Page:The Cambridge History of American Literature, v3.djvu/409

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391
"The New England Primer"

they indicate considerable empirical knowledge of human nature they show no scientific or philosophical knowledge of education. "When he can say his A B C's and point out each letter with his index finger, he is put into the A, b, abs. When he reaches this class his father owes him a penny and his mother must fry him two eggs for his diligence." One of the most fundamental of modern educational principles is indeed recognized: "Different children need different treatment." But how typical of the times is the interpretation, for he goes on to say: "That is because the wickedness of youth exhibits itself in so many ways." This most elaborate of colonial pedagogical works is similar in form and purpose to the numerous books on behaviour produced in all European countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it has little of the penetration or urbanity and none of the literary grace of Castiglione or of Chesterfield, or of the good Bishop de la Casa.

The most influential as well as most characteristic textbook of the colonial period was The New England Primer,[1] first issued about 1690 by a Boston printer. Constructed on principles borrowed from Comenius's Orbis Pictus and from the Protestant Tutor, it was used quite generally throughout the colonies and universally in New England. Countless youth made their way through the alphabet from "In Adam's Fall We Sinned All" to "Zaccheus he Did Climb the Tree, Our Lord to See." To its sombre interpretation of life was given a touch of human interest by the vivid description and illustrations of the martyrdom of Mr. John Rogers in the presence of his wife and nine small children and "one at the Breast." This little volume, no larger than the palm of a child's hand, was spelling book, reader, and text in religion, morals, and history. It culminated in the shorter catechism, but no part of it was without its religious phase, for the achievement in spelling extended to "abomination" and "justification". From the seed of this little volume sprang the notable harvest of schoolbooks, one of the most practical as well as most substantial of American achievements in education. A maturer companion piece to The New England Primer was Wigglesworth's The Day of Doom (1662). Though it was used perhaps more for home reading than for schools, few Puritan

  1. See also Book II, Chap. VII.