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Primer From A Green World

July 2024
10min read

From his native background, William McGuffey drew texts to educate young Americans

Late in the year 1825 two riders jogged into Oxford, Ohio, from the Cincinnati road and pulled up at the old college building. Down from the saddles slipped a man and a boy, William Holmes McGuffey and his nine-year-old brother Alexander H. The unknown new professor carried a bag of books and a roll of clothing to a room on the second floor of the old wing. He was 25 years old, about to be graduated in absentia from Washington College in Pennsylvania, and ready to begin his career. Forty years later his name would be as familiar as the alphabet.

Six months before, President Hishop of Miami University, on a speaking tour in the valley, had heard of a zealous young teacher in a country school outside of Paris, Kentucky. The school, it was said, was in a smokehouse, but the .scholars came early and stayed late. Bishop was interested in such a teacher. He found a serious young man with a high broad forehead, a big homely nose, and deeply lighted eyes. He was teaching reading, writing, and figuring, but on his plank desk were texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Bishop offered him the chair of ancient languages at Miami University at a salary of $600.

One of eleven children of a Scotch-Irish farmer who had settled in New Connecticut (northeastern Ohio) and chopped out his own road to the village of Youngstown, McGuffey had struggled for an education. It was hit or miss, at home or brief periods in rural schools, until his formal education began when he was eighteen. lUit by that time his hungry mind had stored away whole chapters, verbatim, from the Hible. He got to college at twenty and between terms he taught school in the frontier settlements. Now with news of appointment to a college faculty he rode home. A few weeks later, with his young brother beside him, he clattered off for Oxford, 300 miles across the state of Ohio. Miami had a grammar school where Aleck could prepare for the course in college.

At Miami brother Alexander, promptly named “Red,” became a great tree-climber and broad-jumper in the college yard and a notorious swimmer, splasher, and ducker in the deep hole in Four Mile Creek; a few years later he was a leading declaimer and debater in the literary halls. Meanwhile Professor McGulfey was married to the niece of an Oxford merchant and ordained into the Presbyterian ministry. He preached on Sundays, alternating between the college chapel and rural congregations within horseback range of Oxford. In 1833 he moved his wife and two small daughters into their new brick house across from the south gate of the campus.

Every morning Professor McGuffey walked the path where the library now stands to the old college and climbed to his classroom in the southwest corner on the second floor. There was a determined elegance in his garb: a silk stovepipe hat and a suit of glossy black bombaxine, a shiny celluloid collar and a black bow tie. Longnecked, intent, and humorless, with a leathery skin and a farm boy’s big hands, he did not look easy in that dress. But he was at home in the classroom. His mind was clear, orderly, exact; his language ready and precise. He treated abstract and complex ideas in concrete and simple terms. One of his literary masters was the succinct Alexander Pope.

McGuffey was zealous, ambitious, and resourceful. Before breakfast he met students in his study for practice in elocution and forensics. Between classes he gathered neighborhood children to test the appeal of simple poems and stories. In his study stood a revolving eight-sided desk, made by himself in his own woodshed, with eight pie-shaped drawers—just right for filing word lists, spelling rules, reading exercises and selections. The young professor was compiling a series of schoolbooks.

From his terms of teaching McGuffey knew the somber lessons which introduced children to the wonder of the printed page. The famed New England Primer (five million copies printed since 1690) began with the bedrock of Calviiiistic theology—“In Adam’s Fall, we sinned all.” McGuffey was sufficiently old school in the pulpit, but like the children in his schoolrooms he had grown up in a new green world—a world of creeks and woods and meadows, of dogs and horses, sheep and cattle, orchards, pastures and farmyards. Already he had published a ‘Treatise on Methods of Reading.” As he walked the campus path he pondered the teaching of children in the new West.

In the strenuous Revolutionary period the leading American textbook was Webster’s Elementary Speller . It contained a lengthy moral catechism, a series of moral fables, a collection of readings in prose and verse, and word lists ranging from “bag” to “equiponderant.” Thousands of these “Dlue-Rack Spellers” came over the mountains, packed with the pots, pans, and pails in the movers’ wagons. The one notable Schoolbook between the New England Primer and McGuffey’s Readers, it was also the family anthology and encyclopedia.

My 1830 Lcxington, Louisville, and Cincinnati were centers of a new western book trade. Printers had brought movable presses over the mountains and down the river: publishers saw bright prospects in a bookless country. Soon Cincinnati took the lead, with a stream of almanacs, farm manuals, spelling books (including a new edition of Webster), school readers, testaments, and hymn books pouring from the presses. It was a new business: it existed not only because of the high cost of freighting books across the mountains but also because of the growing sectional conscious ness of the new country. “Western books for western people” was a persuasive slogan.

