared in 1836 and 1837.
Actually McGuffey himself compiled only the first four levels of the Readers. The fifth and sixth were done by his brother, and, after those, later editions of all the McGuffey Readers were edited by different hands and modified to suit current beliefs and assumptions. They were designed for primary and secondary schools, but were also used in homes, especially the most elementary First and Second Readers. Arthur Applebee has noted that for the half century after 1836 the use of McGuffey's Readers was "virtually universal" (Applebee 4). During that period, however, as the books were revised and expanded, their ideological thrust changed in important ways. John Westerhoff, the author of an excellent monograph on McGuffey, sums that change up this way:
This ideological shift from theism to civic virtue, which the McGuffey texts took over from Noah Webster, is of course important, but there are some other things to be learned from the readers and the ways in which they changed. The Readers were graduated, from the primer or speller level of the Eclectic First Reader to extensive selections for reading in the Fifth and Sixth. There is also a definite shift, between the Third and the Fourth Reader from an emphasis on correctness of orthography and the definitions of words to an emphasis on oral performance (or elocution) as a way of understanding texts. Over half of the "SUGGESTIONS TO TEACHERS" in the Fourth Reader are devoted to elocution, including advice on how to conduct a class in which students criticize one another's performance in reading aloud. The first Preliminary Remark in the Fifth Reader of 1879 is illuminating in this respect:
By 1879 the theistic, Calvinist world view so dominant in the first editions had disappeared, and the prominent values of salvation, righteousness, and piety were entirely missing. All that remained were lessons affirming the morality and life-styles of the emerging middle class and those cultural beliefs, attitudes, and values that undergird American civil religion. (Westerhoff 19)
The great object to be accomplished in reading as a rhetorical exercise is to convey to the hearer, fully and clearly, the ideas and feelings of the writer.
In order to do this, it is necessary that a selection should be carefully studied by the pupil before he attempts to read it. In accordance with this view, a preliminary rule of importance is the following:
Rule I.--Before attempting to read a lesson, the learner should make himself fully acquainted with the subject as treated of in that lesson, and endeavor to make the thought, and feeling, and sentiments of the writer his own.
(Signet Classic Edition 21)
This self-consciousness is interesting. The first bit of reading in this Reader is about reading. And the concept of reading as a "rhetorical exercise" is perhaps even more interesting. This practice--a major element of training in "elocution"--consisted of reading aloud as an exercise in oral presentation: a way of learning how to project the feelings behind a text as well as the sense of it. The text, we are told, must be "carefully studied" before it is "read." The readings themselves grow more complex as the Readers grow higher, and as they go through successive editions. The Fourth Reader was originally conceived as completing the series (as its Preface makes clear), but the demand for further extension was there, and the publisher met that demand. We may consider the contents of the Fifth Reader of 1879 as an example of what advanced secondary school students were reading at the time when English became established as a field of study in American colleges and secondary schools. The book includes 117 "Selections in Prose and Poetry," beginning with an anonymous story called "The Good Reader," which is about a garden laborer's daughter named Ernestine who is rewarded by Frederick the Great for reading to him when his eyes had been "dazzled" by the sun. Ernestine "was fond of reading aloud," we are told--in a not too subtle reinforcement of the function of the McGuffey Reader itself, but one that also emphasizes the inclusion of female readers among its target audience.
The advanced Readers must have been used in the female seminaries that began to metamorphose into women's colleges during this period. (There had been no instruction for women at the college level in America until the 1830s.) Though some of these readings are conspicuously didactic and sometimes quite sentimental as well, many of the texts in the Fifth Reader would be called "literature" by most standards of judgment. Included are texts by Whittier, Kingsley, Southey, Goldsmith, Hunt, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Irving, Bryant, Hood, Cowper, Dickens, Tennyson, Thoreau, Moore, Cooper, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Lamb, Johnson, Bret Harte, and a number of notable women writers, including Alcott, Hemans, Proctor, Edgeworth, and Martineau. There are also selections from the Bible. Many, if not most, of the prose selections are excerpts from larger works, though most of the poems are complete. Seldom does any text run longer than three pages. The notion that excerpting a selection from a larger text does violence to the organic unity of the work is obviously not in force in these Readers.
This, then, is not a collection of "masterpieces" or texts considered to be "classic." These are "Selections"--that is, poems and bits of prose chosen for their didactic content or their elocutionary interest. Each selection, except for the few that are anonymous and second or third texts by authors like Washington Irving, is prefaced by a paragraph about the writer and followed by a few notes, definitions, and pronunciation guides.
