Literacy (American History Through Literature)
Nineteenth-century Americans imagined themselves as a nation of readers. Federal census returns affirmed that by 1840 more than 90 percent of white adults could read and write, while reports of the skyrocketing volume of newspapers, books, and mailed letters suggested they were avidly doing so. Public schools received credit for generating this literacy as proof of national civic achievement. The Hutchinson Family Singers' Uncle Sam's Farm (1848) boasted:
Yes! we're bound to lead the nations for our motto's "Go ahead,"
And we'll tell the foreign paupers that our people are well fed;
For the nations must remember that Uncle Sam is not a fool,
For the people do the voting and the children go to school.
(Hutchinson, p. 4)
Intrepidity, prosperity, sagacity, and democracy were thus linked to schooling. If the "strength of a people" relied, as Richard D. Brown has observed, on "an informed citizenry" (p. i), Americans had through public education seemingly attained a literacy rate commensurate with their strident national ambitions.
THE EXTENT OF LITERACY
Once thought to be a competency uniform in all times and places with similar effects, literacy is now understood as a wide variety of practices, contingent upon prevailing geographical, social, and historical influences. Such "situated literacies" (Barton, Hamilton, and Ivanic, p. xiv), that is, ones located within specific contexts, elucidate the social meaning of reading and writing in the mid-nineteenth century United States: the "nation of readers" ("Nationality in Literature," p. 264) is revealed as being but a hopeful notion of them.
Precisely because censuses measured illiteracy to demonstrate national progress, their figures are unreliable. In 1850, for example, the literacy question was so self-incriminatingt immediately preceded one on disability, insanity, poverty, and criminalityhat it elicited under-reporting of illiteracy. Moreover, through 1860 census takers asked whether adults could read and write; doing either, even reading but a tavern sign, generated a "yes." When the 1870 census finally distinguished reading from writing, it discovered a quarter more "readers" than writers. Since writing is a surer test of literacy, previous censuses had clearly overstated its extent.
The rate falls further when illiterates are compared not to aggregate populations including children but to all adults. If only North Carolinian whites over nineteen in 1850 are considered, for instance, the state's illiteracy rate rises from 14.52 percent to just fewer than one in three. When adult slaves are added, it can be said that half of North Carolinian adults were illiterate in 1850ar from the one-in-seven ratio Hinton Rowan Helper (1829909) abstracted from the census in his The Impending Crisis of the South (1857).
As this example suggests, literacy differed dramatically among regions, with the Southeast, Southwest, and Old Northwest having widespread illiteracy and the Northeast (Delaware excepted) having relatively little. These disparities emerged in colonial times, when New England reached near-universal adult male literacy (over 90 percent) and would never lose it. Religious motivations are commonly given to explain this achievement, but as William J. Gilmore found for a later time, reading there more likely became a "necessity of life" (even for women whose literacy grew to equal men's in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century) in locales of heightened market activity, thus signaling more secular influences. Although it remains unclear whether universal literacy was an effect, cause, or mere by-product of commercialization, by 1840 adult literacy in New England reached over 99 percent. Even the arrival in the 1840s and 1850s of numerous illiterate immigrants, especially victims of the Irish potato famine, resulted in only a slight regional downturn.
AGENTS OF LITERACY
The educational history of New England and, to a lesser extent, the Middle Atlantic States challenges another "notion of readers": that public schooling directly led to mass literacy. The surge in rates predated the mid-century public school movement and rather resulted from informal instruction in families, neighborhoods, and on the job. Sunday schools, local proprietary "Dame" schools, and the often poorly funded, short-session district schools merely supplemented informal learning. Only long after state school boards in Massachusetts and Connecticut were founded in the late 1830s would free public schooling reverse conditions: the home became the reinforcer of literacy and the school its primary generator.
The relatively high antebellum illiteracy rate in western states (about 9 percent) underscores the importance of informal instruction. Many settlers came from literate northeastern states, but western conditions frustrated reproducing similar levels in the next generation: particularly, open-country farming reduced both population densities and, consequently, opportunities for neighborhood and on-the-job instruction. Unable fully to revive traditional eastern-style local literacy, western states rushed to launch school systems to stem the seeming social degeneration.
Whether in the Northeast or West, then, public schools expressed commitment to sustaining already fairly extensive literacy acquired under informal conditions, not the main means of achieving it. Yet although the advent of public schools promoted greater meritocracy that moderated class bias in literacy, this little benefited people of color and other outsiders stymied by prejudice. For whites, even after mid-century, illiteracy itself was not a bar to economic mobility "literacy myth," according to Harvey Graff (p. 17). Being white helped more than being literate.
