The Story of A: The Alphabetization of America from the New England Primer to the Scarlet Letter / Edition 1

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Richly illustrated with often antic images from alphabet books and primers, The Story of A relates the history of the alphabet as a genre of text for children and of alphabetization as a social practice in America, from early modern reading primers to the literature of the American Renaissance.

Offering a poetics of alphabetization and explicating the alphabet's tropes and rhetorical strategies, the author demonstrates the far-reaching cultural power of such apparently neutral statements as "A is for apple." The new market for children's books in the eighteenth century established for the "republic of ABC" a cultural potency equivalent to its high-culture counterpart, the "republic of letters," while shaping its child-readers into consumers. As a central rite of socialization, alphabetization schooled children to conflicting expectations, as well as to changing models of authority, understandings of the world, and uses of literature.

In the nineteenth century, literacy became a crucial aspect of American middle-class personality and subjectivity. Furnishing the readers and writers needed for a national literature, the alphabetization of America between 1800 and 1850 informed the sentimental-reform novel as well as the self-consciously aesthetic novel of the 1850s. Through readings of conduct manuals, reading primers, and a sentimental bestseller, the author shows how the alphabet became embedded in a maternal narrative, which organized the world through domestic affections.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, by contrast, insisted on the artificiality of the alphabet and its practices in his antimimetic, hermetic The Scarlet Letter, with its insistent focus on the letter A. By understanding this novel as part of the network of alphabetization, The Story of A accounts for its uniquely persistent cultural role. The author concludes, in an epilogue, with a reading of postmodern alphabets and their implications for the future of literacy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Imaginatively conceived, elegantly written, The Story of A is one of the most original works I have read in recent years. Through her insightful, witty account of alphabetization in America, Crain detects shifting views of childhood, women, the family, and the relations between the individual and society, thus illuminating central questions in social and cultural history. The Story of A will make Patricia Crain's name in literary studies and American studies."—Robert Gross, College of William and Mary

"The alphabet is so foundational to the act of reading that scholars have tended to take it for granted. Crain's book is one of those rare and spectacular scholarly works that actually creates an object of inquiry and a new way of reading where previous scholarship has presumed there was nothing to see."—Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Amherst College

The Story of A is a richly rewarding book. . . . Through her skilled examination of images and texts, Crain has discovered the very real existence of historically distinctive modes whereby the alphabet was represented, then linked these changing modes to such historicalo phenomena as Puritan theology, the consumer revolution, and domesticity in ways that are always thought-provoking and ususally convincing."—Journal of the Early Republic

"This is a most unusual book: fascinating, original, informative, amusing . . . not one's ordinary reading fare."—Journal of Social History

"Copiously illustrated and beautifully produced, Crain's The Story of A is a pleasure to hold, look at, and read. Playful and allusive in her treatment of texts, Crain's wide-ranging analysis includes commentary on such present-day communication technologies as postmodern art, children's television programming, and the World Wide Web."—American Literature

A scholarly exploration of the alphabet in early America. The work considers how that simplest of literacy tools can reveal the cultural origins of strongly held beliefs about the value of reading and books as well as attitudes toward children and childhood. Crain (English, U. of Minnesota) shows why "A is for apple" may not be such a neutral statement after all. "To be attuned to the ways in which we think and write the alphabet," she notes, "is to witness the small change of cultural capital at work." Scattered b&w illustrations reproduce selections from hornbooks, alphabet books, and primers. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804731751
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 7.50 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Crain is Associate Professor of English at New York University.

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