For a century and more, the foundations of literary culture in America were laid down by the Webster and McGuffey Readers. It was a culture of sympathy and sentiment, of self-help and civic virtue. And it was, above all else, an oral culture: trained to appreciate elocutionary performance and to convey "the passions of the mind" in speech and reading aloud. But, despite Webster's claims to the contrary, it was not exactly a culture founded on taste. Or rather, it was based on a very different notion of taste from the one developed and taught in schools and colleges in more recent times. Few of the poets and none of the poems included here passed the barrier erected by Brooks and Warren for inclusion in Understanding Poetry, which appeared exactly a century after the publication of the first McGuffey Readers. But that notion of taste to which Webster alluded is a matter of great importance in the history of English studies.
Taste and Criticism
A great ideological change in the function of English studies is signaled by the publication of David Hume's essay of 1757, "On the Standard of Taste" and Lord Kames's adaptation of Hume's views in his three-volume Elements of Criticism in 1762. Kames took up the question of taste in the Introduction to his textbook and returned to it in his final lecture. In the Introduction he argued that "the God of nature" has constructed the world so that humans may pass from "corporeal pleasures to the more refined pleasures of sense; and not less so, from these to the exalted pleasures of morality and religion" (Kames I, 5-6). He continued in this vein:
We stand therefore engaged in honour, as well as interest, to second the purposes of nature, by cultivating the pleasures of the eye and ear, those especially that require extraordinary culture, such as are inspired by poetry, painting, sculpture, music, gardening, and architecture. This chiefly is the duty of the opulent, who have leisure to improve their minds and their feelings. . . . a taste in the fine arts goes hand in hand with the moral sense, to which indeed it is nearly allied. Both of them discover what is right and wrong. . . . they are rooted in human nature.
(Kames I, 6-7, emphasis added)
It is painfully clear how powerfully the social and economic are commingled with the aesthetic and moral in this formulation. Human nature reaches its peak among the opulent, who have the leisure to cultivate their taste. The function of The Elements of Criticism as a textbook, however, suggests that this process might be reversible. Cultural capital, demonstrated by means of a cultivated taste, could lead in the direction of opulence. Thus, Kames concluded his third volume his third volume with a Lecture on "The Standard of Taste," in which he indicated that the major purpose of his book was "to lay a foundation for this valuable branch of knowledge" (Kames III, 374). To learn what Kames called "the elements of criticism" was to acquire "a standard of taste." Kames is crucial to this inquiry because his book became a standard work of instruction in the early American colleges, facilitating their transition from educating clergymen to developing a social and political elite. This transition is neatly documented in the following information about the classes graduating from Noah Webster's college, Yale:, "In 1748 nearly one half of the class entered the ministry; in 1758 nearly one third; in 1768 one fourth; in 1778, one tenth" (Scudder 16-17, n.1).
The colleges were being secularized, and taste was one of the values that replaced Christian theism. The distinctly secular lessons of Lord Kames were reinforced when Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres joined The Elements of Criticism as a required text in American colleges. In Blair's book, the first Lecture after his introduction begins this way: The nature of the present undertaking leads me to begin with some enquiries concerning Taste, as it is this faculty which is always appealed to in disquisitions concerning the merit of discourse and writing (Blair I, 15). Blair is of special importance to us because his book became the dominant textbook on the topic of rhetoric in the first American colleges, being adopted at Yale in 1785 and Harvard in 1788, just a few years after its publication. In 1783 Rhode Island College (later Brown) was still requiring John Ward's System of Oratory (1759) along with Kames's Elements, but by 1803 Blair had replaced Ward and joined Kames in the curriculum (Court, 14). Blair's book moved into the lower schools as well and had been translated into the main European languages, including Russian, by 1837 (Applebee 17 n.27).
That the secularization literary studies continued in this book is plain from Blair's treatment of what he called, in his forty-first Lecture, "The Poetry of the Hebrews." There he observed dryly that the poems found in the Scriptures afford a curious object of criticism. They display the taste of a remote age and country. . . . Considered as Inspired Writings, they give rise to discussions of another kind. But it is our business, at present, to consider them not in a theological, but in a critical view (Blair, II, 385). Thus the concept of taste replaced the religious and ethical focus of the early readers with a new emphasis on cultural and aesthetic matters, summed up in the word "criticism." But taste in Kames and his followers were still closely connected to the oral disciplines of elocution and rhetoric.
This is very clear in the second "Dissertation" added to Thomas Sheridan's A Course of Lectures on Elocution, first published in 1762 and widely required in American colleges. Solomon Drown, for example, a student at the College of Rhode Island (later Brown) recorded in his diary for April 14th 1771 that he was reading Sheridan on Elocution (Brown, 30). In his second Dissertation, Sheridan quoted Kames on the subject of, but his real brief was for the study of the English language, which for him meant the spoken language. He put it this way in the "Heads of a Plan for the Improvement of Elocution; and for Promoting the Study of the English Language; in order to the Refining, Ascertaining, and Reducing it to a Standard" (Sheridan, 193):
When a grammatical knowledge of our mother tongue, and a critical skill therein, together with the art of reading it with propriety, and reciting it publickly with judgment and grace, shall become part of a collegiate course, and confer honour and reputation on such young gentlemen as may distinguish themselves in that way, it must also become an object of serious attention to all Schoolmasters, that their pupils may not go to the Universities unprepared in such material articles.
