When Textbooks Upheld the Ideals of Our Ancestors

I am musing upon a fine book written by a teacher and prolific author, Leroy Armstrong. He is introducing the reader to the life and the work of John Greenleaf Whittier, the old Quaker poet who was once one of the most beloved writers in America. He directs our attention to “Snow-Bound,” which he says is “still the most popular long poem written by an American author,” a judgment that makes sense only on the supposition that plenty of ordinary people read poetry, and love it well enough to remember it and pass it along to their children.

“A study of ‘Snow-Bound,’ ” says Armstrong, “reveals a great deal of Whittier’s inner life. In the father, ‘a prompt, decisive man,’ we find the source of Whittier’s resolute courage. We see in the son the mother’s gentleness, kindness, and faith in God and man.” Whittier and his beloved younger sister Elizabeth never married, but Armstrong points our attention to a stanza that shows their love for one another most touchingly. “Nowhere in literature,” he says, “can be found a clearer expression of belief in the realities of a blessed hereafter than this stanza affords.” He concludes by noting that Whittier wrote the whole poem as a memorial to Elizabeth, “similar to Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ upon the death of Arthur Hallam.”

That seems a just judgment. In the stanza he refers to, Whittier observes how all the lovely creatures of springtime roundabout him remind him of his loneliness:

But still I wait with ear and eye
For something gone which should be nigh,
A loss in all familiar things,
In flower that blooms, and bird that sings.

But his hope lies in what dwells beyond change:

And yet, dear heart! remembering thee,
Am I not richer than of old?
Safe in thy immortality,
What change can reach the wealth I hold?
What chance can mar the pearl and gold
Thy love hath left in trust with me?

Whittier ends that stanza imagining the moment when he shall awake from his own life’s sleep, and see Elizabeth waiting for him, beckoning him and welcoming him with her hand. In a series of helpful notes and questions he appends to the poem, Armstrong asks his reader why Whittier used the word pearl, instructing him to turn to Matthew 13:43-46.

I open the book again, nearer the middle, and see that Armstrong has included another one of the most notable poems of the American nineteenth century, William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis.” He introduces it with a brief and charming anecdote. It seems that Bryant wrote the poem, a religious and philosophical meditation upon death, when he was an eighteen-year-old boy. He put it in his father’s desk and told no one about it. Six years later, his father found it and was stunned by it. He sent it to the North American Review, and for a while the editors would not print it, because they thought it far beyond the capacities of any mere boy. But the fact was proved, and Bryant’s reputation was established. “No one else,” Armstrong concludes, “has ever shown more beautifully and clearly that death is natural—a part of God’s plan—and hence is not to be feared.”

And indeed the final lines of Bryant’s poem are calm, resolute, and manly:

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

That last image, of a man lying down to rest, pulling the covers over his shoulder—quiet, simple, what anyone would do—is worthy of immortal memory. Tennyson himself could not have written better.

I shouldn’t give the impression that the book is filled with religious poetry. It is filled with great literature, of all kinds. Julius Caesar is there. So is Edward Everett Hale’s justly esteemed story of patriotism, “The Man Without a Country.” Byron is there, and Hugo on friendship among nations, and Ruskin on good books. There’s an excerpt from James Blaine’s eulogy upon the death of President Garfield, along with other works inspired by the Civil War, in a spirit of mutual forgiveness. Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face” is there, and Kipling’s “Wee Willie Winkie.” The touchstones are love of country, nobility of thought, magnanimity, and piety.

So we have James Russell Lowell’s “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” a once proud knight who went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to behold the Holy Grail. Launfal never saw that chalice, but he did, against his inclinations, give bread and wine to a leper; and later, feeling that his quest had failed, he saw that same poor man “shining and tall and fair and straight.” He speaks to the knight:

“Lo, it is I, be not afraid!
In many climes, without avail,
Thou hast spent thy life for the Holy Grail;
Behold, it is here, —the cup which thou
Didst fill at the streamlet for me now;
This crust is My body broken for thee,
This water His blood that died on the tree;
The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another’s need:
Not what we give, but what we share,—
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,—
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me.”

Sentimental? Or rather a just and keen observation, that, as Max Scheler says, what we really want is not that there should simply be more food in the world, but more love in the world, a giver and a gift, rather than just a commodity?

