AS the spelling-book was the first manual of instruction used in school, and kept in our hands for many years, I think it worthy of a separate chapter in these annals of the times that are past. The spelling-book used in our school from time immemorial — immemorial at least to the generation of learners to which I belonged — was thus entitled: "THE ONLY SURE GUIDE to the English Tongue, by William Perry, Lecturer of the English Language in the Academy of Edinburgh, and author of several valuable school-books."
In the first place, there was a frontispiece. This frontispiece consisted of two parts. In the upper division, there was the representation of a tree laden with fruit of the largest description. It was intended, I presume, as a striking and alluring emblem of the general subject, the particular branches, and the rich fruits of education. But the figurative meaning was above my apprehension, and no one took the trouble to explain it. I supposed it nothing but the picture of a luxuriant apple-tree; and it always made me think of that good tree in my father's orchard, so dear to my palate, — the pumpkin-sweeting.
There ran a ladder from the ground up among the branches, which was designed to represent the ladder of learning. Little boys were ascending this in pursuit of the fruit that hung there so temptingly. Others were already up in the tree, plucking the apples directly from their stems; while others were on the ground, picking up those that had dropped in their ripeness. At the very top of the tree, with his head reared above all fruit or foliage, was a bare-headed lad with a book in his hand, which he seemed intently studying. I supposed that he was a boy that loved his book better than apples, as all good boys should, — one who in very childhood had trodden temptation under foot. But, indeed, it was only a boy who was gathering fruit from the topmost boughs, according to the figurative meaning, as the others were from those lower down. Or rather, as he was portrayed, he seemed like one who had culled the fairest and highest growing apples, and was trying to learn from a book where he should find a fresh and loftier tree, upon which he might climb to a richer repast and a nobler distinction.
This picture used to retain my eye longer than any other in the book. It was probably more agreeable on account of the other part of the frontispiece below it. This was the representation of a school at their studies, with the master at his desk. He was pictured as an elderly man, with an immense wig enveloping his head and bagging about his neck, and with a face that had an expression of perplexity at a sentence in parsing, or a sum in arithmetic, and a frown at the playful urchins in the distant seats. There could not have been a more capital device by which the pleasures of a free range and delicious eating, both so dear to the young, might be contrasted with stupefying confinement and longing palates in the presence of crabbed authority. The subsequent contents I was going on to describe in detail; but on second thought I forbear, for fear that the description might be as tedious to my readers as the study of them was to me. Suffice it to say, there was talk about vowels and consonants, diphthongs and triphthongs, monosyllables and polysyllables, orthography and punctuation, and even about geography, all which was about as intelligible to us, who were obliged to commit it to memory year after year, as the fee-faw-fum uttered by the giant in one of our storybooks.
Perry's spelling-book, as it was in those days, at least, is now out of use. It is nowhere to be found except in fragments in some dark corner of a country cupboard or garret. All vestiges of it will soon disappear forever. What will the rising generations do, into what wilds of barbarism will they wander, into what pits of ignorance fall, without the aid of the Only Sure Guide to the English tongue?