Learning How to Behave I
Bill Long 8/1/08
Moral Guidebooks for Children in Early America
When I studied Simon Greenleaf's penmanship booklet from his school days in 1792 in Newburyport MA, I noted that many of the sentences he had to copy were of the nature of aphorisms or exhortations to moral virtue. No doubt the theory behind it all was that Greenleaf was learning to live as he was learning his penmanship. Inculcate lessons of life in a young person, perhaps even unwittingly, and the lessons will be a vade mecum through life. As I was tracking down the source of many of the pieces of moral advice, I began to realize that the production of "advice books" or "conduct books" was a cottage industry in America, especially before WWI. That the genre hasn't died out completely is evident from one of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin's last books--Letters to a Young Doubter (2005).
The focus of this and the next essay is to describe the genre briefly, especially as it related to advice books to children. The third essay will probe how Mark Twain stood the genre on its head through his two humorous 1875 short stories about a good boy who came to ruin and a bad boy who prospered.
Understanding the Genre
These books remained unstudied in a scholarly way for many years, perhaps because of the difficulty of defining the precise contours of the genre as well as the sense that the advice given was so trivial, on the one hand, and so common on the other that the genre didn't need studying. The first semi-comprehensive bibliography and study of the genre is Sarah Newton's 1994 Learning to Behave (Greenwood Press). Though marred by an occasional stunning error (for example, when she talks about traditional concepts of the American woman's role "harking back to St. Paul's description of the virtuous woman in the Bible's Book of Proverbs," p. 3), the book is a valuable "first step" in understanding this genre. Newton defines the kind of book that interests her:
"A conduct book is a text that is intended for an inexperienced young adult or other youthful reader, that defines an ethical, Christian-based code of behavior, and that normally involves gender role definitions," (p. 4).
The "conduct book" differs from an "etiquette book" in that the former is more of a guide to right living in general, while the latter focuses on how to behave correctly in specific social situations. The former eventually will almost swallow up the latter, since authors tend to recognize that general principles of behavior will need instantiation in order to lead to the success which is the fruit of right living. The "conduct book" can also involve a host of different literary forms, from the inspiring anecdote to pithy saying to the letter from elder to younger to poetic exhortations. Anchoring the philosophy of the conduct book is the notion that youth is the time to orient yourself to life, to begin to develop not just the skills but the habits which will set you in good stead for the rest of your life. And, of course, the end or goal of the conduct book is to achieve the kind of success that is honored by the society at the time the book is written.
At first (in the 17th and early 18th century), that meant "success with God," or faithful living and faithful dying. The means to achieve this success was through being faithful in religious exercises as well as loyal in the family context. However, with the advent of the new republic at the end of the 18th century, the birth of the democratic ideal in the 19th, and the explosion of industrialism in the mid-19th century, the nature of advice books changed. They still were firmly fixed in the need to honor God and regard the family, but now the advice broadened to include the inculcation of virtues that would help a young man succeed in business (i.e., punctuality, deference, cheerfulness, honesty) or a young woman become a successful homemaker (obedience, helpfulness, orderliness, humility).
Thus, we can see both the promise and the difficulty in understanding the reach of the genre. Its promise is that these books ambitiously try to define the whole scope of a person's duties and basic commitments in life; the difficulty is that when you define things that broadly, you begin to "smush together" various types of books.
The next essay describes in more detail the evolution of the genre.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long