A second-floor room on lower Main Street in Cin cinnati housed the small firm of Truman and Smith, publishers of Ray’ Arithmetic and a few other elementary schoolbooks. Winthrop B. Smith had an idea for a series of Eclectic Readers and he looked for an educator to compile them. In 1833 lie proposed the scries to Catharine Heecher, daughter of the president of Lane Seminary and sister of the future author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Miss Heecher was preoccupied with higher education for women—she had opened in Cincinnati the Western Female Institute—and declined the task. Probably it was she who suggested a professor at Miami University; through the activities of a pioneer teachers’ association, the Western Teachers’ College Institute, McGuffey was acquainted with the Beechers. Smith soon made a contract with McGuffey for the publication of six books—a Primer, a Speller, and four Readers —for which the compiler would receive royalty payment of $1,000. No one could foresee that the series would make the fortune of Winthrop Smith and of a whole series of publishers who followed him.

Before the first meeting with Truman and Smith, McGuffey had filed in his octagonal desk a sheaf of pages beginning “A is for Ax.” Now he took the manuscript to one of his students, Welsh-born Benjamin Chidlaw, asking him to make a careful copy for publication. Chidlaw was living on 32 cents a week, cooking porridge and potatoes on his stove in the old North Hall.

The First and Second Readers were published in 1836; the Primer and the Third and Fourth Readers followed in 1837. To the selections were added questions, rules of pronunciation, and exercises in spelling—an apparatus in which Catharine Beecher collaborated. By 1843 the series was selling half a million copies a year.

In 1844 appeared McGuffey’s Rhetorical Guide, an anthology of English and American literature, compiled for a fee of $500 by his brother Alexander. The former tree-climber was then a leading Cincinnati lawyer, the son-in-law of Dr. Daniel Drake, and a warm friend of the Beecher Family. The Rhetorical Guide bore the name “A. H McGuffey,” Which was close enough, especially in English script, to “W. H. McGuffey” to be accepted as coming from the same hand. A revision of the series in 1853 added the Rhetorical Guide to the set as the Fifth Reader . With selections from the great historians, orators, novelists, essayists, and poets, it became the most famous Reader of all. More than a schoolbook, it was a literary storehouse for family reading and a portable library for ambitious youths in a nearly bookless country.

The enlarged series swept southward and westward into thousands of new school districts as settlements spread. By 1860 sales of the Readers passed two million copies a year. When Cincinnati could not fill the orders, other publishers were licensed to produce the McGuffey series: Clark, Austin, Maynard and Company in New York; Lippincott Company in Philadelphia; Cobb, Pritchard and Company in Chicago. After the Civil War the Methodist Book Concern in Nashville Published huge editions for distribution in the South. In the second half of the Nineteenth Century the proprietors became successively W.B. Smith and Company; Sargent, Wilson & Hinkle; Wilson, Hinkle; & Company; Van Antwerp, Bragg & Company; and finally the Ameriacn Book Company.

The Gilded Age was a golden age for the McGuffey publishers, who rode the wave of American expansion The Readers went west in freight wagons and with emigrant caravans; traders packed them into Indian reservations; they turned up in sod schoolhouses on the prairie, in cow towns on the plains, and mining camps in the Rockies and the Sierras. Between 1870 and 1890 the series sold sixty million copies. They were the basic schoolbooks in 37 states. Except for New England, where they never got started, the McGuffey Readers blanketed the nation.

In the 1890’s the texts were translated into Spanish, and American imperialism carried them into the thatch-roof schools of Puerto Rico and the Philippines. A Tokyo edition, with alternate pages in English and Japanese, was used in schoolrooms under the shadow of Fujiyama.

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.

Yet along with this dutiful morality, the Readers contained selections of simple charm and of lasting literary worth. Once past the two-syllable limits of the Second Reader , the scholar met Hawthorne, Irving, Bryant, Longfellow, Whittier, Dickens, Lamb, Goldsmith, Milton, Shakespeare. The Fourth Reader , on a present junior high school level, had color and vitality; few of its selections have gone bad. The Fifth and Sixth Readers were mature, varied, and discriminating anthologies of poetry and prose. These volumes were read in the family circle, at church socials and grange suppers, as well as in the schoolroom. They were cherished by scholars long after school days were past. Hamlin Garland, who read them on the prairies of Iowa and South Dakota, wrote in A Son of the Middle Border : “I wish to acknowledge my deep obligation to Professor McGulïey, whoever he may have been, for the dignity and grace of his selections. From the pages of his Readers I learned to know and love the poems of Scott, Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, and a long line of English masters. I got my first taste of Shakespeare from the selections which I read in those books.” Many other Nineteenth-Century Americans have expressed the same gratitude.

While his name and a kind of fame went across the country, McGuffey kept on with his academic labors. After seven strenuous years as a college president, first at Cincinnati College and then at Ohio University, he began in 1845 a l°ng term of teaching at the University of Virginia. Declining the presidency of Miami in 1854, he stayed there till his death in 1873. To the undergraduates he was “Old Guff,” teaching moral philosophy and living quietly in Pavilion 9, while his textbooks made ten millionaires. Unlike the diligent lads in the Readers he did not get rich. A story says that each year at Christmas time the publishers sent him a barrel of hams.

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