To turn a notion of readers into a nation of them, mid-nineteenth-century literacy reformers pursued several agendas, not all of them benign. Philosophically, the Enlightenment had bequeathed widespread belief in the perfectibility of humankind through education. Politically, the widening franchise pressured voters to learn to read and write in order to participate in national political discourse as "republican machines," the term coined in 1798 by Benjamin Rush (1745813) in "Of the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic" (Rush, p. 14). Socially, literacy promised to help remedy the emerging pluralistic threat to national unity by providing the skill that gave outsiders access to a common cultural heritage in print. Middle-class reformers particularly waged literacy campaigns against poorer immigrants and native racial minorities. Protestant evangelicals pushed Bible reading against both irreligion and Catholicismo them, illiteracy along with indolence, intemperance, and unchastity were but symptoms of sinfulness. To counter illiteracy, the American Bible Society (1816), American Sunday-School Union (1824), and American Tract Society (1825), among other evangelical publishing organizations, pioneered the mass production of inexpensive imprints (non-Protestants would respond via their own publication programs). In the economic realm, industrialism increasingly required a docile workforce able to read and follow basic rules yet one sophisticated enough to manipulate "the grammar of the machine" (Stevens, p. iii).
All these agendas eventually converged upon public education as a panacea, resulting in the most concentrated literacy campaign in the nation's history: the antebellum common school movement. Its reformers shared, according to Carl Kaestle, goals that included "more schooling for each child, more state involvement, more uniformity, and a more pervasive public purpose for schooling" (p. 105). The systems created by reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard forged the still-persistent link between schooling and literacyn most cases, a standardized imposition from above of a narrowly defined literacy as an unalloyed skill. Little room was left for local community contexts for literacy. The resulting shortcomings starkly emerged in the instance of Northern-directed schooling of freed people during and after the Civil War: reformers could not grasp why black students and parents preferred black teachers to middle-class Northern whites, for if literacy was simply a skill, why should the trainer's race or ethnicity matter? Rather than reexamine their assumptions, white reformers blamed the freed people for being uneducable, only to abandon them eventually in the 1870s.
LITERACY AND READERSHIP
In this supposed nation of readers, the audience for printed materials hardly approximated the adult population, but it was nevertheless vast. This is partly
If sales figures cannot gauge literacy's impact upon readership, what can? Diaries and correspondence provide the richest information, for they reveal not only the who, what, when, and where of reading but also bespeak its significance within the writer's life course. A comprehensive diary kept by a Boston locomotive factory clerk and his wife, for example, which identifies 1,198 titles read from 1839 through 1861, also suggests larger principles guiding their selection: natural and family cycles (e.g., more reading in winter and more fiction as newlyweds), religious and political commitments such as Unitarianism or abolitionism, and ephemeral events like a comet in the sky, an exhibition, or a high-profile murder trial. Such accounts also reveal writers' own literacy levels, which in New England often approached that of published authors but elsewhere fell shorter.
Whatever the level, the desire to join the nation of readers spurred ever more literacy. After all, literacy was an admission ticket to a cultural nationality increasingly transacted through print. If one did not read the papers, quote poets, converse about novels, dispute pamphlets, and in short, engage the universe of print, one was not quite fully a citizen. Nor could people keep contact easily with distant loved ones strewn about by early industrial capitalism unless they could express themselves well with pen and paper.
READING, GENDER, AND RACE
The resistance of oppressed groups against marginalization from the literary franchise testifies to the power of the printed word in nineteenth-century America. Women had to struggle both against traditions that limited their influence to biological mothering and emergent conceptions of woman's sphere that, although granting them basic literacy to enable cultural reproduction, would narrowly confine their intellectual horizon to domesticity and benevolent volunteerism. Although women at times used domestic ideologies to justify their intellectual achievements, it is a tribute to their efforts that by mid-century the schoolmarm symbolized basic literacy, learned women like astronomer Maria Mitchell stood for advanced learning, and the "scribbling women" derided by the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne represented professional authorship (Kelley, p. 345 n 2). A literary woman was neither an oxymoron nor at all unusual.
Race and literacy played very differently, of course. Racial minorities had to strive not only to overcome prejudice but also to maintain autonomy and distinctiveness. One notable attempt at balancing literacy and autonomy was Sequoyah's 1821 invention of a Cherokee national language syllabary, which gained such acceptance that it spawned a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix (1828), written using it. More common, however, was the experience of the Pequot writer William Apess (1798839) in his Son of the Forest (1829). His schooling began when as a four-year-old he was bound out to a white neighbor after being "dreadfully beaten" by an intoxicated grandmother (p. 6). "I learned to read and write, though not so well as I could have wished," he rued (p. 7), and his sentiment was echoed by people of color receiving inferior and incomplete instruction. On hearing his master forbid his mistress from continuing her reading lessonsecause "if you learn him now to read, he'll want to know how to write; and, this accomplished, he'll be running away with himself " (Douglass, p. 146)rederick Douglass (1818895) drew a key lesson in his My Bondage and My Freedom (1855): "from that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom" (p. 147). Indeed, literacy acquisition became a focal point of many slave narratives as they elicited "Talking Books" to speak in a black voice, for doing so in the face of physical punishment and legal proscription meant gaining mental if not corporeal emancipation. Through these African Americans' notions of reading and by those of other groups pushed out of the circle of literacy, an unimagined nation of readers was indeed in the offing.
See also Curricula; Female Authorship; Immigration; Native American Literature; Reform; Slavery
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Ronald J. Zboray Mary Saracino Zboray