“Samuel Griswold Goodrich” (from the Southern Literary Messenger, October 1841; pp. 736-739)
Those events which attract most attention, are not always the most important. This is not only true of the phenomena of nature, but of those of society. The thunder-storm that sweeps over the land may be the theme of universal remark, while it is really less efficient in results, than the quiet sunshine, which is stirring the elements of animal and vegetable life, in a thousand forms,—however the process may be unseen and unregarded. The success or defeat of a party in politics, though it shake the country to its foundations, often leaves less decisive traces after the lapses of a few years, than the invisible march of some moral or mental reform.
Thus it is, that, while within the last fifteen years, public attention has been chiefly engrossed by political and commercial revolutions, there have been movements in society of the greatest consequence, however they may have been lightly regarded in a national point of view. While the gale has filled the sails and been the chief object of attention, the unnoted current has been setting us forward on our voyage, and has actually done more to change our position, than the storm with which we have been contending.
The great result of this silent progress, is summed up in two points—a more enlightened state of public opinion, and a higher standard of morals. Without going into the means by which these results have been attained, though they are often expressed in the cant terms of “march of mind,” the “spirit of the age,” &c., we may advert to the temperance reform, as one fact, in evidence of our position. We know it is common to speak of the degeneracy of the times—but in reality, there is no such degeneracy. Let us test it as we may, we affirm that the moral and intellectual standard is higher in the country than at any former period; and it is sufficient to prove this, that public opinion, without the aid of laws, or government, or money, or the allied powers of political parties, has made, and is making, successful war upon the most deeply rooted vice in the world—the drinking of ardent spirits. What is the basis of this reform, if public opinion and public morals be not more elevated than before?
Among the several streams which go to make up the great tide of advancement in civilization here, is the improvement in the means of education; and among those who have been foremost in this work, is the author of Peter Parley’s Tales. The importance of his performances is the greater, that they were commenced some years since, before the people were waked up to the great effort now making to render common school education universal; before it was announced in the ringing tones, of one of the master-spirits of the age, to Europe, that the Schoolmaster was abroad; and while juvenile literature was yet regarded with contempt, and as beneath the attention of the philosopher and philanthropist; while Mother Goose still spread her wings over the nursery library, and it was supposed, that whatever was hatched for it, must have something of her cackle.
There are some persons, and those too among graduates of colleges, who mourn over the change of books for youth—who lament the disgrace into which Mother Goose, Tom Thumb, and Jack the Giant Killer, have fallen. But this mental obliquity only shows, that there are persons, whose minds are so perverted by a false start in education, as never to have enjoyed the exercise of that good old-fashioned guide to truth—common sense. The public generally appreciate the revolution to
which we allude, and are ready to render to the individual who has been its chief instrument, his due credit—a credit greatly enhanced by considering, that Mr. Goodrich, by his juvenile works, not only furnished facilities and aids to education; but, by introducing good books, he assisted in the banishment of bad ones, and, at the same time, contributed in a high degree to the great movement towards universal education. The schoolmaster was doubtless induced to go abroad, by finding—among other things—the instruments for his work, furnished to his hands.
It may be a matter of some interest to our readers, to be made acquainted with the progress of this reformation to which we allude. Mr. Goodrich was originally a bookseller, and from his position, his attention was directed to the defective character of books for children and youth. The works of this sort in circulation were, for the most part, reprints of English publications; and nearly the whole of them were designed for amusement, and consisted of antiquated and monstrous fictions. It is not a little curious, that while fiction was thus dealt out in this department of juvenile literature, truth and knowledge were generally presented to children in the dry and repulsive form of technical compends and catechisms.
Mr. Goodrich, who had received no other than a common school education, did not think of attempting to furnish a remedy for the evil he noticed, by writing himself, but sought to infuse his views into others, and expended considerable sums of money in endeavoring to get up better books for education. In this effort, he was foiled, and therefore determined upon making the attempt himself. Accordingly, about sixteen years since, he visited Europe, and having examined the principal schools and seminaries in Great Britain, and on the Continent, he returned; and in 1829, produced his first work, which he entitled Peter Parley’s Tales about America.
The reception of this was not particularly flattering at first; and such was the low estimate in which writing for children was then held, that the book was produced with as great privacy in respect to the author, as if disgrace attached to the enterprise. Mr. Goodrich, however, persevered, and wrote the Tales about Europe, Asia and Africa.