The usefulness of knowing English grammar and acquiring the ability to read and recite English texts in public are justifications for the formal study of English at all levels of education--in England itself and in its provinces and colonies. This is the rationale for the first--and the longest lasting--challenge to the supremacy of the classical languages in schools and universities. We should note that this argument had been heard more clearly and acted on more promptly in Scotland and America than in England itself. The arguments for elocution, then, pointed toward the use of spoken English, while the arguments for taste looked toward the classics. But, after a century of glory for elocution--one thinks, for instance, of Frederick Douglass reading the liberating dialogue between master and slave in Caleb Bingham's book of 1797, The Columbian Orator (Douglass, Ch. 7)--this subject was pushed to the margins of American education, while taste has continued to return in different guises.
The concept of taste is crucial in this history because of the cultural changes that it supported. Taste, by becoming a signifier of social status, could function as a medium of exchange between cultural capital and social position, between art and politics. It was the operation of this new cultural paradigm that had allowed Edmund Burke to use his book, A Philosophical Inquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), as a key to open the corridors of political power. But taste, it should be pointed out, assigned aesthetic and social power to the critic rather than the artist. It would take the Romantic concept of imagination--that direct intuition of a divine order--to allow literary artists to see themselves--as Shelley did--as "unacknowledged legislators" for mankind. We shall return to the post-Romantic metamorphosis of "taste," but first we must attend to another post-Romantic development that played an important role in the history of literary studies in America--the German development of comparative philology
This part of the story of English studies is well enough understood, I believe, for me to treat it briefly on this occasion. The study of texts in Greek and Latin had offered a rigor with respect to grammar and the other basic elements of language that was frequently defended as good in itself--the equivalent of mathematics as a mental discipline for students. Rhetoric and oratory offered a comparable rigor in the study of tropes and topics, pronunciation and elocution, and also claimed a practical usefulness as training for public speech from the pulpit, at the bar, and in public assemblies. But the study of literature in English could not claim those justifications. German philological methods came to the rescue by providing a rigorous mental discipline based on the English language and its Germanic antecedents. The origins of modern academic philology have been traced the teaching of Frederich Wolfe at the University of Göttingen in 1777 (Applebee 25). Still, the new discipline was not a factor in American academic life until German-trained faculty began returning to the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, bearing the ideas that allowed English to usurp the place of Latin and Greek in American colleges.
Among those professing the new discipline was Francis James Child, who took over as Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard in 1851. But the mother church of philology in its heyday was the newly founded Johns Hopkins University. From there, and from Harvard, philological studies spread through American colleges with great rapidity, and ultimately reached the secondary schools. Francis Andrew March, who has been called the first English professor in America, assumed a chair in "the English Language and Comparative Philology" at Lafayette College in 1857. His title, it should be noted, did not mention the word "literature." Philology gave the field of English its first professional discourse in America. New journals appeared bearing the magic word in their titles: Modern Philology, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, The Philological Quarterly, and others.
These journals, with the old flag at their mastheads, have persisted through various fashions in professional discourse. They were the first of their kind in America. In their pages English teaching at the college level became a professional discipline. Along with them, in 1876, came the first PhD in English, and, in 1883, the founding of the Modern Language Association. At that time, among the twenty schools that founded the organization, there were only thirty-nine teachers of English (Applebee, 27). Philology, however, by providing a cover of rigor for the displacement of classical studies, contributed mightily to the early growth of the profession. With this growth and professionalization, however, came other changes. In an episode noticed by both Arthur Applebee and Gerald Graff, philology helped to create the invidious separation of advanced English studies from instruction in writing that still plagues us today.
When Johns Hopkins tried to lure Francis Childs away from Harvard in 1876, Harvard responded by making him a professor of English and freeing him from teaching rhetoric and composition. And so it has gone ever since. Philology, however, did not establish itself in the secondary schools. What it did accomplish was to separate secondary education and the whole pedagogical side of the profession, on the one hand, from university education and advanced studies in language and literature, on the other, leaving the colleges uneasily in the middle. But the elective system, introduced at Harvard in 1885, with its increased attention to what students wanted to study, finally doomed both philology and the hegemony of the classics--and for the same reason.
The students didn't want philology. They wanted the literature they had been discussing in their extracurricular literary clubs for some decades. And they got it, along with charismatic teachers like Billy Phelps, Hiram Corson, and Bliss Perry to teach it. With it, they got a new range of justifications for literary study. By the end of the nineteenth century, the study of literature in English--both British and America--had risen. English departments had been established in most colleges and universities. The dominant colleges had also put texts in English on their entrance examinations by 1900 and these exams had a powerful effect on what was offered by the secondary schools. Arthur Applebee (37) reports the following changes in the offerings of secondary schools in the North Central area of the country between 1860 and 1900. Courses in . . .
