A Celebration of Women Writers

"Literature for Young People." by Miss Cora Martin McDonald.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 264-267.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 264] 



In this glorious year we are often reminded of that immortal day on which the Pilgrim Fathers gained a foothold upon the solid rock of America.

The story of the hardships of these pioneers of our civilization, of their comfortless homes and their limited resources, is familiar to us all. Upon the best table in the best room was their library, the Bible, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Young's Night Thoughts, Milton, Baxter's Saints' Rest, Fox's Lives of the Martyrs, Addison's Spectator, and Watts' Improvement of the Mind. And yet from these homes of privation, the mind nourished by a few choice books, came the sublime men and women of our colonial age. Have modern luxury and an exhaustless supply of varied literature produced nobler manhood and womanhood? Far be it from my purpose to argue that the former days were better than these. Present advantages mean enlarged opportunity and power, but the voice of the past can teach us how to use wisely the inheritance of this teeming age. Then, in determining what the young ought to read, we should consider carefully the results of past effort, to learn the principles that govern this important factor in the formation of character.

Let us glance at the situation of our youth in regard to literature. In the homes of many the text-books of the children form the larger part of the books possessed. Not repression in childhood, but skillful guidance develops self-control, correct habits, and true morality. A forcible writer says: "The evils of a pernicious literature are pressing hard upon us with every click of the printing-press. Its corrupting and blighting power is felt in our schools and in society. Its baneful effect is seen in the disrespect of our youth for parental authority, in their treatment of the aged, in their wrong ideas of life, and in their general spirit of insubordination."

What can we do to stay its power? This work must begin in our homes with the babe at its mothers knee, in the lullaby that cradles the child to rest. It must continue through childhood and youth, until our children shall go forth from home and school with fixed habits and cultivated tastes. Noteworthy steps, indeed, have already been taken by educators to make books more potent in bettering our American life. What we now need is masters of books, guides to the library; those who understand the art of leading the young spirit, those who have the ability to kindle intelligence and awaken thought. [Page 265] 

In this century, as never before, God is revealing to the nations woman's place and work in the world. She will lead the children aright, she will influence them through those institutions which are the glory and the hope of America–the home and the public school. She will direct the physical, the intellectual, the spiritual energy of her life toward the rising generation. In the home, in the Sunday-school, and in the day school, she will feed the mind upon pure and noble thoughts, thus giving it a habit, a tendency, which shall determine character and destiny. And now, in the fullness of time, God has given her such agencies of self-improvement for the guidance of others as the Chautauqua Circle and University Extension. Early disadvantages no longer form a barrier to her usefulness. Through physical culture, hygienic reform in dress and fashion, intellectual ambition awakened by opportunity, she becomes young at fifty; is beginning the study of foreign languages at seventy. With our greatest American author, James Russell Lowell, she sings:

"One day, with life and heart, is more than time enough to find a world."

No longer will she entrust the education of her child to the teacher alone, but she will co-operate with that teacher to secure the best results.

Instruction in science has awakened in the mind of many a boy and girl a train of thought, an interest in nature, which has led to research, and has redeemed the life from devotion to degrading literature and its attendant evils.

The educational progress of this century is in no way more manifest than in the introduction of elementary science into the lower grades of our leading schools.

It has been stated that "childhood is the era of scientific acquisition." Every day the child gathers facts, makes discoveries, and deduces generalizations far grander and far richer in practical import to him than any made by Newton or Cuvier. These discoveries stimulate and ennoble him, not only in the same way as the Newtons and Cuviers were ennobled, but relatively to a far higher degree.

The instructor must first have accepted Dame Nature's invitation to Agassiz:

"Come, wander with me," she said,
"Into regions untrod,
And read what is still unread
In the manuscripts of God."

Let us commune with Coleridge, Ruskin, Wordsworth and Bryant. We would not banish Mother Goose from childhood lore, but we plead for the use of simple stories from the world's mythology and from the Bible, interesting incidents of history, the gems of poetry and the ideals of fiction. So bright, so attractive must the stories seem, that curiosity will be awakened to be gratified only by reading. Suitable books are now prepared with a view to this instruction. The fairy tale can cultivate the imagination, the fable illustrate and impress truth; the carefully chosen story from mythology may become a teacher of ethics, and certainly will develop a taste for classic and historic literature.

