February 21, 2014

W. T. Field: noble thoughts and high ideals

Walter Taylor Field was born in Illinois on February 21, 1861. He was educated in both Chicago public schools and at an academy in Iowa before attending Dartmouth and Amherst College in New England. Returning to Illinois, he became an author and poet before compiling history books and anthologies for children.

In his book Fingerposts to Children's Reading, 1907, Field offered several essays with advice for children's reading. He advocated that children read to develop their character, particularly their moral character, as well as for cultural enrichment. He gave suggestions to parents on encouraging reading, as well as tips for teachers, and anyone else interested in educated the young. As he wrote in the preface, "No one who knows and loves children can fail to appreciate the influence which noble thoughts and high ideals exercise upon the unfolding character, — and no one who knows good literature can fail to realize the wealth of joy and beauty which it holds in store for the young."

Reading, Field wrote, allows children to build their imagination and to find heroes to imitate. For that reason, he discourages reading about crime or cheap stories that offer "action and excitement" without moral lessons: "Carefully planned details of robberies and hold-ups instruct the youth how to go about the nefarious business, and inspire a wish to emulate the robbers, because they are bold and daring and always outwith the police." Instead, he offered a list of recommended reading for home libraries, public schools, public libraries, and Sunday schools.

Also, in the early 20th century, Field teamed up with the former superintendent of Chicago's public schools, Ella Flagg Young, to produce a series of age appropriate called The Young and Field Literary Readers (not unlike the McGuffey Readers). In their "advanced' book, they included many American authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Sidney Lanier. They also included the writings of historians, political figures, and public speakers, including Edward Everett, William Hickling Prescott, Francis Parkman, and Henry Clay. Other volumes included fairy tales, Native American legends, and fables from all over the world (including, impressively, Hindu fables).

Field was also, occasionally, a poet himself. His poem "January":

The dawn comes late and cold and brings no cheer;
   Blue shadows lie across the driven snow;
   Dim skies shut down upon the world below,
Save in the east, where ruddy lines appear,
Piercing the purple cloud-banks like a spear.
   Adown the road creaking wagons go;
   The teamsters beat their breasts to keep aglow;
Their frosty breath floats upward, keen and clear.

As thus I watch the coming of the day
   And think of summer suns and waving grain,
The Master Artist, at my side alway,
   Sketches with frosty pencil on the pane
Leaves, ferns and nodding flowers, as He would say,
   "Take heart, and wait. All these shall come again."

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