Lyman Cobb and the British elocutionary tradition Charles Monaghan On October 26, 1836, Noah Webster – the grand old man of American literacy textbooks and compiler of the first great American dictionary – wrote to Henry Henrick, a newspaper editor in Knoxville, Tenn. The subject of the letter was Webster’s textbook rival, Lyman Cobb, a brash and combative young man of thirty-six. Cobb was forty-two years Webster’s junior, the product of a different generation, and he had been making Webster’s declining years a misery, attacking him again and again in the public prints in the sort of trench warfare typical of textbook authors of the time.
Webster was writing to thank Henrick for publishing a diatribe that Webster had written, entitled ‘Webster’s Caution’, an assault on Cobb’s speller, A Just Standard for Pronouncing the English Language, the leading rival to Webster’s Elementary Spelling Book. Though Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language had been published in 1828, it was not a moneymaker for him; the spelling book was Noah’s main source of income. It was his turf and he defended it vigorously.1 The upstart Lyman Cobb was born in Lenox, in western Massachusetts not far from the New York border, on 18 September 1800, the sixth child of seven in the family of Elijah William Cobb and Sally Whitney, who had married in Salisbury, Connecticut, in 1786. About 1813, the family settled in the township of Berkshire in Tioga County, New York, about a mile east of the village of Speedsville. In 1816, the sixteen-year-old began to teach at a log schoolhouse on a farm in nearby Slaterville. From the scant information available, it appears that Cobb did not have much formal schooling himself when he entered that log schoolhouse. A few years later, however, he produced his first work, the spelling book (Lawrence, p. 201; Centennial History of the Town of Dryden, pp. 6–7, 169; Dieckmann, pp. 21–37).
What was Lyman’s farm school like? There is no record that he ever wrote about it. But there is one account of an establishment in Lansing, NY, not far from Slaterville, that dates approximately from the time when Lyman Cobb began teaching. The narrator recounts her mother’s experience:
The teacher, a Quaker dame, was very nice and taught the children all she knew. The girls were taught to knit and sew, and it was expected that each girl would make a sampler before her education was finished.
The spelling book in use [Webster’s] was illustrated with coarse woodcuts – the rude boy in the apple tree, the country maid and her milk pail were among them. The English reader [Lindley Murray’s] and the Columbian orator [Caleb Bingham’s] were the reading books and were made up mostly of extracts from English classics and from speeches of great men. The Bible was the textbook in the schools and teachers and pupils read from it.2
It is safe to assume that Cob’s log schoolhouse resembled in many particulars the school described above. This is undoubtedly true of the textbooks used. The available choice of textbooks in any school in the United States at this juncture was not wide, though many more would be published in the decade to come. The books likely used by Lyman Cobb when he was a student himself are the same ones described in the Lansing narrative. When he wrote his first text, one of the books he would imitate was Webster’s American Spelling Book, famed among other things for its woodcuts of stories from Aesop’s fables, including the rude boy in the apple tree and the country maid and her milk pail, as described in the Lansing narrative.
By 1816, even before the publication of his great dictionary, Webster was well known throughout the United States for his numerous textbooks. He was a phenomenon in the literary as well as the educational world of the time, the first person in the nation to make his living from his pen. In 1783, he had begun to issue his three-part A Grammatical Institute. Part I was a spelling book. Part II, published in 1784, was a grammar. Part III, issued in 1785, was a reader, composed of short excerpts from various authors.
Webster’s grammar, Part II of the Grammatical Institute, was first surpassed by Caleb Bingham’s The Young Lady’s Accidence: Or, a Short and Easy Introduction to English Grammar (1785), which eventually sold over 100,000 copies, and then overwhelmed by Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795), which sold perhaps two million copies. Webster’s reader, Part III of the Institute, fell victim to Bingham’s two reading texts, The American Preceptor (1794), which had sales of about 640,000 copies, and The Columbian Orator (1797), which reached about 200,000, and finally was obliterated by Lindley Murray’s English Reader, which sold an astonishing twelve million copies alone in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century (Blight, p. xvi; Monaghan 1983, pp .28–51; Skeel, pp. 5–56; Monaghan 1998, pp. 130–137).