Let us begin this work in the simplest manner, with the little child, and continue until he pursues, as special studies, those branches of knowledge to which he has been so gradually and delightfully introduced.

It is now admitted that the correct use of language is to be learned through association with pure English, spoken and written. Is our speech in the home chaste and accurate? So will be that of our youth. Then let them study standard English, committing to memory often "grand and ennobling thoughts, clothed in beautiful language; thoughts that will incite them to noble aspirations; thoughts that inculcate virtue, patriotism, love of God, of father, of mother, kindness to dumb animals, and that give correct rules of action."

In the child's reading aloud, too much time is often given to "mere imitative reading, and not enough to logical analysis to ascertain the meaning of the words and sentences." The skillful hearer will ask many questions, and the well-trained child will question, too. Shall we avoid an answer, reply indifferently, or ignorantly? [Page 266] 

Let us not permit our children, or those whom we can influence, to waste time in committing for declamation selections of no literary value; but let the recitation, essay, and oration exert an elevating influence. Our boys will imbibe the spirit of patriotism while their hearts are thrilled with the fervid oratory of such men as Fox, Chatham and Everett. The thought has been thus forcibly expressed: "The boy who feels the greatness of Burke and of Webster is more apt to acknowledge the power of the 'Oration on the Crown.' He who has been thrilled by the sublimity of Milton will grow enthusiastic over the pages of Virgil and Dante; and when the vast world of Shakespeare's thought has been opened before his vision, he will see more clearly what is immortal in the Iliad and the Odyssey."

History should be impressed through historical and biographical literature, rather than by memorizing dates and facts, which robs the narrative of vitality and creates a distaste for historical works. Biography has been called the soul of history, and is a powerful force in character culture.

Generalities are, for practical purposes, dead things, but particulars contain the germs of life, and stimulate to action. The biographies of distinguished men record the important history of their times, and are interesting to the young. The works of Cooper, Parkman, Irving, Longfellow, Whittier and Choate, the "Statesmen Series," and Coffin's books will make United States history attractive. What better introduction to Roman history than Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome," or Shakespeare's "Julius Cæsar" and "Coriolanus?" Walter Scott's novels should be to our youth a continual source of pleasure and profit. They have "Ivanhoe," "The Talisman" and "Quentin Durward" for Louis XI., Charles the Bold and the Wars of the Roses; Kenilworth" and the "Abbott" for Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots; "Woodstock," "Old Mortality" and "Peveril of the Peak" for the Stuarts. Bulwer's "Harold," his "Last of the Barons," and Thackeray's "Henry Esmond," will also instruct and delight them. Why not have them read Kingsley's "Hypatia" for a knowledge of the fifth century, and Victor Hugo for the battle of Waterloo? Why not Thackeray, Dickens and George Eliot for the age of Victoria?

What historian has given us a more faithful picture of New England than Hawthorne in the "Scarlet Letter," Holland in "Bay Path," Longfellow in "Miles Standish," or Whittier in "Snow Bound?" "Evangeline" will impress the pathetic story of religious persecution in Acadia.

There seems now to be a general awakening to the importance of Bible knowledge for the young. The worthy president of John Hopkins' University deplores the ignorance of Scripture history among college students, and urges the movement to place the study of the Bible in the university or college curriculum.

Our American colleges are beginning to put the Bible into its "rightful place of honor as the center of the highest culture."

If the secular world thus realizes the importance of the Bible, what a stimulus to us, who see in it not only "the greatest of all classics and the foremost book in the world's literature," but infinitely more, the revelation of God to men. Shall we plan a course of reading for the young and exclude the only guide to true wisdom?

Shall they not learn that we may enjoy a communion with God which is as "real as ever communion was with friend?" That here we find our "proof of God, of duty, and of destiny." "We may enter in, may shut the door; let the outer darkness gather; but all is light. The invisible becomes visible, and we adore, treading where science never trod, in realms, the door of which no science can unlock."