Why am I discussing this eloquent old book? It is because of the particular audience to which this wise and amiable man was writing. They must have been open to mature judgment, to read, apropos of a satire by Joseph Addison, that “each man can bear his own burden better than he could that of his neighbors; that imagination is at the bottom of many of our troubles; and that we are more anxious to be rid of physical deformities than of deformities of the mind and heart.” Who were they?

I picked up this book at a junk shop. There’s a note folded in it. It is a handwritten invitation: “Dear Mrs. Montgomery: You are cordially invited to attend an exhibit given by the 8a class of 1926 June 18, from 10:30 to 12:00 o’clock, Room 8 of the Ynez School.” It’s no accident, that note. On the inside of the front cover, two girls, evidently sisters, have written their names: Virginia Montgomery, Ynez School, Grade 8B, and Marjorie M. Montgomery, Ynez School, 8th grade, 13 years. There’s also the mark of an inked stamp:

Department of Public Education
County of Los Angeles
State of California
Alhambra City School District

Did a pious schoolbook somehow sneak its way past the constitutional censors? Hardly.

It’s why I call this a Message from Another World. This book is the Eighth Year Literature Reader. It is eighth, that is, in the California State Series. Its frontispiece reads, in capital letters, “Approved by the State Board of Education.” Indeed, Mr. Armstrong was the editor of several other literature books in the same series. The copyright date is 1917. The holder of the copyright? “The People of the State of California.”

That was then.

We could come up with a list of reasons why that book could not now be published. We could note that there are no vampires in it, or vampire killers, or sentimental sodomites, or adolescent participants in murder games, or witches, or teenage rebels against a rule-bound dystopia, or the political platitudes of a Preferred Victim, or sound scientific advice on how to dabble in squalor without catching the clap. All of that might be true, but it is beside the point. The main reason why that book could not now be published is that there is no one who could write it and no one who would read it. We need not wait for our cultural high priests to declare it anathema. Not now, anyway.

Of course it is complete nonsense to suppose that millions of well-read and civic-minded people, for over a hundred years, were all idiots, and idiots in the same way; that the sensus civium was quite mad, and that such textbooks as these could afterwards be drummed out of the schools by a law that the fathers of those citizens had written, and that those citizens themselves had honored, and that had seemed clear to everyone. But the damage has been done, and the Deconstitution has deconstituted us, teaching even the best of us to be embarrassed by piety, honor, purity, and faith. We hide our lamps under a bushel, because we have been taught to believe that that is where lamps belong. Our blasphemies are raucously public. Only our prayers are private.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “A Country School” was painted by Henry Edward Lamson (circa 1890).

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • JERD2

    There seems to be no interruption in the fall of our civilization; no periods from time to time of renewal before the decline continues; only a constant free-fall.

    How does it finally end?

    “This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    This is the way the world ends
    Not with a bang but a whimper.”

    T.S. Eliot

    • Fred

      It’s easy to be lulled into dark thinking JERD2, but I remain hopeful. Maybe it takes moments like these for people to awake from their slumber and question when their sensibilities are offended. Maybe the numbers are small now, but I see young people coming into the church whose eyes are opened by the disorder in the world, and I believe we have new seminarians who are full of passion. Time will tell what is God’s plan, but for our part, who must be ever vigilant and full of hope for others to lead them to Christ … as hard as that may be to those who are stiff necked. I don’t wish it to be today or tomorrow though would accept it if it were God’s will, but I look forward to the end to be with him, I hope.

      • JERD2

        Thanks. I needed that.

        • Fred

          I’ll admit I too succumb to despair from time to time too reading about the chaos in the world. How can we not, we’re human after all, right? I overcome by praying, trying to unplug from the news (not too successful there), reading and reflecting on the gospel, and spending more time with family and friends. I still struggle with figuring out how best I can be an agent of change beyond my immediate sphere. You could say we live in a target rich environment with more people now than ever in need of hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. I do feel that the era for timidity has passed, and it’s time we collectively push on the rudder to change the course of the barque to avoid the precipice ahead we all see.