· grammar dropped from 60% of these schools to 35%
· analysis [line by line rhetorical study] from 55% to 3%
· rhetoric from 90% to 63%
By 1890 the following rises had taken place in the same schools:
· English literature rose from 30% to 70%
· American literature from 0 to 20%
· [just plain] literature from 5% to 20%
These trends continued in the secondary schools, and similar developments can be observed in the colleges and universities. But philology did no more than open the door for these developments. What took English literary studies through the door and beyond was the parallel development of a new concept of "culture" championed by a British Inspector of Schools named Matthew Arnold.
Matthew Arnold, who understood very well the Enlightenment notion of taste and the Romantic notion of imagination, dismantled them both and recombined them in his powerful new definition of culture as "a study of perfection" (Arnold 473). This is, of course, rather different from the notion of culture that presides in anthropology or contemporary "cultural studies." But we must use the term in Arnold's way if we are to understand how it influenced education in America. Dismissing the notion of taste as a mere social attainment in the opening pages of Culture and Anarchy, Arnold went on to define culture as the achievement of inward perfection, a secular state of grace, to be attained by studying those "master-work[s]" (238) or "classic[s]" (304) in which "the best that is known and thought in the world" could be found (265, Arnold's emphasis). It should be noted in passing that Arnold's entire formulation, and its consequent adaptability, depended upon the dazzling vagueness of that word "best."
Arnold's views are important to the American scene because they were taken up by a number of American teachers and critics. While the philologists were making higher education safe for English studies, Arnoldian culture was flourishing in extracurricular literary clubs and in the minds of teachers at all levels who found philology too dry and stifling to replace the old emphasis on morality and sentiment. Arnold had many followers in America. Among the most visible of these was Irving Babbitt, whose "New Humanism" was a distinctly Arnoldian project. And Babbitt's Arnoldian values were passed directly to his student T. S. Eliot, through whom they became a part of New Critical dogma. For Arnold, literature--and especially poetry--contained the best of religious thought and feeling. As he put it in his introduction to the first volume of a collection of portraits of poets, in a series called The Hundred Greatest Men (1879), and recycled at the beginning of his essay on "The Study of Poetry," "The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry" (Arnold 299). Because poetry presented an interpretation of life--what he termed "a criticism of life"--it could offer the consolations of religion and provide a stay against the anarchic tendencies that threatened the modern world.
This formulation entailed two powerful consequences. One was that, given poetry's--and by extension literature's--importance, it became vital for critics to distinguish excellent from inferior work. In this, it should be pointed out, Arnold was accepting Kames's notion of criticism as a function of taste, but replacing the social basis of taste (the refinement allowed by opulence) with his more spiritual notion of culture as the study of perfection. And there was a second consequence of equal importance. By defining poetry as a "criticism of life" Arnold had effectively put the critical function at the center of the creative one. That is, instead of exercising taste on the beauties of poetry, the Arnoldian critic would understand and appreciate the criticism already there in the poem.
From this it followed that literary works deficient in critical seriousness would be denied the highest accolades--and ultimately driven out of the canon and the curriculum. Arnold's brilliant shell game took the new power conferred on literature by the Romantic concept of divinely inspired imagination--and reduced it from a celebration of God's nature to a criticism of human culture. Arnold's thought opened the way to the two major developments of the first half of the twentieth century in American literary studies: the Great Books movement of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, and the New Criticism of Ransom, Tate, Brooks, Warren, and Wimsatt. But these developments, you will no doubt be relieved to recall, lie beyond the scope of the present report, which, with thanks for your patience, I now conclude.
Applebee, Arthur. Tradition and Reform in the Teaching of English: A History. Urbana: NCTE, 1974.
Blair, Hugh. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. London, 1783, reprinted Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1965.
Brown, Marion E. Solomon Drowne, Student: His Papers and Journals, 1753-1774. Providence: Unpublished Masters Thesis at Brown University, 1954.
Court, Franklin E. The Scottish Connection: The Rise of English Literary Study in Early America. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2001.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/
Kames, Henry Home, Lord. Elements of Criticism. London, 1762, reprinted New York: Johnson Reprints, 1970.
Miller, Thomas P. TheFormation of College English: Rhetoric and Belles Lettres in the British Cultural Provinces. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh UP, 1997.
Scudder, Horace E. Noah Webster. Boston: Houghton, 1881.
Westerhoff, John H. III. McGuffey and His Readers: Piety, Morality, and Education in Nineteenth-Century America. Milford: Mott Media, 1982.