Would you impress youth with the ruin that crime brings to him who commits it? Persuade them to read "Macbeth," Hawthorne's "Marble Faun," or Mrs. Browning's "Drama of Exile." Would you inspire them with ideals of manhood and womanhood? Let them study the lives of David Copperfield and the gentle Agnes.

Fiction, through the presentation of beautiful character, awakens sympathy; refines and ennobles.

"Ben Hur" and the "Mill on the Floss" are types of the novel which we cannot commend too highly. [Page 267] 

Poetry cultivates the imagination, and fills the soul with pure, bright pictures. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare! How they outweigh kings and warriors and millionaires. Poetry is power, truth, beauty, pathos, exaltation. The utility of the ideal! How the glowing theme expands as we try to compass it.

In a lecture given recently at Oxford, on mediæval universities, Gladstone said he feared that under pressure from without they should lean, if ever so little, to that theory of education which "would have it construct machines of so many horse-power, rather than form characters, and rear into true excellence that marvelous creature we call man, which gloats upon success in life, instead of studying to secure that the man shall always be greater than his work, and never bounded by it; but that his eye shall boldly run, in the words of Wordsworth,

"Along the line of limitless desires."

Mr. Emerson replied to his daughter, who inquired whether she should study botany, Greek, or metaphysics, that it was of no consequence what she studied; the question was with whom she studied.

We recall Garfield's tribute: "A university education might have been received while sitting on the same log with Mark Hopkins."

Unconscious tuition! The old theme, you say. Yes, old as humanity; and yet our chief source of inspiration. Let us dwell upon it until we are filled with a sense of its real grandeur.

Foreign nations acknowledge the greatness of our land, but they deny our claim to superiority in literary productions. They tell us that American writers are not original; that America lacks historical associations, and that we are too hurried, too practical a people to excel in literature. Is this true? America has had less than three centuries of existence, and much of that time has been spent in clearing forests and subduing enemies. Has she not already given the world a greater number of worthy authors than any other nation in the same period of its early existence? Bryant and Longfellow, Whittier, Lowell, Holmes, Hawthorne, Bancroft, Cooper, Mrs. Stowe, and Emerson–who can say that coming generations will not award to these first rank?

But, grant that we have not yet produced one truly great writer, the future is radiant with promise. When centuries have passed and time has lent enchantment, the romantic and thrilling incidents connected with the discovery and colonization of our country will furnish themes as grand as any ever presented to epic poet. What historic associations more sacred, more inspiring, than those that cluster about Plymouth Rock, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Yorktown and Gettysburg?

The nations of the earth are coming to our shores and mingling with our people. Into the blood of coming generations will be infused the best elements of every race, giving rise to a new nation superior in intellectual vigor to any that has existed. We believe that the poet of the future will be an American. What may we not expect from woman in this land of her emancipation? Now that her opportunities and privileges are enlarging, may she not give to us golden thoughts in enduring form that will be a worthy expression of the highest civilization? What a heritage of patriotic literature in song and story will this year bequeath to the youth of America! What is this wondrous exhibition but the volume of the nineteenth century, opened on American soil that the world may read its radiant chapters? Upon its gilded pages are science and art, prose and poetry.

Here is indelibly inscribed an immortal tribute to woman's worth and power. and here, engraved in letters of light, is the characteristic of the coming heroes and heroines: "Whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all."

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Miss Cora Martin McDonald was born in Talmage, Ohio. Her parents were John McDonald and Fannie A. Coy McDonald, of New England. She was educated in Salem, Ohio, Oberlin College and Wooster, Ohio. Received the degree of A. M. from the University of Wooster. She began teaching when eighteen years of age, and soon gained first rank in her chosen profession. She was principal of the Defiance Ohio High School for eight years, the Boone Iowa High School three years, and the Cheyenne Wyoming High School three years. Miss McDonald now occupies a chair in the State University of Wyoming, and also the principalship of the Academic Department. She has written many papers on educational subjects, contributed largely to the "Wyoming School Journal." and has lectured successfully in Wyoming on educational themes. In religious faith she is Presbyterian. Her postoffice address is Laramie, Wyo.


Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Mark Ockerbloom.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom