There are two conspicuous faults in the literary culture which we are trying to give to our boys and girls in our elementary and secondary schools: it is not sufficiently contemporaneous, and it is not sufficiently national and American. Hence it lacks vitality and actuality. So little of it is carried over into life because so little of it is interpretative of the life that is. It is associated too exclusively in the child's mind with things dead and gone—with the Puritan world of Miles Standish, the Revolutionary days of Paul Revere, the Dutch epoch of Rip Van Winkle; or with not even this comparatively recent national interest, it takes the child back to the strange folk of the days of King Arthur and King Robert of Sicily, of Ivanhoe and the Ancient Mariner. Thus when the child leaves school his literary studies do not connect helpfully with those forms of literature with which—if he reads at all—he is most likely to be concerned: the short story, the sketch, and the popular essay of the magazines and newspapers; the new novel, or the plays which he may see at the theatre. He has not been interested in the writers of his own time, and has never been put in the way of the best contemporary fiction. Hence the ineffectualness and wastefulness of much of our school work: it does not lead forward into the life of to-day, nor help the young to judge intelligently of the popular books which later on will compete for their favor.
To be sure, not a little of the material used in our elementary schools is drawn from Longfellow, Whittier, and Holmes, from Irving and Hawthorne; but because it is often studied in a so-called thorough and, therefore, very deadly way—slowly and laboriously for drill, rather than briskly for pleasure—there is comparatively little of it read, and almost no sense gained of its being part of a national literature. In the high school, owing to the unfortunate domination of the college entrance requirements, the situation is not much better. Our students leave with a scant and hurried glimpse—if any glimpse at all—of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, or of Lowell, Lanier, and Poe; with no intimate view of Hawthorne, our great classic; none at all of Parkman and Fiske, our historians; or of writers like Howells, James, and Cable, or Wilkins, Jewett, and Deland, and a worthy company of story-tellers.
We may well be on our guard against a vaunting nationalism. It retards our culture. There should be no confusion of the second-rate values of most of our American products with the supreme values of the greatest British classics. We may work, of course, toward an ultimate appreciation of these greatest things. We fail, however, in securing such appreciation because we have failed to enlist those forms of interest which vitalize and stimulate literary studies—above all, the patriotic or national interest. Concord and Cambridge should be dearer, as they are nearer, to the young American than even Stratford and Abbotsford; Hawthorne should be as familiar as Goldsmith; and Emerson, as Addison or Burke. Ordinarily it is not so; and we suffer the consequences in the failure of our youth to grasp the spiritual ideals and the distinctively American democratic spirit which find expression in the greatest work of our literary masters, Emerson and Whitman, Lowell and Lanier. Our culture and our nationalism both suffer thereby. Our literature suffers also, because we have not an instructed and interested public to encourage excellence.
Among the living writers there is no one whose work has a more distinctively American savor than that of William Dean Howells; and it is to make his delightful writings more widely known and more easily accessible that this volume of selections from his books for the young has been prepared as a reading-book for the elementary school. These juvenile books of Mr. Howells contain some of the very best pages ever written for the enjoyment of young people. His two books for boys—A Boy's Town and The Flight of Pony Baker—rank with such favorites as Tom Sawyer and The Story of a Bad Boy.
These should be introductory to the best of Mr. Howells' novels and essays in the high school; for Mr. Howells, it need scarcely be said, is one of our few masters of style: his style is as individual and distinguished as it is felicitous and delicate. More important still, from the educational point of view, he is one of our most modern writers: the spiritual issues and social problems of our age, which our older high-school pupils are anxious to deal with, are alive in his books. Our young people should know his Rise of Silas Lapham and A Hazard of New Fortunes, as well as his social and literary criticism. As stimulating and alluring a volume of selections may be made for high-school students as this volume will be, we venture to predict, for the younger boys and girls of the elementary school.
In this little book of readings we have made, we believe, an entirely legitimate and desirable use of the books named above. A Boy's Town is a series of detachable pictures and episodes into which the boy—or the healthy girl who loves boys' books—may dip, as the selections here given will, we believe, tempt him to do. The same is true of The Flight of Pony Baker. The volume is for class-room enjoyment; for happy hours of profitable reading—profitable, because happy. Much of it should be read aloud rather than silently, and dramatic justice be done to the scenes and conversations which have dramatic quality.