Books: Creating A New Kind of Reader for the 1990’s

By Diane Ravitch — October 10, 1990 7 min read

One summer a few years ago, while vacationing in a rented cottage, I had a bout of insomnia. After tossing and turning, I went to look for something soothing to read. Combing the bookshelves, I found a book called Best Loved Poems of the American People and discovered therein poems I had not read in many years, such as Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” and Samuel Woodworth’s “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

I can’t say that the discovery cured my insomnia, but it led to one of the most delightful adventures of my professional life--one that introduced me to many voices from our culture I had not known when I began. The fruit of the idea planted that evening will be published next month by HarperCollins and titled The American Reader: Words That Moved a Nation.

My enthusiasm for creating such a book--an anthology of classic poems, songs, and speeches--was enhanced by the time I had spent reading 19th-century schoolbooks as part of a research project. I was often amazed then by the high quality of the literary selections in those books’ musty pages.

I found wonderful poems that I remembered from my childhood, which my own children never encountered in their schooling, and I found speeches on the great issues of history that were genuinely stirring. Just for fun, I compared them to the best-known current basal reading series and, no surprise, found the contents of today’s readers uniformly disappointing.

About two years ago, I started saving potential entries for my reader. At first, I gathered the best-known speeches, the ones that I thought everyone should know, like George Washington’s Farewell Address, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty...,” Thomas Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address, Daniel Webster’s “Liberty and Union, now and forever” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, several of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches, John Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream.”

To these I added excerpts from classic essays, like Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience’’ and “Walden.” That was the easy part.

Then I located the poems that were known and loved for generations, like George Perkins Morris’s “Woodman, Spare That Tree,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “Old Ironsides,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Barbara Frietchie,” and Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” To these I added a few dozen more by scouring old schoolreaders and anthologies for the poems that America loved best.

Songs were harder to choose,because there were so many that were well known. I picked classic songs like “On Top of Old Smoky,” “America the Beautiful,” “O! Susanna,” and more recently, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes.”

It was not until I began doing research on the songs that I learned that Woody Guthrie wrote “This Land is Your Land” because he detested Irving Berlin’s wildly popular “God Bless America.” Both are included.

As I collected the best-known classics, I discovered that there were equally moving statements by black and female writers and speakers that seldom made it into the textbooks or the major anthologies. So, I gathered anthologies devoted to black and female literature to find the significant items that were not in the textbooks when I was in school. I found plenty.

I added Frederick Douglass’s dramatic Independence Day speech at Rochester, N.Y., in 1852, when he asked, “Why am I called upon to speak here today? ... What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

I included an abolitionist speech by Angelina Grimke, who not only braved public opinion (women were not supposed to speak in public), but also spoke while a mob outside pelted the hall with stones. (They eventually burned the place down).

I added the radical appeal by the black abolitionist David Walker, which so enraged the Southern states that they made it criminal to teach slaves to read and write. I included Henry Highland Garnet’s inflammatory “Call to Resistance,” addressed to the slaves in the South, as well as William Monroe Trotter’s bold statement to President Woodrow Wilson, denouncing racial segregation in federal agencies.

Few teachers or students today know any of these selections, but they were widely quoted, applauded, or (more likely) denounced in their own time.

Textbooks today are likely to include excerpts from the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848, which stated the case for women’s equality, but how often does one encounter Susan B. Anthony’s account of her arrest for attempting to vote in the Presidential election of 1872? Or the eloquent valedictory by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, called “The Solitude of Self,” in which she explained that women needed the same self-sufficiency as men because each of us, in the severest moments of life, is ultimately alone: “Rich and poor, intelligent and ignorant, wise and foolish, virtuous and vicious, man and woman; it is ever the same, each soul must depend wholly on itself.”

As I searched for poetry that had slipped out of current memory, I found delightful surprises. I wrote to about 30 people, friends and acquaintances, asking them for the poems they loved best. Several mentioned a poem I had nev8er heard of, James Whitcomb Ril’When the Frost is on the Punkin.” I was indifferent on the first reading, but by the third reading I too loved it.

Then I discovered that Paul Laurence Dunbar had also loved “When the Frost in on the Punkin,” and had shown its influence by writing “When de Co’n Pone’s Hot.” One is a celebration of Hoosier family life, the other a celebration of black family life. The two are side by side in The American Reader.

In reading about the history of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, I learned that the group’s founders had had trouble deciding what to call their magazine. Suddenly one remembered James Russell Lowell’s abolitionist poem, “The Present Crisis,” and they named their magazine The Crisis. The poem is now long forgotten, not available in any current anthologies. And I had to have it. The lines they remembered from this poem written in 1844 were: “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,/ In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;/ Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,/ Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right ... “

Some of the 19th-century material was amazingly contemporary. For example, scholars still argue about whether the founding fathers intended to preserve slavery when they drafted the Constitution. Only three years ago, Justice Thurgood Marshall said that they did. But Abraham Lincoln, in his campaign speech at Cooper Union, argued that they did not.

He methodically reviewed the votes cast by each of the 39 framers of the Constitution on measures to prohibit or restrict slavery to show that the majority were on record against it. He argued (against his Democratic opponent Stephen A. Douglas) that the founding fathers wanted slavery gradually extinguished.

The hardest part of assembling The American Reader was finding suitable entries for the past 20 years. Since the death of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, there has been a paucity of rhetorical eloquence. There is no doubt in my mind that television has destroyed the art of the speech, replacing it in political life with the 9.8-second soundbite. And the pace of campaigning is so hectic that candidates customarily give the same speech over and over again, repeating it formulaically, like a mantra.

Finding good contemporary poetry was even harder than finding good speeches. Contemporary poetry tends to be autobiographical, personal, and immediate. I could not find the contemporary counterpart to Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe,” or Vachel Lindsay’s “The Leaden-Eyed,” or Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.”

At the risk of offending thousands of poets, I aver that they don’t write them like they used to.

I did, however, find some gifted Hispanic poets, like Abelardo Delgado, Laura Dee Cervantes, and Tato Laviera, as well as others who speak to our times in verse.

As for contemporary songs, I despaired of finding the song that “everyone” knew, the way they knew “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” or “Anchors Aweigh,” or “Happy Days are Here Again.” I could not find lyrics that were both meaningful and well-known. But then perhaps every anthologist disparages his or her own time and looks longingly to the great songs and poems and speeches of another day.

I believe there are legions of budding poets and writers in the classrooms of the United States who will add their images and ideas to this frothy mix called American culture. I think they will be more likely to do so if they have a chance to read the authentic words of our best writers, and not just the pulped, homogenized, committee-written prose of their basal readers and textbooks.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of several books, including The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980, The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805-1973, and The Schools We Deserve.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1990 edition of Education Week as Books: Creating A New Kind of Reader for the 1990’s