- Managing Literacy, Mothering America: Women's Narratives on Reading and Writing in the Nineteenth Century
In Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866–1910 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), Nan Johnson argues that nineteenth-century women who gained access to public rhetorical space, women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Mary Livermore, succeeded because they transported the tropes of "noble maids and eloquent mothers" into the public sphere and, in the public's eye, spoke as "women who mothered the nation toward a new day" (144). In Managing Literacy, Mothering America, Sarah Robbins extends our understanding of the power that nineteenth-century women deployed in the public sphere. She argues that domestic literacy narratives formed part of a core curriculum that educated a nation and that "mothering" impacted the nation at large in very public ways, especially through the actions of well-educated children. Ultimately, she claims, domestic literacy was a form of social power whose legacy we see today.
Robbins defines domestic literacy narratives as stories written by middle-class women featuring a mother-figure managing the literacy acquisition of children. While the stories appear to be transparent, Robbins argues that nineteenth-century readers valued the stories that mothers and children read together not just for their aesthetic properties but also, and perhaps more important, as a source of social and moral training, both for the characters in the literacy narrative and for the readers who were learning how to behave in culturally sanctioned ways. In her introduction, Robbins points to a range of social issues (including reading practices, education-based gender/race/class issues, and national concerns) that inflect the genre's development, and in subsequent chapters, she represents, in stunning detail, how the literacy narrative further developed as a hybrid genre with permeable margins. For example, she examines Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a domestic literacy narrative, Frances Harper's literacy program for racial uplift, and nineteenth-century missionary mothers and the literacy network they created. As I read chapter two, in which Robbins investigates the beginnings of the domestic literacy narrative in the work of Anna Laetitia Barbauld's Lessons for Children, first published in England in 1778, I was reminded of the fact that men as well as [End Page 203] women were part of the tradition of domestic education. In Hosea Hildreth's A Book for New-Hampshire Children, in Familiar Letters from a Father (1823), for example, it is the father/author who writes letters to children about various aspects of their state's geography and history. Guidelines for behavior are a vital part of Hildreth's work, just as they are in the literacy narratives in Robbins' study. The father writes, for example,
If a child, like you, expects ever to be a worthy and useful man, he must be desirous of learning to read. A person that is unable to read, is very little thought of in New-Hampshire; and if he try ever so much, he can do but little good. . . .
At the proper time, I also wish you to learn to write. No person, who is unable to write, can expect to be a man of much consequence. Do what he may, he will pass for an ignorant man. And besides, he will not be able to do his own business in a safe, or respectable manner.(97)
While the contributions of men to domestic education should not be forgotten, it is even more important to note, as Robbins does in her study, that women were the primary writers of domestic literacy narratives and the major force in instantiating their values in middle-class American households.
The pleasures of reading Managing Literacy, Mothering America are many. Robbins's gaze reaches across academic disciplines and she displays her knowledge with ease and grace throughout the study. She also includes a Con-clusion showing us the lingering influence of the literacy narrative in contemporary settings; fifty pages of helpful and...