Despite the setbacks to his grammar and reader, no one was able to match Webster’s speller. After its debut as Part I of the Institute in the autumn of 1783, the spelling book had immediate steady sales. The first printing sold out by May 1784 and others five others quickly followed. In 1787, Webster thoroughly revised and retitled the work The American Spelling Book: Containing, an Easy Standard of Pronunciation. Being the First Part of a Grammatical Institute of the English Language. In 1804, with the expiration of his original copyright on the book looming, Webster added new material and reissued it as The American Spelling Book; Containing, the Rudiments of the English Language, for the Use of Schools in the United States. The American Spelling Book was the dominant seller of its time – Webster licensed over 3 million copies of the American Spelling Book between 1804 and 1818 alone (Monaghan 1983, pp.11–12; 51–4).
The edition of 1787 was the first to incorporate Webster’s spelling reform of words such as honor (not honour), music (not musick) and theater (not theatre), which were to become part of the battleground against his American rivals such as Cobb a generation later (Monaghan 1983, p. 120). It also was the first spelling book to use numerical superscriptions to indicate pronunciation. Cobb probably was taught from the American Spelling Book himself. And since it was used in his area of upstate New York around the time he started as a master, it was likely the text he used to teach his pupils.
Though they were far from the only authors in the field, Webster, Bingham and Murray were the dominant names in the world of textbooks that Lyman Cobb and his contemporaries knew both as students and teachers. But it was not a reader like those of Bingham and Murray that this ambitious teenager took as his model; it was Webster’s speller.
To appreciate its role in the classroom of 1816, one should understand that a speller was not used to teach children to spell. Its purpose was to teach children to read (Monaghan 1983, p. 13–14; 31–34). It was the necessary first book; nothing else could be taught unless the child had learned to read. Teaching young pupils every day, Lyman would have been compelled to master the speller’s comparatively narrow lessons. Reading textbooks, on the other hand, were used by older children. And at a time when many pupils ceased attending school after a few years, readers also had fewer commercial possibilities. Thus it was a speller that Cobb chose for his foray into textbook writing. It was published in 1821 by Spencer & Stockton of Ithaca, NY, the nearest town of any size to Speedsville. The name on the title page was Lyman Cobb, Philo (a pretentious abbreviation for Philomath, with its implications of wide learning already achieved).
The full title of Cobb’s spelling book was A Just Standard for Pronouncing the English Language Containing the Rudiments of the English Language, Arranged in Catechetical Order: an Organization of the Alphabet; an Easy Scheme of Spelling and Pronunciation, Intermixed With Easy Reading Lessons; to Which Are Added, Some Useful Tables, With the names of Cities, Counties, Towns, Rivers, Lakes &c. in the United States; and a List of Proper Names Contained in the New-Testament, and Pronounced According to the Best Authorities. Calculated to Teach the Orthography of Walker. The last phrase of the title was a direct attack on Noah Webster, whose spelling reforms Cobb was repudiating by embracing the orthography of the British elocutionist and lexicographer John Walker (1732–1807).
Although it is impossible to pin down exact numbers, it is evident young Cobb’s speller was successful from the first. It was reissued in 1822, a year after its original publication, by the new Ithaca firm of E. Mack, A.P. Searing & L. Howard. Not only was it reissued but it was stereotyped, an innovation in which book pages were printed from a single plate, not from the original lines of type. Only a decade old in America, stereotyping was a great leap forward for the publishing business. In particular, it enabled the stereotyped plates to be easily transported from one location to another. Thus the owner of the stereotyped plates could sell or rent them to printers in other towns, a boon for textbook writers and other authors. The stereotyper on Cobb’s speller was Adoniram Chandler & Co. Chandler (1792?–1854) was a young New York entrepreneur who would enjoy a long career in the business. The Chandler link was Lyman Cobb’s first apparent connection with New York City, where he would spend most of his working life.