  • Fred

    It’s kind of funny to me in a odd way. I grew up in an essentially agnostic family who had disdain for what they saw as the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church. I used to hear the line “give me child until the age of 7 and they’ll be indoctrinated for life” frequently. Actually, I think Lenin and Marx were most fond of touting that philosophy. Now I read the crap that’s in the common core and on TV and I think why are allowing our children to be poisoned in this way? Not surprising actually when you read the manifesto of those who strive to destroy our society, one of their top goals is the infiltration of education. Of course, consistent with the ways of the prince of this world it’s done very cunningly and not by blunt force.

  • LHJ

    Painfully, heartbreakingly, profoundly insightful. Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis and the “green book”. Some like myself may not have been so interested in poetry as Virginia and Marjorie in the eighth grade still many of the sentiments were inculcated by parents, teachers, other books and even movies of our time. Every one should send this around to friends. Thank you for another excellent article!

    • Faustina11

      You are assuming that they were interested. That may not have been so and certainly wasn’t the rationale for the schools choice of this textbook.

  • Rich in MN

    Dr. Esolen,
    Thank you for this article and your many other articles and reflections, including your thoughtful replies in “comboxes” (e.g. your combox remark in Austin Ruse’s most recent submission to Crisis). (And please pass along my heartfelt “Thank you” to your understanding wife who wins the “Francis Chesterton Award” for supportive spouses of prolific scholars.)
    I used to think of “The Greatest Commandment” as a decoder ring, but now I also recognize it as the first domino — when I knock that one over (like the originally-invited guests did in the Gospel reading yesterday), all of the other commandments fall. In the last 100 years, I think we are seeing the result of knocking over that first domino. Luckily, through God’s mercy, if we ask for forgiveness, God can help us get those dominoes upright again.

    As for the eschatological poem cited by JERD2, I have a faint recollection of a poem I read in 8th Grade (over 40 years ago!) that reflects on whether the world would end in fire or ice. Of course, today we are witnessing the fire of the ebola fever and the icy fanaticism of ISIS. My prayer (shared by us all, I hope) is that we shall find a way to be led back away from the edge of the precipice.

    • Tony

      Dear Rich: Always great to bump into you here at Crisis and TCT!

      I think you have in mind Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice”:

      Some say the world will end in fire,
      Some say in ice.
      From what I’ve tasted of desire,
      I hold with those who favor fire.
      But if it had to perish twice,
      I think I know enough of hate
      To say that for destruction ice
      Is also great,
      And would suffice.

      It’s a lonely world out there, this world bombed to bits by the Lonely Revolution, the one that sowed transience in the heart of what should be the most enduring of human relations. But here I am tonight in the diocese of Lincoln, and it is amazing, what good and faithful and sensible people can do!

      • Rich in MN

        Thank you for the refreshing my memory on that poem!

        And just one correction on my initial remark: I wrote “Francis Chesterton” when I meant, of course, Frances Chesterton, wife of the prolific English writer and Catholic apologist, GK Chesterton.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    Philip Rieff was prophetic. With the trampling of all ‘credal authority’, ‘therapeutic man’ explains himself to himself’ endlessly, a kind of narcissistic nightmare. The nation explains itself to itself incessantly, always ‘becoming’ or ‘evolving’ into something never quite there. So where does modern education fit into this. We teach children to explain themselves to themselves with their ‘feelings’ or ‘appetites’ as the criteria. We are raising a generation of devils i.e. man free – of God and all authority.

    • Fred

      Indeed, it is so.

    • Rebellion against authority, ultimately against God’s authority, is a common feature of all ages of mankind. That is the theme of Liberalism: Sin, Iniquity, Abomination: The quintessential sin manifested in our time by Fr. H. Bojorge. The mystery of iniquity is nothing less than the endless rebellion against the Father.

  • Cap America

    Tony, the interesting thing is that teachers no longer believe kids can handle vocabulary words longer than three syllables, or deal with abstract ideas. This is unfair to the kids, of course, but no kid WISHES that he would be educated. Much more fun to play. So the teachers and kids do.

    I bought a couple of McGuffey’s Readers. I make my son read stuff like this. The quality of writing per grade level is high and the series would be impossible to ever use in a contemporary classroom. Of course, back then, the incompetents stayed home to shuck corn, and the best and brightest were a larger percentage of a class, no doubt.

