Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, August 31, 2012

McGuffey's Readers

William Holmes McGuffey
My maternal grandparents had many books in their house at 1609 East Broadway.  She liked to read a lot, and Grandpa was a professor at Phillips University (now defunct, sadly) in Enid, Oklahoma.  Most of the books they had did not interest me in childhood.  Lots of reference books.  Works on history and theology (Grandpa taught theology).  And--oddly--the complete works of Mark Twain, a set of green books now lining one of my own shelves.  My uncle told me once that he remembered Grandpa (his father) reading Twain in bed at night, the laughter rolling out of the room and throughout the house.  Grandpa had a high-pitched hee-hee-hee type of laugh.  I can hear it clearly as I write these words.

And I wonder now about that scene: my most pious grandpa laughing at the most impious Twain.  And Grandpa teaches me once again: People are always far more complex than we give them credit for.

As a kid I did enjoy The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and after our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rockwell, read that book to us--as well as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--my friend Pete Asplund and I thought that we were Tom and Huck (who was who was the source of an endless debate--and a pointless one: Pete was lots bigger than I and invariably got to be Huck).  Sometimes, on Saturday mornings, he would go in the little patch of woods across the street from our house, beat on a log with a stick and cry Caw! Caw! Caw!  My signal.

Unlike the boys in the books, though, I did no shinnying down pipes.  Instead, I crept down the stairs, joined Pete across the street, and off we went on our Bicycle Adventures through the wilderness of Enid's streets.  Our Mississippi was a nameless drainage creek that ran through Glenwood Park.  And, oh, what we would have given for a cave!  Even one with Injun Joe inside--especially one with Injun Joe inside.  But we had to make do with the large drain pipes that ran under the street, connecting Glenwood with Kiwanis Parks.  They were foul, oh yes.  But adventure is adventure, foulness and all.  We were nine years old.

The only other books my grandparents had that made me curious  were the McGuffey Readers.  They had a full set of them, grades one through six (the books got increasingly thick each year), and they were so nicely bound that I knew they were not actual schoolbooks that either of them had used.  I'm guessing they bought them for their children to use--or for the grandchildren to get curious about.  The copyrights on their editions--1921--confirm my suspicion: My mom was born in 1919; her brother, two years earlier.

The first four volumes of the McGuffey's Eclectic Readers were written by the Rev. William Holmes McGuffey.  Of course that word eclectic threw me in boyhood; naturally, I read it as electric and assumed the books would ... what?  Jolt me when I read them?  Light up?  Who knows what nonsense courses through a child's curious and imaginative but ignorant mind?

The biography of McGuffey (who taught at Ohio University), the story of the composition of the books (Harriet Beecher Stowe recommended him), their publication history--all of that's on the Internet these days.  Here's one of the decent sites: History of the Books  And you can still find hard copies to buy and free digital ones online.

For years, I have had on the shelf my grandparents' copies of the 5th and 6th grade readers.  I'd long forgotten how we acquired them--assumed I'd taken them when my older brother and I helped clean out Grandma's house when she died in 1978.  But I was wrong.  When I opened the 5th reader, a little card fluttered out, a card with some words in my grandmother's hand.  Inside, it says, "From Grandmother."  So ... the two books were a Christmas gift to Joyce, probably not long before Grandma died, when our own son was about to head off to school.

The contents of these books reveal a far different World of School than most American youngsters experience today.  The Preface to vol. 6 says about the reading selections: ... they present the same instructive merit and healthful moral tone which gave the preceding edition its high reputation.  The illustrations (and there are not many!) are presented as specimens of fine art.

The reading selections, then, have a moral purpose.  They also are designed for students to work on elocution, a focus in the nineteenth century and on into the early twentieth, a focus rarely found in schools today.  And we can debate if that's a gain or a loss.  The first sixty pages of the 6th volume deal with elocution.

But consider the literary selections for sixth graders--the authors included: Benjamin Disraeli, Samuel Johnson, Shakespeare, Dryden, Dickens, Thomas Gray, Ruskin, William Cullen Bryant, Charles Sumner (!), Scott, Washington Irving, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Goldsmith, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jefferson,Webster, Longfellow, Hazlitt, William Dean Howells, Milton, Francis Parkman, Tennyson, Helen Hunt Jackson, Macaulay, Burke, Poe ("The Raven"!), Byron, the Bible, Whittier, Franklin, Thackeray, Addison, Wordsworth, Emerson, Pope, Coleridge ... and these are just the folks most people have heard of today.  There are numerous others.

By my day, the common beginning readers featured Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff.  Every now and then a good teacher would give us a little Longfellow or Poe or Twain.  But for the most part, educators adopted a different philosophy, a different strategy: students can learn reading skills from drivel as well as from works of art.  So ... let's go with the drivel.

In the 6th volume of the McGuffey's is this statement of purpose: In schools for children, it ought to be a leading object to teach the art of reading.  It ought to occupy threefold more time that it does.  The teachers of these schools should labor to improve themselves (58).  The editor goes on to say that we should work as hard at reading as musicians do learning their instruments.

So ...  Kids should read more--lots more.  Teachers should keep learning.

I second both motions.


TOMORROW: What I believe about reading and literature in our secondary schools.

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