At this period, books for children were got up in the cheapest possible form. The prevalent idea was, that this class of books were toys, upon which as little money as possible was to be expended. If engravings were introduced, they were of the coarsest kind; and as to any thing like correctness of drawing, it was not thought of. The subjects of the pictures, as well as the style in which they were executed, were as monstrous as the ideas in the books themselves. There were, of course, exceptions to all this, but such was the general state of facts.
Mr. Goodrich attempted reform here, as well as in other respects. His works were very neatly printed, and illustrated in the best style which the state of the arts afforded. In this, he had to encounter the habits and prejudices of the country, and of the book trade. The great point of competition in the market, had been that of price; for, cheapness was the universal recommendation.
In spite of obstacles, however, these little works obtained an extensive circulation, and at last triumphed over all opposition. They became permanently established in the country, and most of them have been reprinted in England, and distributed over Europe. Some of them have acquired a popularity altogether unparalleled. And Parley’s Geography, now published in several languages, and disseminated throughout the five divisions of the globe, in more widely circulated than any other book produced within the present or the last century.
The results of Mr. Goodrich’s operations in this field of enterprise, are great and important. In the first place, he has produced several excellent books for education; and probably, at the present moment, has more readers than any other living author. But this is not the only, nor perhaps the greatest, beneficial consequence of his labors. He has made the discovery, and established a conviction of the fact throughout the world, that truth may be made as attractive to youth as fiction. He has shown that truth, upon which nature and philosophy alike teach us that the young intellect should be fed and fostered, may be rendered as palatable as matters of mere fancy. While it has been discovered, that the stomach of the infant need not be soothed with toddy and paregoric, he has made it apparent that the mind and heart need not be stimulated by fiction.
The value of this to the world at large, exceeds calculation; for it operates far beyond the mere point of Mr. Goodrich’s works. He has set an example which has been successfully followed by others;—he has made clear a great truth, and has opened a new and rich mine, into which others have entered, and are now working, with effect;—he has redeemed the writing of children’s books from the contempt in which it was once held:—and we now find some of the master-spirits of the age, putting their sickles in for the harvest.
The great instruments by which Mr. Goodrich has done so much, is simplicity and naturalness of style. He has written for children as we should talk to children. It would seem that this is an easy task, and as if the discovery were too obvious to merit praise. But if easy and obvious, why did it remain so long unpractised? The truth is, that there were more difficulties in the way than may at first be supposed. All the established customs and notions were, in the first place, to be overcome and rejected;—a new path was to be marked
out—a prevailing philosophy, viz: that fiction is the only sugar-plum that can tempt children over the barriers to mental exertion, was to be discarded.
Nor is this all. The mind and character of childhood, was to be thoroughly understood. That subtlest of all philosophy, the taste, aptitude and capacity of the waking spirit, was to be mastered; and beyond this, the art of dealing with it, was to be possessed. This latter power, the power of communicating a great variety of ideas by the simple and stinted vocabulary of words understood by children—the power of rejecting idiomatic expressions and forms of speech not likely to be understood, and of selecting those only which would be comprehended, was alike indispensable, and of rare occurrence.
In all these qualities, necessary to success in dealing with childhood, Mr. Goodrich excels. He has, therefore, furnished an example of style, which has now become a sort of standard in juvenile literature. He has as many imitators on both sides of the Atlantic, as ever followed in the wake of Scott or Byron. But this is not the only point in which he is qualified for the task of the reform upon which he is entered, and which he has so well accomplished. He possesses a dramatic talent and power of description, which have largely entered into the secret of his success. The character of Peter Parley is drawn with a verisimilitude, quite equal to that of Robinson Crusoe. The real existence of such a person, has fastened itself upon the readers of the books issued under his name, with a firmness of conviction that can hardly be shaken off. At the same time, the cheerfulness, benevolence, condescension and piety of the good old man, have given him grace in the eyes of all; and many an eye has glistened, many a lip quivered in believing sympathy with his pains and pleasures. In illustration of the dramatic and descriptive talent displayed in these works, we will make an extract from Parley’s Tales about America:
“At length the morning came, and the chief of the tribe arrived, with several other Indians. He was an old man, but still strong and active. The Indians told him of my capture, and attempt to escape, and asked him what should be my fate. Having heard the story, he came near to me, and in a stern voice, he spoke as follows:
“White man, listen to me! Once the red man was king over these woods and waters. The mountains and rivers were then the red man’s, and then he was rich and happy.
