The University of Alabama (UA) hosts two language themed exhibitions this fall. From
Wade Hall’s Library allows researchers to see the full flowering of American writing through nearly 17, 300 titles that date from 1779 through the 1990s. These books encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, prose, travel narratives, religious tracts, abolitionist material, government documents, and cookbooks.
His holdings in the field of Southern literature alone include books by antebellum and reconstruction-era humorists, Kentucky authors, writers he took as subjects for his literary criticism, and poets he met and published as a result of his time editing the Kentucky Review. Notably, authors who never received critical attention sit on shelves beside many of the field’s most canonical names.
Wade Hall’s library is not significant only for the many types of texts it contains; it also is consequential for its ability to represent the history of print culture. Hall gathered a few Confederate imprints alongside a much larger number of volumes published in the North during the Civil War. Furthermore, he compiled extensive holdings in publishers’ bindings and pulps. Publishers’ bindings are cloth-bound books without dust jackets that were popular with middle-class readers from the middle of the nineteenth through the first few decades of the twentieth century. Working-class readers during the middle of the twentieth century primarily chose to read pulps, books that were made with low-quality paper. Hall’s large number of publishers’ bindings and pulps show that Hall invested his resources into portraying the preferences of lower and middle-class Americans.
For this reason, the books Hall found interesting were not necessarily those belonging to important and wealthy people, but rather copies of texts that were read, treasured, and widely circulated.
From September through November 2014, Grammar-land: Learning to Write in America (1700-1930) is on display in the lobby of the W.S. Hoole Library on the second floor of Mary Harmon Bryant Hall. Curated by Russ McConnell and designed by Amy Chen, this exhibition explores the history of grammar instruction in the United States.
“The language of our country is certainly more interesting to us than any other. To be able to speak and write it correctly is of great utility in every station of life; especially in a free government, where men of every class ought to be capable of executing those public offices in which their fellow citizens may have occasion to place them. The grammar of this language, therefore, is an object which claims our first attention.” – Alexander Miller, A Concise Grammar of the English Language (1795)
For Alexander Miller, writing his textbook in the aftermath of the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States Constitution, enthusiasm for the subject of grammar coincides with an enthusiasm for democracy. But the American interest in grammar began even earlier than this, as the early settlers inherited a rich tradition of Latin grammatical instruction from England—primarily from the texts of William Lily. Although he died in 1522, Lily’s writings continued to dominate the teaching of Latin and grammar in England for two-and-a-half centuries afterwards. His approach to the subject found a strong foothold in early America via educators like Ezekiel Cheever.
Although Latin remained a major academic subject in schools and universities, English grammar became an increasingly prominent topic of study. In New York in the late 18th century, Pennsylvania native Lindley Murray produced his authoritative English Grammar, which became the most popular and influential grammar and writing textbook in 19th-century America, and was also widely influential in other English-speaking countries.
In the 19th century, instruction in grammar gradually came to include more explicit instruction in the art of effective and persuasive writing. In 1872, Harvard University introduced a compulsory composition course for all undergraduates, a policy that was soon taken up by colleges and universities all over the United States, including the University of Alabama. This period also saw a greater effort than ever before to make the principles of English grammar and composition appealing and interesting to children, and some grammar books began to incorporate entertaining stories, amusing illustrations, and various activities designed to engage the imagination of young readers.
Unfortunately for those who share the views of Alexander Miller, the teaching of grammar suffered a major decline in the twentieth century. Yet in recent years, the subject seems to be enjoying renewed attention, with many popular books and websites devoted to English grammar and writing. We may be heading for a time in which public opinion affirms that grammar “is an object which claims our first attention.”