Faculty Research at Morehead State University


Inventing Tradition: America's First Literary Histories


Layne Neeper

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From the 1820s through the 1850s, the composition of the American reading public changed rapidly, dramatically, irrevocably. Widespread sociopolitical upheavals and transformations brought on the "democratization of culture" for most of white America.' Middle class forces, spurred on occasion by proletariat demands, strove for and achieved a free public school system, and over time the public schools began to turn out more literate citizens than the country had ever known before. The period has been dubbed by more than one critic as the age of the "rise of the common reader." In addition to schooling the nation's children, popular movements arose to educate adults as well in the finer accomplishments of liberal thought, hence the appearance in the 1830s onward of such phenomena as the lyceum movement and mechanics' institutes. Fashioned by both altruistic and paternalistic members of the bourgeois, the lyceum movement sought on the one hand to democratize culture and on the other to disseminate genteel values to the lower classes.