Book Review: Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States

Archives of Instruction: Nineteenth-Century Rhetorics, Readers, and Composition Books in the United States. Jean Ferguson Carr, Stephen L. Carr, and Lucille M. Schultz. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005. 283 pp.

Throughout Archives of Instruction, Ferguson Carr, Carr, and Schultz consistently challenge common assumptions about what archives are and how they operate.  For them, the term “archive” itself is one that is constantly shifting depending on context and perspective.  As they put it, “An archive is an official collection of written materials.  Any particular archive is at once a fragmentary and an interested record of textual production, the consequence of innumerable local decisions and unforeseen contingencies about the production and preservation of a large array of texts” (19).  The authors of Archives of Instruction illustrate these complexities by focusing on nineteenth century textbooks as the site of archival investigation – books that are themselves “sedimented artifacts” (12) that bear the traces of texts that have gone before.  By examining these artifacts, the authors seek not simply to provide historical perspective on the archives of composition, but to challenge the reader to consider the sources and sites of instruction that have been systematically written out of the history of composition and suggest some implications for modern pedagogy.  To do so, the authors break the archive into three broad categories, categories which are mirrored in the book’s three lengthy chapters: “Reproducing Rhetorics,” written by Stephen Carr; “Reading School Readers,” by Ferguson Carr; and “Constructing Composition Books,” by Schultz.  Each type of textbook bears its own particular purpose, place in the archive, and implication for modern practice.  By examining them separately and in detail, the authors are thus able to tease out the particularities of each genre and read these texts as living, breathing records of the past.

In “Reproducing Rhetorics,” Stephen Carr defines rhetorics as textbooks that “propose theoretical ways of mapping the instructional field and articulate systematic principles about language, style, invention, and discourse as well as a varied list of other topics: pronunciation, grammar, genres of writing, prosody” (17).  Rhetorics, he argues, are a particularly good example of how seminal works in the field shaped other textbooks at a later date.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the field of rhetoric was still dominated by British scholars, with Hugh Blair’s Lectures the most prominent and most reprinted rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic.  As the century progressed, however, other rhetorics began to appear that, while somewhat original, nevertheless copied entire passages (often without attribution) from Blair or Campbell.  This had the effect not only of cementing the status of these older rhetoricians, but it also insured that their interpretations became the standard by which all others were measured.  Thus, such rhetorics provide a vivid illustration of how textbooks themselves can operate as archives that bear interrogation for sources and influences.  Furthermore, the development of rhetorics over the course of the century in America also indicates the subtly shifting landscape of American letters.  While theoretical rhetorics by eighteenth century British authors like Blair, Campbell, and Whatley dominated in America at the beginning of the century, by century’s end they were far less reprinted and the new rhetorics by people like Hill and Genung focused more heavily on practical application than theoretical principles.

The second chapter of Archives of Instruction on “Reading School Readers,” shifts focus from the rhetorics that were largely used in universities, to school readers which, by century’s end, were used at all grade levels.  In performing this shift, Ferguson Carr implicitly points to some of the ways our discipline has privileged the textual productions of the elite, while labeling textbooks like the McGuffey Reader as derivative and not worthy of serious study.  By readers, Ferguson Carr specifically means textbooks which, “instruct students in the analysis of texts and provide a storehouse of cultural materials on which to practice the art of reading” (17).  The most famous of these readers is, of course, McGuffey’s and Ferguson Carr thus makes it the focus of her chapter, using it to illustrate, the shift from elocution to composition, the development of a “graded” system of readers, and the consolidation of cultural knowledge by committees of authors.

On the first point, Ferguson Carr highlights how the earliest nineteenth century readers encouraged students to read out loud and practice elocutionary skills by prompting them to follow specific instructions for pronunciation and intonation.  By century’s end, however, the focus has turned to composition – gone were the intonation marks only to be replaced by selections for imitation.  Secondly, the development of graded readers by the McGuffey series points to the clear expansion of education over the course of the century.  Serious textbooks were no longer aimed solely at universities, but at primary and secondary schools as well.  The rise of these “graded” readers also coincided with the rise of graded schools and continental educational theory which laid greater stress on cognitive development.  Finally, the very authorship history of the McGuffey Readers (only four of which were actually written by McGuffey) indicates the extent to which these readers were collaboratively compiled from a common store of knowledge that at least one group of people thought was important for the populace at large to be familiar with.

The final chapter “Constructing Composition Books,” by Schultz leads us to the very end of the nineteenth century and the development of dedicated composition books which “organize and invigorate activities of writing that earlier operated primarily to support instruction in reading and grammar” (17).  This chapter primarily offers close readings of two nineteenth century composition books: Parker’s 1832 Progressive Exercises and Frost’s 1839 Easy Exercises in Composition.  Both books illustrate the changing definition of writing during the nineteenth century and both also highlight how writing instruction shifted towards practical “exercises” that directed the writer progressively from invention through various simple genres like narration and description, to polished arguments on abstract subjects.  Thus composition books in the nineteenth century were in reality a new genre that provided detailed guidance for students of all ages.  In her close readings of these two books in particular, Schultz not only does an admirable job of highlighting their themes and implications for nineteenth century practice, but also points out some of the origins of modern compositions pedagogy in the experimentation of these early and influential texts.

Overall, Archives of Instruction is a significant and important work of scholarship.  Though our discipline as a whole has undergone a marked “archival turn” during the past decade, few works of scholarship match this in terms of sheer number (over 260) of primary sources consulted.  As Patricia Harkin notes in her review of the book in College English, “What impresses me about these books is their scholarship… Scholarship takes time – much more time than institutional mediation, teacher narratives, or institutional calls for reform” (90).  These three authors clearly invested the time in traversing these archives of instruction in as many directions as possible.  Though some (and especially this literary scholar) might wish that more space could have been given to extended close readings of the textbooks in question, nevertheless Archives of Instruction provides an important index to this archive that future scholars will benefit from tremendously.  For, as the authors remind us, the study of this archive has far reaching implications – both for how we read the past and how we understand our discipline today.

Works Cited

Harkin, Patricia. “Review: Historicizing Rhetorical Education.” College English 71.1 (2008): 82- 90.

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