"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest those of boys who were schoolmates of mine." Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
With these words that begin the Preface to "Tom Sawyer," Mark Twain assures us that his famous novel is based on recollections of his boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri. Thirty years later when Twain published his autobiography, he expanded on the opening statement in "Tom Sawyer," describing in considerable detail the people and events serving as inspiration for various episodes in the novel. But when he began writing about his school experiences in his autobiography, Twain hesitated, claiming any more talk of school would be redundant: "If I wanted to describe [my school]," he wrote, "I could save myself the trouble by conveying the description of it to these pages from 'Tom Sawyer.'"
"School Tales in 19th Century Literature" is a collection of stories and essays about schools by people who knew the communities, the people and the classrooms they described. The pieces have the reality of lived experiences captured by gifted writers, bringing the schoolhouses, teachers, and pupils to life with a vibrance mand immediacy rarely found in educational history texts.
When we recall reading "Tom Sawyer," most of us remember the famous whitewashing scene, Tom's adventures when he ran away with Huck Finn and Joe Harper to become pirates, or his near-death experience when he and Becky Thatcher were lost in a cave. In fact, about 15% of the novel is set in and around school. Contained in these passages is a wealth of material about the 19th century one room schoolhouse and the people who occupied it, a unique and invaluable supplement to the knowledge we can draw from other sources in the historical record.
Like Twain, other 19th century authors set some of their work in the classroom, and "School Tales in 19th Century Literature" gathers together a representative collection. The stories in this collection were written primarily for the enjoyment of the reader, and most of them succeed admirably on that level. Some authors are well known, like Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Stephen Crane, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and we can count on them to produce quality work. (One story by Walt Whitman is something of a surprise for those of us who don't think of him as a writer of fiction.) Other authors are forgotten or nearly forgotten, but many of them were widely read and well respected in their day, and they have created tales that can be alternately fascinating, amusing and poignant.
For anyone interested in learning more about 19th century education, the stories collected in "School Tales" are more than simply pleasant reading. They present intimate portrayals of education of the day, painting rich canvasses evoking the schoolroom with a vividness few educational historians can duplicate. The attentive reader will find masterful descriptions of schoolrooms and their environs, astute characterizations of the teachers and students, and minute by minute descriptions of the planned and unplanned activities and interactions making up the school day. Often the stories are based on an author's personal experiences as student, teacher, or both, which adds the historical authenticity of personal narrative to these works.
With a few exceptions, "School Tales" is made up of works of fiction -- short stories or excerpts from novels. Readers who are looking for history in fiction must always beware of the author's use of exaggeration for dramatic or comic effect, of course, and not take anything too literally without checking other sources. But good writers use exaggeration to illuminate scenes, and when they are successful, they are able to capture the world they describe more truly and completely than is possible in dry but accurate recitations of historical fact. The sacrifices in historical accuracy resulting from an author's embellishments of character traits and events can be more than compensated for by a gain in the three dimensionality of the scene, turning historical artifacts into living moments. When reading these stories, we inhabit schoolrooms which haven't existed for over a century and become personally involved in the lives of the students, their teachers, and their community.
I have chosen the texts for this collection with some specific criteria in mind. First, they must have been written in the 19th century, rather than being 20th century recreations of 19th century schooling. Fiction and essays written about their own time are likely to spring from each author's immediate knowledge and experience and therefore have the authenticity of a primary historical documents, while works fabricated to recreate a time period through the author's research is likely to be less valuable historically. Second, the stories must be about what are generally referred to as "Common Schools" rather than the costly private schools of the day. Some Common Schools were free public schools paid for by government funding, but more often they charged a small tuition to cover the teacher's meager salary and were attended by the young people in the area whose parents wanted their children to learn the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The majority of the stories are set in "District Schools" -- one room schoolhouses in which children as young as six and young adults in their early twenties were taught in the same room -- and a few stories are set in more urban locales. Finally, I have limited the stories to works by U.S. authors, with the exception of an excerpt from the beginning of Charles Dickens' novel, "Hard Times." My purpose is to find stories depicting the forerunners of today's U.S. classrooms, and while England produced some wonderful school tales, they generally reflect different traditions. Dickens' vignette of a regimented school in an English factory town is included because it describes the Monitorial system of schooling practiced in large cities in both England and the U.S., and I have not found a U.S. story dealing with this unique classroom environment.
I have included the entire text of all the short stories and essays, but only the relevant portions of novels are included, as well as whatever background material is necessary to make them comprehensible.
To guide the reader through the educational history contained in these stories, I have written brief introductions to the stories as well running commentaries on the texts. The commentaries take the form of notes appearing at the bottom of the browser when the reader clicks on footnote-like numbers in the text. This footnoting technique allows the reader to view the notes and the text at the same time, eliminating the need to jump back and forth between web pages. I have tried to make the numbers in the text easy to see yet unobtrusive enough that they do not interfere with the flow of the text.