- The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from The New England Primer to The Scarlet Letter
Of the recent path-breaking studies that have explored the material relations of word, image, and literary text in early American culture, Patricia Crain's book, The Story of A, has added a new dimension, as well as set a new standard in the field of early American scholarship. Her book examines the most basic and in many ways most obvious (and therefore also most overlooked) technology of transatlantic Enlightenment communication, the letter alphabet. Fundamentally, the book evaluates the discursive shift from a literary culture steeped in oral rhetorical training to one that utilized primarily print-based alphabetic modes for conveying knowledge. By defining the alphabet as a cultural artifact that was historically located at the fault line of orality and print, Crain turns our attention to the formative phase of modern alphabetic literacy, to elementary education and the pedagogic strategies surrounding primers and alphabet books. She tells the fascinating story of how the transmission of the alphabetic letters shaped the modern conception of the child, womanhood, and the gender of authorship. Throughout this story, she recovers the pedagogic designs that have historically accompanied the internalization of the ABC's, and brilliantly demonstrates how these impinged upon and structured the passions of ordinary Americans and authors who since the seventeenth century have inhabited a culture steeped in mass alphabetic literacy.
The Story of A shows most persuasively that the materials of Reformation, Enlightenment, and Romantic pedagogy replaced rhetoric with alphabetic instruction. It argues that in this process not simply the letter [End Page 351] alphabet as such but the absorption of its pictorial designs and reading practices—what Crain will call "alphabetization"—became the agent shaping the cognition and affect of future consumers and producers of literature. Like the alphabet, the patterns of alphabetization were historically specific and changed over time in accordance with personal, social, and institutional demands. For example, the images introducing the alphabet in The New England Primer represented not only the principles of theological and political authority but the signs of a society imbricated with the material goods circulating in the transatlantic marketplace. ABC books published after 1750 (in the wake of Lockean psychology and the Rousseauvian expostulation of natural innocence), while designing the alphabet so as to mirror the natural world, transformed the letters' object lessons into a metonymic correspondent of modern childhood. After the American Revolution, when basic literacy training had become the unofficial duty of good republican womanhood, primers reflected this ideological change by relocating the material lesson surrounding the alphabet inside the sphere of the home and domestic ideology. In the course of describing the alphabetization of the early American individual, the book examines the full range of the material, ideological, and aesthetic circumstances that informed the production and consumption of alphabetic materials: it addresses the way in which pedagogic methods of instruction always hinged between the visual and the verbal; how the affective dimension of alphabetic literacy changed from disciplinary authority to one predicated upon maternal nurture; how literacy was increasingly associated with the habits of consumption ("Ais for Apple"), material objects, and capital; and ultimately, having become a habitus and fixture of everyday life, the way in which alphabetization became the generator of social and intimate life, which the book examines through the analysis of the antebellum novel.
The book impresses constantly with its scholarly scope while dazzling the reader with its intensity and intellectual rigor. Aside from its fresh and incisive argument, the book's meticulously researched archive of early American primers, ABC books, and literacy manuals delineates (in 70 images!) the changing morphology of alphabetic education. The five chapters follow a rough chronological order and can be loosely divided into three parts. Chapters 1 and 2 historicize the representation of the alphabet. The first locates The New England Primer (1690) inside the iconographic and agonistic tradition of Catholic and Protestant literacy instructions [End Page 352] dominating the seventeenth and...