Books Bygone: “Much that is of Value”
The child of the fourth reader grade has a wide enough vocabulary to be able to understand the larger part of standard literature. As to his psychological development at this period, he is always interested in such stories as the Greek and Norse mythology contain.
Much that is of value in the classical course of a college may be brought into the life of a child who never goes beyond the fourth and fifth readers, if proper matter is introduced to him in the right way.
Thus begins the preface for teachers in Johnson’s Fourth Reader (1897). Think about that! If properly introduced to “standard literature,” even if you flunk out of middle-school, you’ll be acquainted with the larger part, as is a college graduate. The material does have to be presented in the proper fashion, though. The publisher suggests that teachers in earlier grades should “tell the stories in the course of regular work, so that, when the child is brought face to face with the task of reading the originals in the fourth grade, he welcomes the story as an old and dear friend.” The difficulties of vocabulary then “vanish,” and the goals of developing a taste for good literature and increased vocabulary are met.
The names of the authors whose work is included are too many to list here. These are a few that were familiar to me. (I am not smarter than a fourth-grader from over a century ago.) Hans Christian Andersen, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, Longfellow. Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Dickens, Theodore Roosevelt talking about the love song of a mocking bird, and Helen Keller telling her life story as a twelve year old.
The names, of course, give a clue as to the content, but do not fully reveal the charm of this bygone book. There are short poems– remember “The Spider and the Fly” which reminds children to “ne’er give heed’ to “idle, silly, flattering words?”– brief entries about science and nature. In “Sugar-Making in Louisiana” we learn that “near the middle of October, carts drawn by four mules bring green loads of purple sugar cane, and deposit them in the large shed, where it is picked up by women and boys and placed, as evenly as possible on the ‘carrier’.”
The short entries punctuate longer poems such as “Death of Baldur” (extracted from an even longer Longfellow poem), and still longer stories about Ulysses and Circe (Charles Lamb), The Black Brothers (John Ruskin), and Christian and the Lion (from Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan).
Of course, there are included life-lessons students should take to heart:
Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience. Speak not evil of the absent, for it is unjust. Let your recreations be manful, not sinful. Associate yourself with men of good quality, if you esteem your own reputation. When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously, in reverence…Washington’s Rules of Conduct
If we value such things as can be learned from and about the classics, there is “much that is of value” in this Fourth Reader. Of course, that’s a big “if.” There was a time when Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of a Christian’s journey from this world to the Everlasting, was second only to the Bible in popularity and influence, and read in school. Likewise, there was a time when children were familiar with George Washington, not only as a founding father, but as a respected man of good conscience. Do we value knowing this today? Should we? I’ll bet you can guess what I think!
Johnson’s Fourth Reader. B.F. Johnson Publishing Co., Richmond Virginia. 1897.
Limited availability at online booksellers.
Originally published in my little local newspaper, December 13, 2013.