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  • Reader
  • Katherine Gaudet

reader, anthology, miscellany, education, spectator, pedagogy, instruction, discipline, schoolbook, Hamilton Moore, Young Gentleman and Lady’s Monitor, Joseph Addison, literary reader, print culture

The second half of the eighteenth century saw the proliferation of “readers,” collections of short literary texts organized within frames that emphasized their pedagogical purpose. The word reader resembles speaker and speller in describing both a print genre and a person who learns from it, but the printed readers of eighteenth-century America had a purpose more specific than providing material for decoding and comprehension.1 Studying this group of texts as a print genre illustrates a particular conception of the reader (the human sort) as a kind of person—a sophisticated, self-controlled, and moral individual—and reveals how the printed texts worked together with the metaphors and maxims they enclosed to shape that aspirational being.

In form, readers were assemblages of short texts: poems, excerpts of famous works, short essays, letters. Many were miscellanies of works by various, often unattributed, authors; others were single-author books, some of which hid their authorship under the guise of editorship, the better to imitate the form of the miscellany. Assembling diverse contents into a single package allowed readers to promise cosmopolitan breadth, a world of [End Page 756] sophistication contained within one or two duodecimo volumes.2 The books within this category generally presented a collection of excerpts reprinted from British and, to a lesser extent, American and European sources; many were British publications reproduced by American printers (the United States ignored international copyright restrictions until 1891). The educational premise was that reading, memorizing, copying, and declaiming the texts contained in the readers would imbue scholars with taste, virtue, social polish, and useful knowledge.3

In the burgeoning meritocracy of the early United States, readers suggested that cultural capital could be delinked from economic and social capital; the poor but plucky autodidact could learn to speak and write and think as well as an aristocrat, replacing an expensive and lengthy education with the purchase of a book. This substitution was made explicit in the titles and prefaces of many texts. An early and popular example is George Fisher’s The Instructor, and Young Man’s Best Companion, reprinted by Benjamin Franklin in 1748 as The American Instructor, which offered “Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick, in an easier Way than any yet published; and how to qualify any Person for Business, without the Help of a Master.” Hamilton Moore’s Young Gentleman and Lady’s Monitor, and English Teacher’s Assistant, which I will describe in more detail below, explains in its preface that “to inspire youth with noble sentiments, just expression, to ease the teacher, and to render a book cheap and convenient for schools as well as private persons who have neither time nor opportunity [End Page 757] to peruse the works of those celebrated authors from whence this Collection is made, was the cause of the following compilation.”4 Many works focus on replacing, rather than assisting, human teachers. The anonymously authored Rudiments of Taste, for example, counsels that “A virtuous and intelligent friend is perhaps the most valuable acquisition a young person can make; but as one of this description may never fall to your lot, supply the want thereof, as well as you can, by books.”5 Readers nominated themselves as the best replacements for “a virtuous and intelligent friend.” Books called Mentor, or the American Teacher’s Assistant and The American Preceptor and The Affectionate Schoolmaster offered to stand in for or supplement face-to-face teaching.6

Emphasizing the disciplinary aspects of pedagogy, a striking number of readers assert a surveilling function, a few as “spectators” (in emulation, of course, of the British periodical) and a great many more as “monitors”: The Young Gentleman’s Parental Monitor; The Young Lady’s Parental Monitor; Youth’s Friendly Monitor; or, The Affectionate Schoolmaster; The Children’s Friend, and Youth’s Monitor; The Youth’s Monitor; The School of Wisdom, or American Monitor, and so on. Whereas today’s anthologies suggest the imprimatur of a generalized scholarly establishment, eighteenth-century readers personified idealized teachers and mentors who did not merely...