    • Fred

      Ah yes, back in the day when children still had a mommy and a daddy and weren’t confused about gender identity, or the role of the state in raising them.

    • Faustina11

      I think you may be mistaken about those who didn’t attend school. Read letters that were written by Civil War soldiers, most of whom had little or no formal education and you’ll see that they could write far better than todays college graduates. It’s a myth generated by the teachers unions that children need to be turned over to the “experts” in order to be properly educated.

  • bonaventure

    To Crisis Editors & Moderators,

    As you are probably aware, there has apparently been some development today, Monday October 13th, at the synod of bishops in Rome.

    Rumors are, that the synod fathers are coming with a development of sacramental doctrine, which John Allen calls “lifestyle ecumenism.” This apparently induced some authorities to say that homosexuals can offer a “gift” to the Christian community, and that Péter Erdő is open to the “the possibility of recognizing positive elements even in the imperfect forms that may be found” in “irregular” situations, i.e., in homosexual relationships, etc.

    Do you have any information, etc., about these rumors? All I could find online was second hand.

    Thank You,


    P.S.: So far, my only sources for the above are Washington Times (“Catholic Church to give ‘priority’ to children of same-sex couples. Vatican: Gays have ‘gifts’ to offer church, Oct 13th, 2014) and Crux (“‘Lifestyle ecumenism’ may be the real breakthrough at 2014 synod,” Oct. 13th, 2014)

    • Fred

      There is no official position statements and so I take everything with a little grain of salt until then. The way the press loves to run with stories and only report selectively who knows. Still it is not incompatible with Pope Francis’s leanings so maybe we should not be surprised.

    • Crisiseditor

      One of our contributors will be writing from Rome so perhaps she will be able to glean what is really going on. Of course, given that it is secretive we won’t really know for sure until it is over. This is the problem with a secretive synod. Rumors overshadow facts.

      • bonaventure

        Many thanks for taking the time to reply. I will be looking forward to read about this issue on Crisis.

  • Kate

    As a home educating mother, I have collected many second-hand textbooks to use in teaching my children, but also just because I enjoy the quality of the writing and the lack of “chunking” (lots of pictures, little text and that disconnected). You actually don’t have to go as far back as 1917 to find decent ones. I have a CA state history book, published in the 60’s which is very positive about Fr. Serra and the missions. I remember the literature textbook used in my Catholic high school in the early 80’s being dense with rich poetry, classic short stories and a few Shakespeare plays. Through it (and an excellent teacher) I was first exposed to Beowulf, Chaucer, Hopkins, Arnold, and Dickens. Granted, the Catholic schools were always behind on the educational trends and that textbook was not what it’s ancestor was.

    I think the real crux of your essay is the last three sentences. What we are reaping is the philosophy of the Enlightenment which is embodied in the American experience – religion as purely a private affair. Frank Sheed in “Theology and Sanity” put it very well: “Religion, it is felt, is something that some people go in for; it might be better for ourselves if we all did a little more of it; but it has no place in the practical business of man’s life…What a man believes about God is his private affair: in other words it does not affect anyone but the man himself, and it does not affect him in a way that matters to anyone else….Obviously this can only mean that men do not believe anything very intensely about God, or, if they do, are not likely to do anything very extreme about it.”

    • Tony

      Kate — that puts me in mind of Flannery O’Connor’s phenomenal sentence in “Greenleaf”: Mrs. (I can’t remember the name) was a good Christian woman with a great respect for religion, although of course she did not believe that any of it was true. Another sentence from the same short story says that Mrs. X was embarrassed to hear the name of Jesus spoken by Mrs. Greenleaf, because she believed that it was like certain words which should only be spoken in the bedroom ….

  • johncunningham

    Jerry Pournelle has edited and formatted the Calif 6th grade reader for the Kindle; it is almost 500 pages for a very decent $5.99 get it at


  • fredx2

    “Our blasphemies are raucously public. Only our prayers are private.”

    Beautiful. And, for some reason all of this reminds me of:

    “…you and I are old;
    Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
    Death closes all: but something ere the end,
    Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
    Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.

    The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
    The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
    Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
    ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.

    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in old days
    Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
    One equal temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.