American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson


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Not poetry-related, but I thought I’d share anyway. The story of a book…

In the course of doing some prep work for next semester, I learned that the Bangor Public Library owns an original printing of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1860), the classic slave narrative by Harriet Jacobs. I love to hold an original edition, and this one in particular called out to me, as the author herself arranged for publication. It’s entirely credible to me that Jacobs once held this very copy in her hands.

So today I stopped by the library to take a look.

Because the book is precious, it’s kept in what’s called the  “cage,” an unfortunate designation given what Jacobs writes at the christening of her daughter:

When we left the church, my father’s old mistress invited me to go home with her. She clasped a gold chain round my baby’s neck. I thanked her for this kindness; but I did not like the emblem. I wanted no chain to be fastened on my daughter, not even if its links were of gold. How earnestly I prayed that she might never feel the weight of slavery’s chain, whose iron entereth into the soul!

But then again, maybe Jacobs would have appreciated the irony. The sentences above come at the end of a chapter called “Another Link to Life” — the other link being that very daughter gifted with a gold chain.

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You can see from the photo above that the book was rebound at some point, with an art deco motif on the cover. I’m no expert on cover designs, but I’m guessing that this binding was added several years after donation, since art deco is associated with the later twenties and the book was given in 1918, as the book plate on the left indicates. The Bangor Public Library has a fair number of nineteenth-century items, many of them with original bindings, so there’s no reason to think the cover would have been changed as a matter of course. The point matters only because it gives some sense of how often the book was handled. I’d like to think it was handled often — often enough to require rebinding.

The book’s donor was Mary R. Spratt, principal of a now-defunct school on State Street, a fact I discovered with assistance from one of the reference librarians. I was curious about the book’s provenance, and thought there might be a story in it. The slave narrative was a neglected genre at the beginning of the twentieth century, little relied on even by historians of the period. This made me wonder about the person who cherished the book, who thought it important enough to give it to her city. I found the answer in an old newspaper file, an article on Spratt from the Bangor Daily Commercial, May 29, 1920:

Has Taught Hundreds of Bangor’s Little Foreigners

Miss Mary R. Spratt Holds Unique Place among City’s Teachers; Many Little Adopted Brothers and Sisters Have Learned Their First Words of English in Her Schoolroom

Americanization in the biggest and best sense of the word, — that is exactly what has been practiced in what is in many ways the city’s most remarkable school house, the State street school in the heart of the east side district, where it is estimated during the last 15 years perhaps 2,000 little foreigners have been taught to speak the first English words they knew, and where a great many other foreign people have been taught English in the night school there first instituted about 13 years ago.

Italians, Greeks, Poles, Finns, Swedes, Russians, Syrians, Jews, practically all of the city’s foreign population, have come to that little school house on the east side the very week, sometimes the day they have arrived in the city; and for many of them this arrival marks the first real stop on the journey to America from Europe. It was perhaps 20 years ago when the first noticeable percentage of foreign children began to show in the school. And the average in the past few years is always considerably over the 50 per cent mark.

In the school the kindergarten and the first, second and third grades are taught. That kindergarten room with its pictures, its chairs, its general air of cheery brightness means so much more to the little foreigner, who has had no such privileges of learning to use one’s eyes, one’s hands and one’s voice under such kindly direction, in such pleasant environment as is afforded by that room, where they are welcomes as little adopted brothers and sisters of native born Americans, to be  Americanized in the word’s best and highest sense, at a time which is fraught with great possibilities.

The little school house at the top of the hill is more or less a matter of course to the little American boy or girl. Its privileges have come to them as to their parents and grandparents. To the little foreigner that school house has meant much more, and as one visualizes the throngs of them, one gets a picture too of the Bangor teacher, who, more than any one person in this city, has had to do with the Americanization work in this line, Miss Mary R. Spratt, for many years an able teacher. It has been for years a common sight on a morning to see Miss Spratt come down State street from her home, to be met by dozens of children, all of foreign birth, whose very first lessons in English she has given. Miss Spratt is not a linguist. But she has done a greater work because of that, she has taught, knowing only the English language, at least eight foreign languages to the little foreign children who were as ignorant of her language as she of Greek, Russian or whatever the case might be. Tact it has demanded, this great task performed so quietly that in all the years it was unrealized, until recently it came about that Miss Spratt spoke at the Chamber of Commerce meeting.

The story is so well told in her own words, that, in part those words are used here, as follows:

“As you look into this matter of Americanization in our city you will be more interested. These foreigners, it must be remembered, have come to stay and we represent America to them. And in the words of Franklin K. Lane, I bring to you the feeling that must inspire us in this work with our foreign population:

“‘There is no way by which we can make anyone feel that it is a blessed and splendid thing to be an American unless we ourselves are aglow with the sacred fire — unless we interpret Americanism by our kindness, our courage, our generosity and our fairness

“As many know, this school of mine on State street is largely of foreigners and I have had this class of children for fifteen years. We have in our city about 300 families of Jews, a large number of Poles, Finns, Syrians, Greeks, Italians, Swedes, and some Chinese. They are anxious to acquire property. They are progressive. You are having them for neighbors. They are eager for their children to get an education, realizing that they will be better able to cope with the American in that way.

“Many children have entered my school immediately upon their arrival in this country. Reaching Bangor on a Friday, perhaps, a little girl comes to me on Monday. One little girl apologized for the dress of a little newcomer who had just arrived because she had worn the dress all the way across the Atlantic.”

Miss Spratt went on to outline the interesting history of the night school work with foreigners. She gave much credit to those who have helped her. The teachers at the State street school, Miss Coney and Miss Donnelly and others who have worked at the school, saying they were always ready to help.