The stereotyped edition of Cobb’s speller continued to have success and Cobb’s name became known throughout the upstate region and beyond. When his spelling book was revised in 1825, it was published in numerous towns and cities. This 1825 edition was now called by some publishers (including John C. Riker in New York City) Cobb’s Speller. In its original and revised version, Cobb’s spelling book probably sold about 4 million copies, from 1821 into the middle of the 1850s. It was the leading rival to Webster’s speller for about two decades from about 1825 to 1845. Unfortunately, Cobb sold off his rights almost immediately, a destructive practice that he would follow for most of his life, so he only made a limited amount of money from the book.
Cobb’s 1821 book was one of three spellers published within three years by upstate NewYork residents that invoked the mantle of John Walker. The others were The Columbian Spelling-Book: Containing the Elements of the English Language: A Classification of the Alphabet; an Easy System of Spelling and Pronunciation; Interspersed With Reading Lessons: to Which Are Added, a Variety of New and Useful Tables, With a List of Proper Names, Extracted From Geography and the Sacred Scriptures, and Pronounced Agreeably to the Best Authorities. Calculated to Teach the Orthography and Pronunciation of Walker, published in Cooperstown, NY in 1819 by Daniel Crandall (from which Cobb lifted heavily), and A Spelling Book of the English Language; or the American Tutor’s Assistant. Intended Particularly for the Use of ‘Common Schools.’ The Pronunciation Being Adapted to the Much Approved Principles of J. Walker (1821) by Elihu F. Marshall of Rochester, NY
While neither Crandall’s nor Marshall’s books ever approached the sales total of Cobb’s speller, their works and Cobb’s helped launch what a Webster biographer, Harry Warfel, has dubbed ‘The Spelling Book War’. At stake in the conflict was the reform of American orthography launched by Webster in the American Spelling Book. Those who followed Walker wanted to go back to the British style of spelling (Warfel, chapter 17; Monaghan 1983, pp. 152–157). Politically, pro-Walker sentiment can be seen as a cultural extension of opposition to Jeffersonianism.
In choosing Walker as their guru, Cobb and the other writers not only set themselves against Webster but connected themselves to a movement that went back a half-century or more, not only to Walker himself but to the London stage of the mid-eighteenth century and the great actor David Garrick. It was this tradition, and the changes in educational practice it wrought, that gave Walker much of the prestige he had in the United States, a reputation that existed outside of the considerable worth of his books themselves. The influence of Walker is worth a closer look.
John Walker and the ‘Elocutionary Fashion’
In 1849, a man-about-town and literary groupie named Dr. John W. Francis was invited to the New-York Historical Society to talk about Washington Irving. Francis had been at school with Irving in 1797. Here in part are his ruminations on their schooldays:
I remember well the elementary books scattered about, so characteristic of a common English school at that period: the Columbian Orator of Bingham, and Hamilton Moore’s Monitor; the Schoolmaster’s Assistant of Dilworth, and the Arithmetic of Pike . . .The Principal earnestly stuck to Dilworth, while the assistant, for his section of instruction, held to Noah Webster . . .There was a special teacher of elocution, by the name of Milne [sic] . . . a man of taste and a dramatic writer, if not an actor.3
Those last four words are intriguing: ‘if not an actor’. It is Dr. Francis’s assumption that at the end of the eighteenth century in New York a teacher of elocution would in the normal course of things be an actor. This assumption is based to a large extent on the reputation of the former actor Walker, the best-known writer on elocution at that time in both Britain and America. So identified was John Walker with the teaching of this subject in both schools and colleges in the United States that his nickname was Elocution Walker (Monaghan 1983, p. 123).
John Walker was born in 1732 in the hamlet of Colney Hatch in Middlesex, England. He became an actor, performing at the famed Drury Lane under David Garrick. Garrick was the greatest actor of the day, whose straightforward, naturalistic style had routed the previously popular declamatory acting style. In 1768, however, Walker retired from the stage and the following year joined in establishing a school in London. There he began to give lectures on elocution, and this subject became his principal employment during the rest of his life. Walker scored a great success with a tour of Scotland and Ireland, lecturing on elocution. At Oxford, he was invited by the heads of houses to give private lectures at the university (Dictionary of National Biography, XX, 581).
