Primer From A Green World

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After 1900 the business dwindled, and by 1920 the time of the Readers was past. But a new phenomenon was beginning. Change comes swiftly in America, but memory lingers. In the headlong Twentieth Century people recalled the old district school and the dogeared Readers. From West Virginia to California McGuffey clubs sprang up. Groups of old residents held McGuffey reunions and retired schoolmasters formed McGuffey societies. A national federation of McGuffey societies met annually on the Miami campus, a congress of piety and remembrance. They recalled the lessons of long ago—The Boy Who Cried Wolf! Wolf!; Mr. Toil and Hugh Idle; Try, Try Again; Harry and the Guide Post; the Honest Boy and the Thief. They told and retold how young William Holmes McGuffey walked six miles to recite Latin to his tutor, how he memorized poems, orations, and whole books of the Bible. They wrote odes to the great educator “whose classroom was a nation” and sang hymns to his memory.

In 1932 Henry Ford, the man who had done most to change McGuffey’s America past recognition, issued a facsimile edition of the 1857 series and moved McGuffey’s log cabin birthplace to his museum at Dearborn, Michigan, beside the Ford laboratories. Collectors were bidding up the prices of the earliest McGuffeys—one hundred, two hundred, three hundred dollars for a tattered Primer or First Reader . By that time McGuffey meant the horse and buggy days, the Saturday night bath, the creak of the kitchen pump and the wood box behind the stove, the lost American innocence and piety. He had become a myth as American as Uncle Sam and as homespun as linsey-woolsey.

Fifteen sets of school readers were published in America between 1820 and 1841, but for some reason the McGuffey series ran away with the race.

Perhaps the clue is in the first lesson—A is for Ax. While children learned those letters the ax was ringing in every clearing, it was hewing logs for cabins and schoolhouses, it was changing the mid-continent. Thud, thud, thud—in the sound of the ax the future of America was beating like a pulse. The picture showed a boy not as tall as the ax helve leaning against a stump. It was a real ax, from the child’s real world, the roughhewn, hopeful, equalitarian world of the Jacksonian West. After ax came box, cat, and dog; nut, ox, and pig; vine, wren, and yoke—all homely and familiar things. The lessons were alive with children at work, at play, at school: boys with hoops, kites, skates; girls with dolls, sleds, and jumping ropes. Reading could be fun.

It was also morality. The selections were shrewdly eclectic moral lessons attuned to the mixed people of the Ohio Valley and the expanding nation. They contained enough Puritanism to satisfy transplanted Yankees, enough Cavalier manner to fit the attitudes of the South, enough practical optimism to appeal to ambitious Scotch, German, and Irish settlers, and enough assurance of the material rewards of virtue to gratify all. Reading itself was described as a means to morality.

The books were vigorously western, but that has always been a relative term and it did not limit their market. The life they pictured and the ethic they advanced had an almost nation-wide appeal. Yet in certain ways they were keyed to the newer country beyond the Appalachians. In the Fourth Reader an essay by Daniel Drake stated a belief which the books themselves were serving: “Measures should be taken to mould a unified system of manners out of the diversified elements which are scattered over the West. We should foster western genius, encourage western writers, patronize western publishers, augment the number of western readers, and create a western heart.” McGuffey’s texts were an immeasurable influence in creating a common mind and heart among the mingled strains that peopled the Ohio Valley and surged on to the farther West.

The Readers pictured a land where opportunity is open to all—all who will soberly and steadily pursue it. Scores of lessons repeated the gospel of success; each new Reader put it in stronger terms.

Here was the spreading myth of democratic, practical, middle-class America: work, strive, persevere, and success will follow. Virtue is its own reward, more precious than riches, but the virtuous become rich also. George, in the Second Reader, having confessed to breaking a merchant’s window with a snowball, felt happy for doing what was right. But the story is not over. The merchant took honest George into his employ, with the happy outcome that “George became the merchant’s partner and is now rich.”

Industry is the watchword in the McGuffey books. “The idle boy is almost invariably poor and miserable,” said the Third Reader ; “the industrious boy is happy and prosperous.” Lazy Ned, who wouldn’t pull his sled uphill, died a dunce. Mr. Toil “had done more good than anybody else in the World.” The lessons contained no wonderers or wanderers, no pilgrims or seekers, no rebels, reformers or dissenters, but endless examples of practical ambition and prosaic success.