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The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter. (Reviews).

The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter. By Patricia Grain (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2001. x plus 315 pp. $45).

This is a most unusual book: fascinating, original, informative, amusing ... not one's ordinary reading fare. Patricia Crain focuses on the evolution of representations of the letters of the alphabet in books designed for children just beginning to read. She treats printed renderings of the alphabet from the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, reading successive forms as texts carrying both current and archaic literary and oral allusions. Probing those allusions is the real point of her project, but Crain also offers much useful information about the historical context for the teaching of the alphabet as it evolved over the centuries. The book is copiously illustrated.

Crain argues that the deliberate use of images on the printed page serves to draw the child away from the realm of speech in which the child has come to associate sound with meaning. The illustrations in the primers help the child to associate sound with image, and image with meaning. Since children enjoy looking at such images, their pleasure speeds the lessons along and leads them to the more difficult step of seeing how letters link together to form words.

The focus of the work, therefore, is on the presentation of the letters of the alphabet, especially the letter "A," and how such presentations shifted with time. Although Grain begins with the New England Primer, first published about 1690, she quickly moves backward in time in order to compare it with its post-Reformation predecessor, Orbis Sensualism Pictus, or The Visible World, by Johann Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the first picture book for children. This enormously popular work contained one of the first picture alphabets for children and went through many editions, surviving well into the nineteenth century. The systematic examination of the learned and humanistic Orbis serves to contrast it all the more sharply with the Primer, a "distinctly provincial, doctrinaire, evangelical" textbook with the pedestrian mission of teaching basic literacy to "generations of shopkeepers and goodwives." Grain believes the Primer to be a faithful representation of "American Puritanism" after the Half-Way Covenant but d oes not say why; nor does she address the political crises surrounding the Primer's production. The author thus stays well within the usual bounds of literary analysis, and while this is disappointing to the historian, it has the merit of keeping the book tightly on track to reach its destination station in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter a hundred pages later.

However it may have been conceived, the Primer did become the paramount vehicle for teaching reading to generations of New England children in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After deconstructing its images, Crain then tracks its more secular rivals. She finds that these pedagogic alphabets followed three kinds of formats, the simplest and earliest being closely linked to folk motifs and utilizing themes of eating and being eaten: letters eating other letters, letters being eaten by children, letters in the mouths of animals, letters pictured with, or as, food. The pleasures of eating conveyed the pleasures of reading. A very different format, "body alphabets," began to appear in the 1780s. These show a lithe human figure acting out the letters of the alphabet, comically performing twists, curves, and splits in imitation of each.

Finally, the "alphabet array," or the "worldly alphabet" is the one that endured and is most familiar, as in "A is for apple." The representations are of a wide variety of objects, world-wide in scope, but they are organized taxonomically, born of the Enlightenment urge to categorize. To name an object is to know it, yet the array groups animals and other things purely by their shared initial letter, isolating each from their contexts and treating them as objects of equal value for the reader's absorption. Crain compares this pedagogic approach to merchants' book-keeping, ringing in a rather dull and static portrait by John Singleton Copley as an example of "relentless enumerating and stacking of visual elements." This deliberate association of an alphabetic pedagogy with business instrumentalism and a bland, flattening aesthetics harkens back to her earlier disparagement of the Primer's audience as "goodwives and shopkeepers."

The literate world to which these American children were being introduced by the tropic images of the alphabet was not, however, a static one. It was generally the function of the mother to teach the young child to read, and because reading had become a necessity of life by the early nineteenth century, women as mothers, teachers, writers, and readers became important to the development of American literature in the period between 1780 and 1850. Crain's brief but competent survey of gender in American culture introduces two nineteenth-century novels, one published under a pseudonym by Susan Warner in 1850, and the other, as announced, is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The structure and purpose of her project becomes clear in Crain's investigation of Hawthorne and his best-known work. Gender and the alphabet, stirred up with a dose of sentimentalist pedagogy, guide us, at last, to the graves of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale.

The Story of A closes with a curious epilogue that examines a modern painting, "F House," by Edward Ruscha (1987) in which is rendered, Christmas-card fashion, a modern suburban house, with its windows lit against the night sky. What makes the painting notable is a bright-red letter F painted smack in the center, not very large, but looking as though it had been pasted by on someone other than the artist. The painting evokes contradictions between the house's promise of security and warmth against the night and the darkly erotic implications of the red letter stamped over it. Unsettling. And so the author leaves us.

The book will appeal to far more readers of this journal than one might suppose. It is provocative and informative in its discussion of alphabetizing audiences over the centuries, but I must confess with some regret that the chapter on Hawthorne left me no more enamored of him or his work than when I began.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 2002, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Main, Gloria L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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