In moving from the London stage to the teaching of elocution, John Walker had a model he closely followed. That was Thomas Sheridan (1719–1788), father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Thirteen years older than John Walker, Thomas Sheridan had also once been a protégé of Garrick and had a career that spanned both the Dublin and London stages. In addition to his acting ability, Thomas Sheridan had another arrow in his quiver. He was full of ideas on education and language, partly derived from his family milieu. His own father had been a leading schoolmaster and translator of the classics in Dublin. Thomas Sheridan’s godfather was Jonathan Swift, who in 1712 had proposed an official academy to regulate the English language. And Thomas Sheridan himself had had a serious education – at Trinity College, Dublin – before taking to the boards (Sheldon, p. .10).
Sheridan began to write about education in 1756. He placed a strong emphasis on the question of pronunciation, particularly on ‘the need to create a uniform and non-localized variety of pronunciation which was to be used throughout the country’ (Mugglestone, p. 18). Of course, there had been discussions of pronunciation before him, but no one asserted the need for uniformity quite like Thomas Sheridan, who linked his insistence to the Enlightenment egalitarian ideas of the time. He wanted uniformity of pronunciation, he said, to ‘destroy those odious distinctions between subjects of the same king, and members of the same community’ (Mugglestone, pp. 30–31).4 Once you interest yourself in pronunciation as a topic, the trajectory is toward encompassing all your preferences in a single book. That is what Sheridan did with A General Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1780. Almost twenty years before, Sheridan had outlined his ideas for the dictionary. The object, he said, was ‘to fix a standard of pronunciation, by means of visible marks, that it may be in the power of every one, to acquire an accurate manner of uttering every word in the English tongue’ (Mugglestone, p. 33).
Sheridan’s concern for pronunciation (and thus orthography) dominated the work of lexicographers and spelling book authors for almost a century and was the root cause of the ‘Spelling Book War’ described above. Sheridan’s stroke of genius consisted in adding the actor’s concern with exactitude of pronunciation to traditional aspects of rhetorical instruction, which produced a new educational subject called elocution. The name of this pedagogical trend, I suggest, became widespread as a result of Sheridan’s 1762 book, A Course of Lectures on Elocution. According to Ian Michael, ‘the elocutionary fashion’ in the schools lasted from the 1760s to the 1830s (Michael, pp. 185, 269).5 Sheridan’s progress in the new field of elocution was being closely observed by that younger protégé of Garrick, John Walker. Though he continued to write on elocution, Sheridan never managed to take full advantage of its professional possibilities, distracted over the years by his wife’s illness, by his management of the Drury Lane Theatre, by a continued career in acting, and by his work on the Dictionary and a life of Swift (Sheldon, pp. 255–301).
On the other hand, when John Walker dropped his acting career at the age of thirty-six for teaching elocution and writing books about it, he made a full commitment to his new profession. He was also more closely attuned to the market. In more than a dozen books, Walker imitated everything that Sheridan had done, including compiling a pronouncing dictionary of his own in 1791. A Critical and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, as it was called, was a big hit. It added to Walker’s considerable reputation as he carried the elocutionary movement into the nineteenth century.
In his books, Walker continually invoked Garrick on pronunciation.6 Like Sheridan, Walker was riding a tide in which decades of popular enthusiasm for the theatre, particularly for the Garrick style, spilled over into influencing both public oratory and education. That is why Mr. Milns, even though he did not rise to being an actor, was teaching the subject in New York thirty-five years after Sheridan introduced elocution. For the school subject of elocution, Walker remained influential as a textbook writer not only in American schools and academies but particularly in the colleges, where his Elements of Elocution, originally published in London in 1781, was one of the most widely used textbooks (Robb, p. 179).
But the most important influence of Walker on Lyman Cobb and his contemporaries came through Walker’s Critical and Pronouncing Dictionary, originally published in London in 1791. The first American edition of the dictionary was in 1803 by Budd and Bartram of Philadelphia. There was an edition the following year in New York. The Philadelphian Mathew Carey printed one in 1806. At least seven more from other printers followed in the next eight years (Library of Congress website). Any of these, as well as numerous imports from Britain, could have been used by Cobb. (Walker’s dictionaries remained an American publishing staple for decades, in large part no doubt because they, like Lindley Murray’s textbooks, did not require American printers to pay royalties.) Thus it is easy to see how a writer in rural upstate New York could choose John Walker as his guide to the pronunciation and spelling of words as he prepared to do battle with Noah Webster.
