Literature for Schools

THE movement to supply better reading-hooks for school-children, which, in its various shapes, we have already noticed, is continued in three volumes of selections already issued from the press : American Prose,1 by Mr. Scudder; Ballads and Lyrics,2 by Mr. Lodge; and Masterpieces of English Literature,3 by Mr. Swinton. The last of these compilations is more confessedly a text-book than the others, and its page wears the more or less repulsive air of the conventional school-reader, with its rows of words for definition, its literary analyses in foot-note, its numerals and asterisks for reference, and its black-faced types for emphasis. But it would not he just to judge it wholly from the general reader’s sensitive nerves. It is an instrument contrived for ’prentice-minds, and it is believed that it. would serve its purpose all tire better for what gives it this uninviting aspect. Mr. Swinton declares a design of restoring literature and rhetoric to their ancient friendship, and he wishes his readers to exercise their knowledge of the science upon the best productions of the art. But here we think he incurs the danger into which the makers of reading-books have always run : that of deforming the delightfulness of literature by making it the subject of too much analysis and dissection.

We might hope that the school-master would omit much or little of the taskwork involved by the editor’s too conscientious plan, but school-masters are almost necessarily the victims of routine, and it was for the editor not to be so thorough. Occasional comment on the beauty of fine passages, pointing out the elegance and felicity of fortunate expressions. would surely have been better than all this perpetual challenge to the young reader to remark on the form of this word and on the order of those adjectives; to transpose a certain sentence into the prose order; to say whether a given ellipsis would be allowable in prose; to explain the application of an epithet; to decide whether something is literal or figurative language. To the dry wood these things are insufferable; are they less anguish to the green ? Are they not well calculated to make the masterpieces of literature detestable ? Boys and girls who are old enough to feel that these pieces are masterly are too old to stand this sort of nagging, as they are much too old to need a large proportion of the definition with which Mr. Swinton over-bountifully supplies them. In short, we doubt if people can be educated to make or to love good literature by the method of instruction directly enforced by this work. The instruction, however, which it indirectly affords is to be measured only by each reader’s natural capacity. As a compilation it is excellent; though we are not ready to say it might not have been better for the purpose. We think that in some cases the editor has considered his author too much, and his reader too little. It was certainly not well advised, for instance, to take from a writer like Hawthorne, who abounds in short, complete stories of the highest merit, those passages from the Scarlet Letter descriptive of Hester Prynne’s expiation on the pillory, which, noble and beautiful and most pathetic as they are, ought scarcely to be intelligible to those who use the book without embarrassing explanations. We give the worst case of mistaken judgment, where generally the judgment is unfailing ; and we have to praise without reserve the choice of criticisms on different authors. These are from the highest sources, and are of course admirable literature in themselves. As a whole, in spite of the method on which it is constructed, the book is and must be interesting. Mr. Swinton is himself a clear and agreeable writer, and he is a genuine lover of letters, who could not help doing his work with zest and pleasure. At its worst, and in its most technical phase, it is a vast advance upon the ordinary school-reader of commerce.

Mr. Lodge’s book is one of those tasks which finds itself already largely done through the survival of the fittest in the works of former compilers. It is hard for any present editor to improve upon the taste of Mr. Palgrave in the same direction, or even to get far away from it, as far as English song is concerned. What Mr. Lodge has done, of real and original value, is putting in just relation to the old favorites a very great number of beautiful and familiar American poems. It is pleasant to find that an editor can here be patriotic without sacrificing himself or his reader, and without giving any American poem where there was an English poem so good of its kind. Mr. Lodge’s preface explains the motive and the plan of his work, which we cordially approve, and he has notably succeeded in giving to the youth of both sexes a prospect of good ballad and lyrical poetry without those distracting features of which such poetry is, for his purpose, somewhat embarrassingly full. We have also to admire the clearness, succinctness, and completeness of his biographical notices of the authors quoted. These are necessarily in much greater number and much briefer than the charming criticisms with which Mr. Scudder introduces each of his authors. This writer, always tasteful and pleasing, has nowhere shown more delicate perception or finer discrimination than in these graceful comments. They are perfectly sufficient for the end intended, and we believe that all intelligent young people will find them valuably suggestive. Mr. Scudder has succeeded in the difficult affair of talking always within their comprehension without talking down to it, and this leaves his hook agreeable to both old and young.

His selections from the different authors are marked by the same insight and judgment which governed his choice in his volume of American Poems; and they are even less open to objection. They might have been different; we do not see how they could well have been better; and the book is not only a testimony to his taste, but is a proof of the richness of our prose,— of its fresh material and its beautiful art, — which will have something of surprise in it for any one who first considers his authors in their present juxtaposition. The impression of grace, of subtlety, of elegance, is one which we should hardly receive from the same number of English writers of any period ; and the new force, the sympathetic life, which inspires the admirable art is there in degree which easily establishes our nationality in literature. Our young people cannot be taught to understand this too soon. The foible of the moment with us is not to think well enough of the excellence of American work.

  1. American Prose. Hawthorne, Irving, Longfellow. Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Thoreau, Emerson. With Introduction and Notes, By the Editor of American P’oems. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.
  2. Ballads and Lyrics. Selected and arranged by HENRY CABOT LODGE. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.
  3. Masterpieces of English Literature. Being Typical Selections of British and American Authorship, from Shakespeare to the Present Time. Together with Definitions, Notes, Analyses, and Glossary, as an aid to systematic literary study. For use in High and Normal Schools, Academies, Seminaries, etc. With portraits. By WILLIAM SWINTON. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.