- Schooling Readers: Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction by Allison Speicher
In Schooling Readers: Reading Common Schools in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Allison Speicher assembles an impressive archive of 125 understudied texts from the 1830s to the 1880s to examine the literary tradition of U.S. common school narratives. Her study investigates literature's role in the common school reform movement, a prominent force during the nineteenth century. Although most American communities had some form of local schooling by the early nineteenth century, practices, purposes, and costs of schooling nevertheless varied widely. Advocates for common school reform promoted a standardized system of institutions supported by public funds and freely available to local children—a structure that eventually informed today's public school system. Common school reform faced opposition, but as Speicher points out, many historians "have had difficulty recovering specifics of this opposition" (11). Speicher develops a compelling case that common school narratives—fictional representations of common schools, teachers, and students—not only offer specific details about support for and resistance to common school reform, but also intervene in the conversations shaping schooling and reform. Her study of American common [End Page 248] school narratives notably addresses gaps in both literary studies, which has focused primarily on British school fiction, and the history of education, which draws predominantly on nonfictional sources. Thoughtful, engaging, and well-written, Schooling Readers is an important and interesting read for children's literature scholars and historians of education, as well as any readers interested in the intersections of schooling and fiction.
As Schooling Readers makes clear, nineteenth-century ideas about schooling in both fiction and nonfiction varied widely, depending on author's perspective, intended audience, and publication venue. Speicher argues that fiction is an important, and understudied, resource for information about nineteenth-century schooling because it provides specificity lacking in the "grand generalizations" of reformers' nonfictional materials (7). In their efforts to balance instruction, education, and artistry, Speicher argues, common school narratives offer readers equivocal, often conflicting "lessons," and also show "a particular vision of what school did, could, or should look like" (4). Speicher maintains that, collectively, these narratives "offer unique insights into the ways common school reform was negotiated" (6). In doing so, she places fiction in conversation with reformers, educators, and historians to show how common school narratives intervened in debates about the purposes and practices of schooling. Speicher's approach is significant, as she "flips" the conventional logic of studying "what literature means and what schools do" in order to consider "what literature does and what schools mean" (4). Ultimately, Speicher finds that "school fictions are multivocal and untidy, reflecting the messiness of the school experience they present" (17). Her work successfully provides "a productive response to that messiness," as she makes full use of the richness of her archive rather than flattening it. Her impressive collection of materials thus calls to attention how there was not one nineteenth-century ideal of schooling, but rather ongoing negotiations of schools and schooling as they transformed across the century.
Speicher strategically organizes Schooling Readers into four thematic chapters focused on the dominant plots she identifies within the common school narrative tradition: spelling bees and school exhibitions, acts of violence against teachers, school romances, and teacher-student adoptions. She explains that, in developing her archive, she discovered common school narratives in a variety of publications and genres, including "sentimental novels, local color sketches, reform novels, regional novels, [and] cheap magazine fiction" (2). This variety shows both the popularity of common school narratives during this period and the wide range of perspectives, as these publications targeted different audiences. Her texts are "geographically diverse," but notably "not in equal proportions"—although extending into the 1880s allowed Speicher to incorporate more southern fiction (13–14). According to Speicher, these [End Page 249] plots show surprising similarities in form and content across time and location, despite such major historical disruptions as the Civil War as well as significant changes in schooling across the century. Speicher thus organizes the chapters thematically rather than chronologically to...