Attacks on the Spelling Book Genre
However, while Cobb, Crandall and Marshall could take advantage of the fashionable name of Walker in their spelling books, that did not mean a radical change in approach. The requirements of the alphabetic teaching method simply did not permit them to make any substantial changes in the methodology used by Webster and other spelling book authors. What was needed for a substantial revision in reading methodology was a change in the intellectual climate to enable educators to think differently about textbooks. Until this time, it was widely believed children could only be taught through constant repetition. After the turn of the nineteenth century, a new view of the child following on the ideas of Locke and Rousseau began to emerge in the United States. Americans imported the ideas of Pestalozzi, as well as those of Joseph Lancaster, Fellenberg and other British and Continental reformers.
The major organ for the reformers was the American Journal of Education, begun in 1826, and edited by an important and neglected figure in American educational history, William Russell (1798–1873). Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Russell had studied at the University of Glasgow, but never received a degree. Affected by problems with his lungs, he traveled to Georgia in 1817 to seek a warmer climate. In 1822, he moved to New Haven, conducting a school there and giving private lessons in elocution and oratory to Yale students. Later he moved to Boston, where he instructed school students and Harvard college men in elocution. Russell plunged into the intellectual ferment of the city and its vicinity, lecturing frequently at teachers’ institutes, reading circles and lyceums. In 1826, he became the first editor of the American Journal of Education, doing his editorial work at night after finishing his other labours.
The American Journal of Education reviewed new textbooks in every issue and in its first year of publication took notice of Lyman Cobb’s speller. The review begins by criticizing Cobb’s use of outmoded British spellings (that is to say, Walker’s), but goes on to add that the book ‘is highly creditable to the author’s intelligence and accuracy’. That said, the reviewer, undoubtedly William Russell himself, goes on to criticize the entire spelling book genre. He much prefers the new method of starting off with a primer, followed by ‘an easy reading book of simple and intelligible character’ and further suggests that pronunciation should be learned from ‘the Dictionary’. This approach, he concludes, ‘will be found a much more efficacious course, than endless drilling on the dull unmeaning columns of a spelling book’ (American Journal of Education (1826), 639–640). At the time of the review in the American Journal of Education, Cobb was in his twenty-sixth year. The review stamped him as one of the select group of whom the Journal took notice. Indeed, Lyman was one of the few textbook authors outside Russell’s Boston coterie to get such a review. The most likely reason was the fact that his speller had emerged from the pack to become the leading rival to Webster’s American Spelling Book. One reason that Cobb had been able to establish himself in this niche was that from 1818 on, Webster was hard at work on what was to become his two-volume American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Indeed, from June 1824 to June 1825, Webster was out of the country, in France and England, completing his great work. Thus, Webster was distracted from his normal close attention to the commercial fate of his spelling book and he introduced no new versions or improvements of his speller during these years. This left an opening which Cobb and other textbook authors strove to fill.
At the same time, those pushing the new reformist educational ideas, with the American Journal of Education leading the charge, had zeroed in on the older generation of textbook authors. Webster was the most prominent symbol of that generation. In the eyes of Russell and like-minded thinkers, Cobb had challenged Webster and so became worthy of notice.
But as the author of the review of Cobb admitted, Cobb had really not made any significant strides in changing the spelling-book tradition. The bloom was coming off the rose. The new generation of educators in both Britain and America was finding elocution guilty of the terrible charge of rote learning. Other critics maintained that younger children did not even understand the passages they were reciting, the same charge leveled at Webster’s and Cobb’s lists of spelling words.7 Spelling books held on for several generations, but gradually came to be used more for teaching children to spell rather than to read. Using the national reputation he had gained as a stripling with his spelling book, Cobb moved to New York City, continued to mount attacks on Webster’s speller, and went on to create a series of reading books that showed much more imagination than his speller. In addition, he became a leading figure in the movement against corporal punishment in schools and a friend of many of New York’s leading lights. Unfortunately, strapped for money, Cobb had sold his rights to the speller early on and was continually in financial difficulties. After years of striving unceasingly and almost single-handedly to establish his books in the face of competition from the extensive sales forces of the new, large-scale publishing houses such as Harper Bros. of New York, Cobb suffered a nervous breakdown. He died in Colesburg, Pennsylania in 1864 and lies in an unmarked grave.