Miss Spratt gave a fine word picture of the young foreign men and women who worked hard all day and then sought teachers for private lessons and told how it was this feeling that Bangor should be giving them some opportunity to get an education without spending hard earned money for lessons, that led to the establishment of the night school.

Acting on this, Miss Spratt obtained permission from the school board 13 years ago. She supervised the work for five years. Many teachers gave their services. Others worked for very small pay. After five years, the night school was taken over by the public school system. At that time there were about 50 pupils.

Speaking of how these pupils work and prosper through education, the beginning of which is received in the State street night school, Miss Spratt said:

“I was much pleased to meet a tall, fine looking man on the street recently who spoke to me and told me he had been one of the first night school students. He had served 18 months in the great war, after going to High school for nearly three years.”

Miss Spratt speaks most interestingly of the work in the day school, the improvement shown in the children after they have the chance to mingle with American children, to listen to the teacaher’s talks and recently, Miss Spratt says, the work of the school nurses, Miss Williams and Miss Smith, has been of very great assistance to the teachers. One of these effects is shown in the manner in which the little foreign children begin to care for their teeth.

Miss Spratt went on to describe how Bangor teachers, not knowing the language of all these little foreign children, manage nevertheless to teach them the English language. The teachers work with them in figures, then with pictures, showing a picture of a horse, and the word ‘horse,’ and then going on to show them the word ‘run’. Miss Spratt says that ideas come to the teachers through this work, so that all the efforts made for them are of help to the teachers too, as well as of great interest. She told many little stories of life of a school teacher with foreign children, some of them amusing, some pathetic, all of them an encouragement to those who work with them. One little girl told her teacher that her “Mother was learning to read swell,” and the statement is one which gives one pause, as one stops to think how the foreign parents are taught in their late years by the children for whose sake in many ways they have come to America, that the children may be taught, not alone along the lines of books, but along the lines of health and good citizenship and better home conditions.

Miss Spratt made a practical suggestions that a teacher should be engaged by the city to visit these families and find just what is wanted and needed in the way of educational opportunities. She put stress on the importance of the social evening with talks to the foreigners, by a nurse, a fire chief, a lawyer, an instructor in citizenship and varied with community singing suggestions, etc.

Miss Spratt told of how she had been helped in the early years by various teachers, by volunteers, by women’s clubs and it is safe to say that she omitted not one name of those who have helped.

“Yes,” she answered in reply to a question of a representative who went to her for an interview, “I did start it, but oh, the help I have had, the credit deserved by all who have been associated with me, nothing would have been possible without them.”

And yet to Miss Spratt belongs the well earned distinction of having started that night school and of having in her hands the minds for molding of those hundreds of foreign children who come to her for their first teaching.

She said too, that the inspiration gained from the pupils is indeed great And she said that once having read Paul Revere’s Ride to a foreign boy he drew a long breath and said, “Why couldn’t I have been born in America?”

In closing she said that to quote Fred Clayton Butler chief of the American Bureau of Education, “We might seek long and find no better definition of Americanization than is contained in the Golden Rule. ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.'”

This story seemed just right to me, given the role of education during slavery and Reconstruction.  School, indeed, plays an important role in Jacobs’ narrative. In chapter 27, the white father of her children, who has purchased the children, ostensibly to free them, sends Jacobs’ daughter to live in Brooklyn, where the girl can attend school. But the schooling is neglected, as Jacobs discovers in chapter 32, when she and her daughter are at last reunited:

When she was placed with Mrs. Hobbs, the agreement was that she should be sent to school. She had been there two years, and was now nine years old, and she scarcely knew her letters. There was no excuse for this, for there were good public schools in Brooklyn, to which she could have been sent without expense.

Jacobs at this moment is already anxious about her daughter’s status, so the unlettered condition arouses her suspicion that the girl’s father has contrived to keep Louisa (“Ellen” in the book) a slave. School then offers Jacobs a pretext for retrieving the girl. As we read in chapter 36:

I could not feel safe in New York, and I accepted the offer of a friend, that we should share expenses and keep house together. I represented to Mrs. Hobbs that Ellen must have some schooling, and must remain with me for that purpose.

The reference to “good public schools in Brooklyn” is not idle, by the way. According to Jean Fagan Yellin, the preeminent Jacobs scholar:

Louisa Matilda’s Brooklyn years were an important time for black education in the city. In 1827, after being cast out of the segregated district school they had attended since 1816, black Brooklynites had built an African Free School on Nassau Street. In 1842 — when Louisa Matilda might have attended the school — its principal was William J. Wilson, “one of early Brooklyn’s most respected Black intellectual leaders.” A second African Free School had been opened at Carrville in Brooklyn’s ninth ward in 1839. The following year, a committee including the mayor of Brooklyn met to discuss improvements in black education; subsequently, three blacks were appointed as district trustees of the African Free Schools. These schools were later incorporated into the Board of Education and renamed Colored Schools.

I wonder if Mary R. Spratt knew this history, and considered herself part of it?

In 1929, Spratt retired after 47 years of teaching. She lived to be 84. According to her obituary in the Bangor Daily News,  September 6, 1946:

She was at one time president of the Bangor Teachers’ Association and was long predominant in educational activities. Some 15 years ago, following her retirement from active service, she moved to Melrose, Mass., where she resided with her sisters, Miss Elizabeth E. Spratt and Mrs. E. C. Goodridge.

The obituary also reports:

Mentally alert, kindly and considerate in her relationships, and one of Maine’s finest teachers, Miss Spratt was an influence in Bangor’s educational system of an earlier day. Many who have achieved success in business and the professions were among her pupils and will think of her in kindly remembrance.

So too will patrons of the Bangor Public Library — at least this one will.

A few more pictures of the book
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