by David Safier
Two Sundays ago, I promoted the website, FreeRice.com. Last Sunday it was DailyLit.com. Today, in a blatant act of self promotion, I’m introducing you to a site I created, School Tales in 19th Century Literature.
The site, very simply, is a collection of short stories, excerpts from novels and one essay by 19th century authors that take you inside the schools of the day. The authors include Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, W.E.B. Du Bois and Stephen Crane, among others.
Most of the pieces are enjoyable reads, in my opinion, but their value to me goes beyond their literary merit. A number of years ago when I was taking a graduate course in the history of American education, all I read about was what happened at the legislative and administrative levels. No one seemed interested in the students, the teachers or the classroom. That was what I wanted to learn about. What were my brother and sister teachers like in the early days of public education? What were the classrooms like? Who were their students?
After searching in vain through scholarly histories, I decided to go to the most accurate social historians of the time -- writers of fiction. Those are the folks whose job it is to create three dimensional portraits of people and their environments. Did these creative geniuses find their own schooling to be ripe subjects for their fiction, I wondered?
The answer, not surprisingly, is, yes. In Mark Twain’s autobiography, he commented that he wouldn’t spend much time describing the schools he went to, since he already did that in “Tom Sawyer.” In fact, nearly 15% of the novel is set in and around Tom’s school. The scenes are classic Twain – insightful, poignant, slightly amusing, uproariously funny.
W.E.B. Du Bois was a schoolmaster in a rural black community two summers, and he wrote about his experiences, as well as his visit to the community ten years later, in a poignant essay included in his "The Souls of Black Folks." Stephen Crane, author of “Red Badge of Courage,” wrote a series of short stories fictionalizing his school days. Walt Whitman, who had a short stint as a schoolmaster, and was reputedly a kind, innovative teacher, wrote a moralistic tale about a vicious, sadistic schoolmaster. (Whitman didn’t like teaching much, by the way. He once wrote to a friend, "O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching and thy residence Woodbury.")
Anyone hoping to learn about the good old days when students were well behaved and teachers were wise and knowledgeable are in for a surprise. The schoolhouses in these stories are rarely places you would want to send your children, nor are the students well behaved young ladies and gentlemen, bright-eyed and eager to learn. The “hickory switch” was a favorite method teachers used to convince their charges to behave themselves.
As you read the stories, you’ll find footnotes relating events to the history of the time, but you don’t have to read those. And I promise not to test you over the material.