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Durable Trifles

Katherine Pandora

University of Oklahoma

“Goodrich’s Grab Bag and Visualizing the Natural World for the Young: Why the Marvelous and the Miscellaneous Matters in the Antebellum Era”

    Scholarly attention to Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793-1860) as a children’s author has largely focused on his geographic and historical titles, and has left his significant output in regard to scientific topics relatively untouched. And yet, because of his celebrity, Goodrich’s books offer a particularly revealing vantage point from which to examine the creation of a vernacular scientific culture in the new nation, one in which, in Goodrich’s words, the “libraries of the learned” would be set at liberty, allowing the nation’s youngest citizens to bring into being a republic of science in which “knowledge was common property.”  Goodrich’s works provide access to identifying and characterizing this egalitarian ethos, one which would be subjected to increasing skepticism toward the century’s end as scientific professionalization solidified.
     The specific aspect of Goodrich’s public pedagogy in regard to science that I will discuss here is his heavy reliance on visual material. This strategy served a variety of ends: enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the texts, especially for child audiences; utilizing images to establish at least a second-hand experiential connection to the topics he covered; giving rise to clear and distinct mental impressions (it was presumed) as an aid to knowledge acquisition; and more. But there was a further epistemological issue at play, in that a profusion of images heightened the sensation of nature’s heterogeneity, provided startling juxtapositions that challenged received ideas about natural order, and enticed readers to pick and choose their own pathways through the material. Indeed, Goodrich’s emphasis on visual variety underscored the miscellaneousness instantiated by his texts. To be sure, this miscellaneousness had roots in Goodrich’s modes of production (cut-and-paste compilation, speed in responding to market demand, for example), but it also had serious pedagogical motivations behind it, in encouraging a horizontal mode of integrating individually-determined configurations of knowledge, as opposed to exemplifying a vertical structure that required a disciplined absorption of information within authoritatively delimited parameters. Goodrich’s vernacular epistemology and republicanism grounded an output that highlighted a new world of scientific knowledge that, like the American polity, should be the common possession of all, was inescapably diverse, and was still in the making, and thus especially apt material for the nation’s rising generation.

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