Notes 1. This information comes from a letter reproduced and offered for sale on the Internet by James Cummings, Bookseller, ABAA, New York City.
2. This description appears in an essay titled ‘A New York Village: Its Early-Century Annals’, by Mary L. Townley, which is part of It Happened in Lansing, ed. by Isabelle H. Parish (Ithaca NY, 1964). This is a volume of reminiscences of life in the early days of Lansing NY, about fifteen miles from Slaterville. The account of the log cabin school was part of a paper originally presented by Mary L. Townley at the meeting of the DeWitt Historical Society in 1904. The quotation deals with the experiences of the great grandmother of Mrs. Julia Joy Morehouse of Galenburg, Mich. The reminiscence was dictated to Mrs. Morehouse’s grandmother, and was passed on by Mrs. Morehouse to the author of the 1904 paper, Mary Townley. The town of Lansing was established in 1817. To establish an approximate time frame, if Mrs. Julia Joy Morehouse were born in 1875, her mother in 1850 and her grandmother in 1830, the great-grandmother might have been born about 1810. The textbooks of Noah Webster (his American Spelling Book), Lindley Murray (the English Reader) and Caleb Bingham (The Columbian Orator), used in the school, indicate a time frame of about 1815–1825, or approximately the time that the great-grandmother would have been attending school.
3. John W. Francis, Old New York: Or, Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years (New York: 1866); introductory biographical essay by Henry T. Tuckerman, v–vi. Francis was wrong about the teacher’s name. It was in fact William Milns (1761–1801), who is best-known today for his classical writing master’s book The Penman’s Repository of 1794 (originally published by the author in London, it is reproduced in Ornamental Penmanship, New York:1983). An Oxford graduate, Milns had been a master at the City Commercial School in London and had published in Britain in 1794 The Well-Bred Scholar, a grammar and rhetoric based on the work of Bishop Robert Lowth (See Michael, pp. 297, 281, 304, 307, 321, 519). Milns apparently arrived in New York after 1795, and continued to publish there. The American Accountant; or, A Complete System of Practical Arithmetic appeared in 1797, and A Selection of Fables From the Best English Writers in 1798. If the latter, as seems probable, was intended as a schoolbook, it would be an early instance of the emphasis on pleasurable reading for school children. The American titles are taken from the Library of Congress Online Catalog.
4. One spelling-book writer before the time of Sheridan who was much concerned about pronunciation was Thomas Dyche, A Guide to the English Tongue (1707).
5. Michael, p. 287, distinguishes between the ‘elocutionary fashion’ launched by Sheridan and his contemporaries and the traditional concerns of oratorical education: reading aloud, correct pronunciation and public performance.
6. Walker dedicated A Dictionary of the English Language, Answering at once the Purposes of Rhyming, Spelling and Pronouncing (1775) to Garrick, as well as Exercises for Improvement in Elocution (1777). Addressing Garrick in the dedication of the 1775 rhyming dictionary (as the book came to be known), he says that if the book has merit, ‘it is in great measure owing to the opportunities I have had of observing your pronunciation on the stage’.
7. Michael devotes an entire section of his book (pp. 250–259) to listing attacks on the status quo from teachers who felt that ‘understanding’ had been a neglected aspect of education in reading. The 1831 attack on elocution by the Scottish schoolmaster J. M. McCulloch is particularly pointed. In the United States, the refusal to include elocutionary instruction in a reader was a sign of reform sentiment. An early exponent of reform was Daniel Adams, who proclaimed his opposition to elocution in the title of his book, The Understanding Reader; or Knowledge Before Oratory (1803). John Pierpont, a prominent author of readers, did not include rules for elocution in The American First Class Book (1823).
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