Henry Ward Beecher, a noted nineteenth-century American minister, addressed not only the young men of Indianapolis and the general public but most significantly, young men sent abroad for post-secondary education in this slim collection of lectures. In a tradition from the nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, young men from wealthy families were encouraged to experience life in another country before joining the American workforce. Don’t let this targeted demographic turn you off; there is plenty of social commentary in Seven lectures and it is an entertaining book on past vices.
While it could now be considered hilarious, biting satire a la Stephen Colbert, Seven lectures was composed in all seriousness. It is a fun read that includes “lectures” (i.e. chapters) on: “Industry and idleness,” “Twelve causes of dishonesty,” “Six warnings,” “The portrait gallery,” “Gamblers and gambling,” “The strange woman,” and “Popular amusements.” Take your pick, and I dare you not to quietly laugh out loud in the Newberry’s Special Collections reading room. Helpful librarians will give you a lovely velvet book pillow and a Newberry “snake” (a long, black velvet bean bag) to gently hold down the delicate pages of Beecher’s first edition gem as you read.
I started with “Industry and idleness” where I found several passages on the cautionary subject of “the lazy man.” This frowned-upon man’s characteristics include, “Long and late sleeping, stupid lounging, with indolent eyes, sleepily rolling over neglected work” (Beecher 1844, 3). The language Beecher employed is colorfully descriptive and animated to contemporary ears. Beecher continued on the subject of lazy man but introduced a slightly different type of lazy man: “Another idler as useless but vastly more active than the last, attends closely to every one’s business, except his own” (Beecher 1844, 4). For this type of young man, even his reading habits were subject to criticism: “He is a violent reader of newspapers, almanacs, and receipt books; and with scraps of history and mutilated anecdotes, he faces the very school master, and regards himself as a match for the minister” (Beecher 1844, 4). Given Beecher’s career, I suspect he had encountered more than one of these “violent readers” in the pews of his church.
Note the change in the meaning of the term “lazy.” In today’s world, lazy young adult males are associated with cable television, video games and social network interactions. Reading recreational nonfiction seems like a far cry from being lazy. Furthermore, Beecher dissuaded the young adult male from reading specific nonfiction genres such as: current events, books of information, and history. The contrast between Beecher’s point of view and today’s librarians’ views on young adult reading is fascinating. Given the prevalence of reluctant readers in today’s schools and libraries, nonfiction is now a gateway into engaging reluctant young adult male readers. As contemporary library researchers note, “nonfiction continues to be popular with a male audience” and it is worth encouraging reluctant young adult male readers to check it out (Watson and Stencel 2005, 8).
Look at Beecher’s work for yourself and leave a comment to let us know what you think of his assessment of lazy young men’s reading habits. The next post will examine Beecher’s opinion of the nineteenth-century humorists and how young men should avoid them.
Beecher, Henry Ward. Seven lectures to young men on various important subjects; delivered before the young men of Indianapolis, Indiana during the winter of 1843-4. Cincinnati: W.H. Moore & Co., 1844. Case B 692 .078.
Watson, Jamie and Jennifer Stencel. “Reaching Reluctant Readers with Nonfiction.” Young Adult Library Services 4, 2005, no. 1 (Fall): 8-11.
By Mary Grace Maloney, Newberry Library Intern.