Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416
From the late 1830’s until the early 1900’s William Holmes McGuffey’s “Eclectic Readers” were the most widely used school textbooks in the United States. To reach that position, however, they had to overcome a rocky start. Their original publisher was sued for copyright infringement by another publisher, Samuel Worcester, who claimed that McGuffey had plagiarized extensively from his own set of textbooks. McGuffey responded by removing every offending passage and adding new material. (During the Civil War, a Nashville, Tennessee, company that published the McGuffey Readers under its own imprint avoided copyright concerns because it was under the jurisdiction of the Confederate States of America.)
The McGuffey Readers became enormously popular for several reasons. Their publication coincided with the development of free public schools, and the books reflected the values and tastes of the age. The intended audience—conservative, white, middle-class Protestants—embraced the books eagerly. Chief features of the books included controlled word repetition and sentence length; phonics and penmanship exercises; selections from great writers; short factual essays on a wide range of subjects; and an emphasis on moral obedience and self-reliance.
The readers were not universally welcomed, however. They were denounced by some for their religiosity; for perpetuating sexual stereotypes and traditional roles; for ignoring, or showing obvious prejudice against, African Americans, Jews, Roman Catholics, Spaniards, East Coast intellectuals, and others; and for their seeming neglect of real social issues, such as slavery. The publishers responded to these accusations by self-censorship—-quietly removing certain passages and adding new text in later editions. What had read like theology textbooks in 1836, promoting values of salvation, righteousness and patriotic piety, evolved into secularized and somewhat sentimental children’s elementary schoolbooks reflecting homogenized small-town morality.
The McGuffey Readers lost their dominance in the textbook field as society’s needs and values changed after World War I. Seen as antiquated, sexist, and racist, they were gradually replaced as the demands of school curricula changed. However, in the late twentieth century the books came to be regarded with reverent nostalgia. Concern over modern illiteracy, the back-to-basics movement, and a desire on the part of some parents and educators to inculcate moral behavior in the young helped spur grass-roots enthusiasm for the readers and widespread sales. A reaction to values-neutral textbooks containing insufficient patriotism, little respect for religion, and less challenging lessons also contributed to the renewed popularity of the Readers, which were in use in schools in the Midwest and South, usually as adjuncts to other primary-level reading texts.
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