Things We Know that Ain’t Quite So *

(regarding 19th-century American culture)

Some of the things we think we know about early 19th-century American culture are … not completely accurate. Here are some I’ve noticed, with a correction or two. Spread the word.

“Axe” for “ask” is one of those “ebonics things.” Actually, it turns out to be one of those “remnants of historical English in our language things”; John Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms points out that “[t]his word is now considered a vulgarism; though, like many others under the same censure, it is as old as the English language. Among the early writers it was used the same as ask is now.” (see under “axe”) (As not-a-linguist, I was utterly charmed to learn this; now when my students use it, I point out to them that they’re repeating very old English usage, and … well, their eyes glaze over, but that’s another story.)

_______ wrote all the Peter Parley books. This one I run into a lot. While Samuel Goodrich was alive, Samuel Kettell was credited with writing many of the Parley books, much to Goodrich’s frustration. Now, however, the sentence often reads “Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote all the Peter Parley books,” which gives Hawthorne a great honor he didn’t exactly invite. Hawthorne didn’t write them all. A number of the books weren’t originally by Goodrich—some were spurious Parleys later adapted and copyrighted by Goodrich; others were works he commissioned and revised. Hawthorne and his sister wrote the first draft of Peter Parley’s Universal History on the Basis of Geography, and a number of his early stories appeared in various editions of The Token. But that was pretty much it.

_______ was the first American magazine for children. Unless the blank is filled in with “The Children’s Magazine of 1789,” the sentence is incorrect. What’s entertaining is the wide variety of titles up for this honor: William Oliver Stevens tried to give the distinction to the distinguished Robert Merry’s Museum (1841); other writers have nominated Youth’s Companion (1827), The Juvenile Miscellany (1826), and—of all things—Our Young Folks (1865!). The Children’s Magazine may have lasted only four issues and may be one of those reads that only a true connoisseur can love, but it wins the honor of being the first American periodical for children.

Edgar Allan Poe could hand a boy a copy of T. B. Aldrich’s Story of a Bad Boy in 1840. It’s a nice little bit at the beginning of chapter 6 in On Night’s Shore, by Randall Silvis (page 46 in my paperback copy): Poe gives the non-reader who narrates Shore a book that he’s sure to enjoy. Except the story wasn’t published in book form until 1870, after being serialized in Our Young Folks in 1869. And, no, there wasn’t an earlier edition forgotten or suppressed until later that century: Aldrich was born in 1836 and in 1840 hadn’t yet encountered many of the situations described in his book! Unfortunately for Silvis and his narrator, there weren’t works similar to Story of a Bad Boy in 1840; Bad Boy is the type of half-humorous, half-nostalgic work that didn’t appear until later that century. What would I have given him? Perhaps a bound volume of Parley’s Magazine—not quite the same thing, but given the variety published there, he’d surely find something to enjoy. (And, don’t forget: early 19th-century children didn’t expect the same kind of reading experience children do now.)

“Ain’t” ain’t good English. It may have fallen from favor now, but John Bartlett reminds us that in 1848 “ain’t”/“an’t” was “a common abbreviation in colloquial language for am not and are not.” When it was wrong was when it was used for “is not.” Nineteenth-century colloquial English usage here. Really!

Copyright 1999-2024, Pat Pflieger
To “Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To “Voices from 19th-Century America
Some works for adults, 1800-1872
To Titles at this site | Authors at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date | Map of the site

Talk to me.