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  • Re-making Barbauld's Primers:A Case Study in the Americanization of British Literary Pedagogy
  • Sarah Robbins (bio)

Using scenes based on experiences with her adopted son Charles, Anna Aikin Barbauld created Lessons for Children (1778), a primer whose conversations between a mother and her son advocated a meaningful social role for middle-class women—domestic pedagogue for young children, especially boys. Though initially published in England and written (according to the author's own self-effacing introduction) with Charles as the chief audience, the Lessons became very much a nineteenth-century American text.1 Barbauld's cultural work as a British juvenile author has received a good deal of attention recently (see, for example, Summerfield; Robbins, "Lessons"; Myers, "Mice"). But her notable influence across the Atlantic also merits analysis, since the history of the "Americanization" of her work can help us understand how cultural groups appropriate and reshape texts to serve new contexts. Through the marketing of new images, verbal revisions, and the material appearance of the books themselves, producers and readers of the American editions reshaped the Lessons to promote, reflect, and help define a potentially powerful identity for women in the postcolonial Republic.

This ideology focused on what I have called "domestic didactics" as the crucial responsibility of middle-class American women. Although early apologists such as Dr. Benjamin Rush and Susanna Rowson stressed the need for (middle-class) women in the United States to be educated differently—and more extensively—than their European counterparts for different social responsibilities, commentators also drew on their readings of English writers such as Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Hannah More to support female learning and teaching.2 Barbauld, then, through the Lessons and other texts, served as one of a number of English writers influencing American women's individual and national maternal pedagogy.

While, on one level, the sheer number of editions published in the United States illustrates Barbauld's ongoing influence, accurately characterizing the cultural work done by her texts is made more complicated by the many different variations in the repeated issuings of works such as the Lessons throughout the nineteenth century. On the one hand, Americans did own and read English editions of the Lessons. 3 (Like their counterparts in the United States, British publishers were participating in the market-oriented reshaping of "Barbauld" by making such changes in later editions of her work as adding illustrations in keeping with developing Anglo-American views of female middle-class domesticity.) On the other hand, however, judging by preliminary surveys of holdings in a range of United States libraries, nineteenth-century Americans were even more likely to read versions of Barbauld's primer prepared specifically with the new country's reading audience in mind—whether by way of a pirating and recirculating of nineteenth-century British editions, at one extreme, or by way of more extensively Americanized texts. With interventions ranging from such seemingly straightforward moves as Americanizing word choice to more extensive redesign of the physical presentation of the text, later U. S. versions of her primer series often looked quite different from the original English editions. Given the number and diversity of such textual interventions, along with the parallel enterprise of women biographers' gradual reshapings of "Barbauld," a sense of the nature and scope of her (works') influence on the development of an American ethos of domestic women's pedagogy can be retrieved, even if only indirectly. A literary excavation of this type is necessarily based on a limited record—the fragmentary remnant of a larger process. Yet even this partial recovery is a telling one, traceable through the many surviving editions in university, public, and private research libraries.4

With that goal in mind, while the Lessons for Children is only one of a number of Barbauldian juvenile texts that were popular in nineteenth-century America,5 a historical review of its editions is the best place to begin analyzing her influence in the United States. In the Lessons Barbauld articulated several key themes that would be adopted across the Atlantic to support the ideal of Republican motherhood. In fact, even in its original late-eighteenth-century British form, Barbauld's primer already represents the nascent...


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