“At length, the white men, thy fathers, came. The red men bade them welcome. But they were ungrateful and treacherous. When they grew strong, they drove the red men over the mountains, and took their lands—and I was still the white man’s friend.
“But see here,” said he, pointing to a scar on his breast, “this is the mark of a white man’s bullet. I had harmed him not—I had lived among the white men, and served them. But they shot at me as if I were a wild- cat.
“White man,” said he, “listen! I was once the white man’s friend—I am now his enemy. Think no more of escape. This hour you shall die.”
“Chief,” said I, “do as you like. If it is God’s will that I die, I shall die contented. My father was a friend to the red man, and his son has never harmed them.
“My father saved the life of a red man, and now you will kill his son. If it will make an Indian chief happy to spill the blood of one who saved a red man’s life, then kill me—I am ready to die.
“And my soul will go to the Great Spirit, and will say to Him, ‘My father was a benefactor to the red man, and they murdered his son!’ ”
“Speak,” said the Chief, “Where did your father live?”
“In Boston,” said I.
“And who was the Indian whose life he saved?”
“His name was Wampum,” I replied.
“White man,” said he, “look at me, I am Wampum! I know you. You were the boy who came to my wigwam at Holyoke. You were the boy who went with me to the Great Falls. It was your father who saved my life! And shall I suffer his son to die?
“Brethren,” said Wampum, speaking to the Indians, “I was a stranger in a distant city of the white men—I drank their fire-water, and it made me wild—
“I struck a sailor, and he was angry. He came upon me with twelve men. They beat me down, and trampled on me. They would have killed me, but a white man with a strong arm, beat them off. The friend of the red men saved my life. Here is his son—shall he die?”
The Indians answered by untying my hands and feet— “Go,” said Wampum, “go to your friends and tell them that the red men will not forget kindness.
“Tell them that we will repay to the children the good deeds of their fathers. We war only with the wicked; we seek only the blood of our enemies.”
It will be perceived, that here is not only simplicity, but force of thought; the power of putting such thought into the minds of children, and, at the same time, of furnishing it, constitutes talent of a high order.
We have said, that Mr. Goodrich had taught the lesson that truth may be made attractive to you; yet it is to be remarked, that he has by no means discarded the use of imagination as an instrument for teaching and training the understanding. It is by the power of imagination, indeed, that he is in a great degree indebted for his success. The character of Parley is a fiction, yet the inculcation of truth is the object and result of the whole. The power of rendering fiction subservient to truth—of using the fancy in such a manner as to make it the servant, and not the master, of the understanding—is Mr. Goodrich’s highest qualification. As an illustration of this, we quote the following lines, and close our review with the general remark, that while his works for children are the best that have been produced, the perusal of them has still given great pleasure to minds of the highest grade, both for natural endowment and cultivation. The same talent devoted to these, exerted in a higher sphere of literature, had insured success to the possessor:
THE SAGE AND LINNET: A FABLE
A wise old man, one Summer’s day,
Was walking in a lonely wood—
And there, upon a leafless spray,
A linnet sang in solitude.
The old man spoke—“Come, pretty thing,
Pray tell me why you nestle here—
And why so cheery do you sing,
When all around is dark and drear?
“Why spurn the meadow and the field,
Where blushing flowers invite thy stay—
And many a raptured bird would yield
Its willing praises to thy lay?”
The linnet answered—“Hath a sage
Come here to learn of me the truth?
And must I tell to hoary age,
A lesson fit for blooming youth?
“Of all the gifts that Heaven doth mete
In mercy to its creatures dear,
There’s none to me so pure, so sweet,
As peace: and sage, I find it here!
“ ’Mid garnished fields and meadows gay,
There’s many a falcon, many a snare;
I shun them all,—and far away
Poor, yet content, my lot I share.
“The listening of my gentle mate,
Repays me for my happiest song,
And oft, from dawn to evening late,
I sing, nor find the hours too long.
“Yon rippling stream my cup supplies;
The wild-flowers yield for me their seed;
This bowering fir from Winter’s skies,
Is all the shelter that I need.
“Then do not scorn my humble lot,
Nor deem that wealth alone is bliss;
For peace within the humblest cot,
With calm content is happiness.”