The Hoosier Schoolmaster
1 "The Hoosier Schoolmaster" was first published as a serial in a magazine, beginning in 1871. The version used here is from a revised edition published in 1892. It does not differ significantly from the original.
2 The novel begins with a speech introducing the regional Hoosier dialect used by all the "locals" in the book. It also introduces the adversity the schoolmaster will face in establishing himself with his students. Clearly, brawn is valued over brains, and the speaker, who is a trustee of the school, appears to see nothing wrong with the situation.
We also see how irregular schooling is in these areas of the country at the time. Finding and keeping a schoolmaster is clearly a problem, and when one can be found, the students only attend when they're not needed on the farm.
3 The schoolmaster is new to the town and, based on his misconception of what will be expected of him, new to this style of rough-and-tumble education as well. We will soon find that he is both well educated and quick-witted, which makes him an exception among the rural schoolmasters we generally meet in 19th century fiction.
4 Most rural schoolmasters had to "board round," meaning they stayed at each of the students' houses for a part of the term, saving the community the need to pay a salary sufficient to cover the cost of lodgings. This was one more reason rural schoolmasters rarely stayed in the profession if they were equipped for anything else.
5 Rarely is a term like "bookish" applied to fictional 19th century schoolmasters. In Ralph are the makings of a potential hero rather than a schoolmaster/buffoon. He has the naivete of youth but also its zest, and he is intelligent and ambitious enough to grow into his position.
6 Ralph's stories are shown to satisfy a hunger in the residents of Flat Creek. He is portrayed as an educational missionary spreading the gospel of learning to eager, receptive minds.
7 Here the schoolmaster uses the only weapon at his disposal -- cleverness. The fact that he succeeds in intellectual combat where previous schoolmasters failed in physical combat shows the value the author puts on education and intelligence.
8 The struggle for control of the classroom most first year teachers faced in the 19th century and continue to face today is compressed nicely in the events described in the schoolmaster's first two days. The conflicts in real life classrooms generally last much longer than two days, and most of us can only dream that they might end so clearly and decisively to the teacher's advantage.
9 An interesting introduction to the subject of corporal punishment in the classroom. Though the schoolmaster appears to have the intelligence and instincts to control his class without resorting to the rod, the author implies that his "philantropic friend" is a bit naive in thinking that a caring and intelligent schoolmaster can maintain order in a schoolroom such as this without resorting to physical punishment. He compares the classroom to a cage full of tigers in which even the best trainer must use the whip now and again for emphasis. Later in the tale, the author confirms that the schoolmaster comes to school armed with beech switches and uses them, though sparingly.
10 The schoolmaster's judicious use of corporal punishment is portrayed as out of step with parts of the community who believe he doesn't "lick" the students enough. If there were any question where the author's sentiments lie on this matter, it is settled when we find that Pete Jones, the advocate of "lickin' and larnin'," is one of the principal villains of the book.
11 "Webster's Elementary" is by the same Noah Webster who compiled the first U.S. dictionary. The spellers and readers he created for schools were widely used in the first half of the 19th century.
12 The author's satirical discussion of the emphasis on spelling is one of the best I have found in 19th century fiction. Not only spelling but other forms of rote learning dominated these schools. Literary passages were memorized and recited, geographical facts were parroted with little attention to the actual places they described, and mathematical tables and formulae were repeated in unison with the hope that some understanding would follow.
13 At 21, Bud is probably the oldest pupil in the Flat Creek school. Pupils of that age were not uncommon in schools of the time. Sometimes the female students in their late teens and early twenties were married. In the same classroom, living by the same rules, were children as young as five and six.
14 This is the one time we actually see the instruments of corporal punishment the schoolmaster sometimes resorts to -- beech switches. They are an ominous "four or five feet long," and the schoolmaster has more than one. Since they are thin tree branches, they often break when applied vigorously to an errant pupil, so one is rarely enough. Notice, however, that the author makes sure we understand that the schoolmaster uses them sparingly. He places them in plain sight "as a prophylactic," or preventative measure, in hopes that their visible presence will encourage the students to behave.
15 The author says that it is "usual" for a student to approach the schoolmaster's desk with an academic question, but it is far from a common occurrence in school-based stories from this time. More often than not, when the students aren't either reciting for the master or being disciplined by him, there is no contact between teacher and student. It may be that the teacher-student interaction in this tale is a tribute to the fact that this schoolmaster is educated and genuinely interested in his students' advancement, qualities which are not the norm in most stories of the time.
16 From the first time the author mentions Mirandy's love for the schoolmaster, he is careful to state and restate that the affection is not returned. This is part of an unspoken taboo against any form of teacher-student romance in 19th century fiction, even though the younger masters and older students are often the same age. A schoolmaster who makes any sexual or romantic overtures toward a student (or yields to overtures made by a love-struck student) is immediately cast as a villain. In the tales where the schoolmaster becomes romantically involved, as will be the case in this novel, the young woman is never one of his pupils, even when she is of school age.
17 This chapter is the most complete description of a spelling-school I have found. When this book was written in 1871, these community-wide competitions had waned in popularity (the book is set in the 1850s), but the book spurred a wide-spread revival of the practice. According to the author's preface to the 1892 edition, "The publication of this book gave rise to an amusing revival of the spelling-school as a means of public entertainment, not in rustic regions alone, but it towns also. The furor extended to the great cities of New York and London, and reached at last to farthest Australia, spreading to every region in which English is spelled or spoken."
18 Here is a clear example of the confusing combination of respect and suspicion felt toward book learning in communities like Flat Creek. On the one hand, the "squire," a former schoolmaster, has a respected position in the community due to his education. On the other hand, education is seen as a potential liability for a woman and is often considered to have questionable value for a man. Nonetheless, the children are sent dutifully off to school whenever a schoolmaster can be found.
19 Hannah (here called "Hanner") plays an important part in this chapter and later becomes the heroine of the novel as well as the schoolmaster's romantic interest. She is referred to as "the bound girl" because she is an orphan and a ward of the state, so she is forced to work in nearly slave-like servitude for the Means family until she comes of age.
20 The squire was once a schoolmaster, so the author gives him the satirical treatment typically afforded to rural schoolmasters in fiction of the time but not to our hero, the current schoolmaster. In fact, this squire looks and acts much like Ichabod Crane, the quintessential 19th century schoolmaster in Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," might have looked and acted if he had married into his community as he had hoped to and lived there for twenty years. ("The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" can be read on this site.)
21 The squire, with all his ludicrous eloquence, is expressing a widely accepted sentiment. Webster was held by many in god-like esteem both for his dictionary and his textbooks. Also, the squire's intertwining of education and religion was quite appropriate, since Protestant teachings and passages from the Bible were regular components of public education of the time. The author, who was both a minister and an active part of the Sunday School movement, might make fun of the squire's pomposity, but he probably held similar opinions on this matter.
22 This is the end of the excerpt, since we effectively leave the schoolroom from this point forward.
For the curious, here is a brief summary of the rest of the novel: The schoolmaster falls in love with Hannah, who, it turns out, is Shocky's sister. Their father is dead, and their saintly mother is locked up in the poorhouse under the most miserable conditions. The schoolmaster, falsely accused of robbery, is saved through the efforts of Bud Means. And it should be no surprise that by the end of the novel, the mother is joyously released from the poorhouse and reunited with her children, and Hannah and the schoolmaster are happily married.