History of Literacy
James Baldwin (1841-1925):A Man Who Loved Stories

History of Reading News. Vol.XVII No.1 (1993:Fall)
by Peter J. L. Fisher and Sheila Shapiro

The following is an abbreviated version of the paper given by Peter J. L. Fisher and Sheila Shapiro at the SIG session in San Antonio during the annual IRA conference in April, 1993.

James Baldwin was the author of over fifty books, including three different reading series for children. For the last thirty years of his career, he was an editor at American Book Company, which was, at that time, the largest publisher of textbooks in America. In his roles as author and editor, he had considerable influence on the reading of American youth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Picture from James Baldwin, School Reading by Grades, Baldwin's Readers: First Year, (New York: American Book Company, 1897), p. 50. In his fictionalized autobiography, In My Youth, Baldwin talks about his infrequent schooling and bemoans his limited access to books. His father had a library consisting of two shelves of which he was "justly and openly proud." Among the volumes was Noah Webster's blue-back speller which Baldwin disliked intensely, describing it as "a dog-eared, dilapidated, ill-smelling little work." He wrote,"The book contained meaningless rows of words, words, words, and task lessons in which I could discover neither rhythm nor rhyme nor common sense; and for these I conceived an intense dislike, which even to this day is revived at the mere mention of a spelling book" (p. 29).

Luckily, the library also contained Emerson's Primer, McGuffey's First Reader, and the Child's Instructor which contained stories and tales that delighted Baldwin. Of the stories in the McGuffey, Baldwin notes, "Good moral tales these were. . .calculated to help in the building of good moral men -- which can not be said of the slush and rot that are too often found in the so-called 'method' readers of today" (p. 33). Baldwin loved these early stories and recalled them as "childish literary joys." These stories and a gift of Dickens' A Child's History of England, given to him by an English guest, formed the basis of Baldwin's love of good literature. He loathed the idea of children wasting their time reading books that had no educational or literary value. He was also quite vehement in his denunciation of newspapers as being a waste of time.

Baldwin taught in neighborhood schools from 1865 to 1869, in a time before normal schools and formal teacher preparation. In 1870, he founded a high school in Noblesville, Indiana, and shortly after that, in 1873, he organized a public school system in the nearby community of Huntington. Baldwin also established the first school library there. A former pupil of Baldwin's recalled, "With the imperfect facilities at their command, Mr. and Mrs. Baldwin wrought wonders in that little field of primary education. They had the spirit and intuitions of successful teachers. I have always held them in affectionate esteem. They are among my first and very best teachers" (Noblesville Daily Ledger, Sept. 14, 1925).

Baldwin wrote over 50 books beginning with the publication of English Literature and The Story of Siegfried in 1882. While English Literature was intended to inform teachers about the pedagogy of teaching literature, most of Baldwin's books were written for children. In 1883, he became Superintendent of the Rushville Public Schools in Rush County, Indiana, and published The Story of Roland. In 1884, he published The Book Lover in which he gives counsel regarding book choices for children at various ages, promotes in-depth rather than casual reading, and supports the value and use of libraries. This book went through at least 13 editions and helped establish Baldwin as a leading authority on children's literature.

Baldwin moved east in 1887 to join the Education Department at Harper & Brothers. He assisted in the publication of Harper's Readers, being the compiler of five of the six volumes, and then became assistant editor of Harper's Periodicals in 1890. When Harper's was bought by American Book Company, Baldwin joined the editorial department, working there from 1894 to 1924, and ultimately becoming Editor-in-Chief of the American Book Company. While with American, he wrote The Baldwin Readers (1897) and co-authored The Expressive Readers (1911) with Ida Bender.

Baldwin entered teaching and publishing at a time when old methods of instruction were being questioned, and when there was a call for the use of good literature that matched his own ideas learned in childhood. Education in the late 19th century can be characterized as a time of reform. Smith (1965) suggests that the new education of the 1880s and 1890s emphasized the needs and interests of the individual child, influenced by educators such as Herbart and Froebel. Herbart also advocated the use of literary and historical narratives, instead of the Bible, to promote the development of character. Venezky (1986) outlines how the movement to make good literature the basis for reading instruction was a result of three influences. One was the beginning emphasis on silent reading in place of oral reading. A consequence or corollary of this was longer passages in readers, particularly in the upper levels. A second influence was an expansion in the publication of children's books. Kaestle (1988) writes of the expansion of publications of all types as a consequence of the invention of the rotary press, and children's literature was a part of this trend. The third influence, according to Venezky, was the attempt to Americanize the flood of immigrants to this country through the schools. The call for students to develop knowledge of a body of literature that provides the basis for a common culture is one that is familiar to us even today.

Baldwin, as an educator and an editor, would have been familiar with all the arguments that favored the use of good literature in reading instruction. More importantly, however, we know from his fictionalized autobiography that it was through the encounter with good literature and "good books" that he himself learned to read and became educated. His decision to rewrite favorite tales from classical literature and, subsequently, from other times in history, reflects his own inclinations and beliefs, as well as those current at the time he was writing. His position as an editor at Harper's and American Book Company placed him where decisions were made as to what would sell, and thus he was ideally situated to propound his ideas and to write the stories that millions of children would read. The popularity of his rewritten materials can be perceived not only by their sales (an estimated one million a year at their height), but by their translation into Chinese and Braille.


Baldwin, J. (1884). The book lover. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co. ________.(1914). In my youth: From the posthumous papers of Robert Dudley. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kaestle, C.F. (1988) Literacy and diversity: Themes from a social history of the American reading public. History of Education Quarterly, 28, 523-549.

Smith, N.B. (1965). American reading instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Venezky, R.L. (1986). Steps toward a modern history of American reading instruction. In E.Z. Rothkopf (Ed.). Review of Research in Education (Vol. 13). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Peter J. L. Fisher teaches at National-Louis University and Sheila Shapiro is at Northeastern Illinois University.

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