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Reading Daniel Defoe in Twenty-First Century American High School Textbooks

Elizabeth Zold

A Journal of the Plague Year in the High School Literature Textbook

The textbooks containing an excerpt from A Journal of the Plague Year (Glencoe, Prentice Hall, Holt 2009) strip away the historicity of the physical text by standardizing spelling, capitalization, and italicization to fit present-day English standards. For example, Defoe's "tho'" is changed to "though"; italicized names such as Algate and White Chapel are changed to Roman type, with White Chapel compounded to one word; quotation marks are placed around dialogue; and only proper nouns and words at the beginnings of sentences are capitalized. By removing an important part of the compositional and print history of this and other texts, the editors have ensured that students will have no exposure to the ongoing evolution of printing and writing practices in Britain. As the textbook presents it, A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, has the precise same grammatical, orthographic, and typographic qualities as a text published in the 1800s or 1900s. While it would be difficult for textbooks to reprint a photo-facsimile of the original text in every case, reproducing the original text as closely as possible is a ready way for students to contextualize a piece of writing historically, sensing its alterity and "pastness." In his article "Teaching the Text(ual)," Andrew Ettin argues that the "estrangement" brought about by the "orthographic texture of an old-spelling edition" visually reminds students that the work is a product of a cultural context different than their own (646). Moreover, college-level students are expected to read texts with many of the original compositional and printing features intact. Publishers such as Penguin and Norton usually reproduce texts with the original punctuation, spelling, and typography, and these are often the texts that students read in the college English classroom. Additionally, the often-added page of "Notes on the Text" in these editions makes clear which edition of the original text is used and notes any changes made to the orthography, capitalization and italicization (among other things) of the copy text, making the editing process transparent to the reader.

Modernization of excerpts from A Journal of the Plague Year in high school literature textbooks includes changes to original punctuation. Interestingly, each textbook makes note of familiar features of Defoe's writing style, describing it as "plain" (Holt 2009 556), "clear" (Glencoe 622), "energetic," and "detailed" (Prentice Hall 502), but then each textbook alters his style by modernizing his punctuation to reflect current conventions. For example, in passages in the original text where longer sentences are connected with a number of semicolons, as is the norm in eighteenth-century prose, the editors alter the punctuation to produce a series of shorter sentences, which is presumably easier for students to negotiate.6 A section of Defoe's original text reads:

They told him they had no Lodging that they could spare, but one Bed, up in the Garret, and that they could spare that Bed but for one Night, some Drovers being expected the next Day with Cattle; so, if he would accept of that Lodging, he might have it, which he did; so a Servant was sent up with a Candle with him, to shew him the Room; he was very well dress'd, and look'd like a Person not used to lie in a Garret, and when he came to the Room he fech'd a deep Sigh, and said to the Servant, I have seldom lain in such a Lodging as this; (70)

The Holt (2009) textbook breaks this one sentence into three:

They told him they had no lodging that they could spare but one bed up in the garret, and that they could spare the bed for one night, some drovers being expected the next day with cattle; so, if he would accept of that lodging, he might have it, which he did. So a servant was sent up with a candle with him to show him the room. He was very well dressed, and looked like a person not used to lie in a garret; and when he came to the room he fetched a deep sigh, and said to the servant, "I have seldom lain in such a lodging as this." (561)

This kind of editorial practice is problematic for several reasons. First, by altering sentence structure in early works, editors prevent high school students from learning to navigate proficiently seventeenth- and eighteenth-century prose. These students then struggle in college when they are assigned to read seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. Second, the moment the original sentence structure is changed, the reproduced work fails to represent accurately Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Instead, it becomes the editors' interpretation of the original work. Ettin notes "the allegation that [a text has] merely 'modernized' punctuation implies that the amended version is the equivalent of the [original] text" (646), which he claims is patently false. Emendations to punctuation, he demonstrates, can change the tone or meaning of a work. Other scholarship on textual editing suggests that when a text is edited for nonspecialists like students, readability is a key guide for editorial decisions concerning accidentals. Leah S. Marcus argues that some early-modern spellings and punctuation that might be difficult for nonspecialists should be modernized, although she also advocates for "intermingling textual and historical notes [about variants] as a way of calling attention to the historicity of all the elements of the text" (1075). What is most troubling is that students are not informed that these changes have taken place. Mentioning that all aspects of the text have been modernized and why, perhaps in the historical-background section preceding the text, would at least highlight the changes in language and print culture for students.

The fragmented narrative of A Journal of the Plague Year, which Defoe partially composed by combining oral stories, written accounts, and other historical records, seems to be slightly easier to excerpt than most linear narratives. Still, finding a chunk of text to represent the whole is difficult. The excerpt included in the Glencoe edition tells the story of H. F. visiting the pit of bodies behind the church, beginning with "I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets" (625) and ending with "for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this" (627). This excerpt, focusing on horror and death within the city of plague-ridden London, is the only one out of the four textbooks that presents a single passage of the text rather than piecing an excerpt together from several different sections of this work.

Fragmenting A Journal of the Plague Year rather than presenting a single section of it, the Holt (2009) edition's excerpts thoroughly disrupt the substance and structure of the piece; moreover, how the pieces of text are presented does not permit students to understand how the form and content of the text work together to produce its realism. In the Holt (2009) textbook, there are three separate section headings followed by a small excerpt from the text: "The Infection Spreads," "Dismal Scenes," and "Escape from Quarantine." Initially, this strategy seems to provide students with a broader view of the various societal issues stemming from the plague that Defoe brings to light in the text. However, the first section, "The Infection Spreads," is taken from near the end of A Journal of the Plague Year when H. F. discusses how the doctors, looking back, begin to understand how the infection spread so quickly. The editors of the Holt (2009) textbook thus present the people of the time as knowing how the infection spreads from the start, when Defoe makes clear in his text that the exact opposite occurred. The "Dismal Scenes" section jumps to an earlier part of the narrative with H. F. walking the streets, hearing about the suicide of an alderman, and describing the painful conditions of the plague that pushed people to commit "self-murder." The last section, "Escaping Quarantine," comes from an even earlier point in the text in which H. F. describes how a sick man pretends to be well in order to stay a night at an inn and ends up infecting everyone residing there. In the Holt (2009) edition, these stories construct a broader view of the issues presented in Defoe's text than do the other textbooks. However, in reproducing them out of chronological order, the editors take away from the historical nature and structure of the story. After all, when reading the full text, readers experience the events of the plague more or less chronologically with H. F., and his digressions and stories add to the overall realistic unfolding of the narrative. By contrast, when reading nonchronological segments, students do not learn how to navigate a complex text that digresses and returns to the main plot as the narrator weaves his way through the narrative. Instead, sections are separated and labeled for them, which also removes an opportunity for students to identify and analyze the text's themes on their own.

The four textbooks provide questions along the way to guide students' analyses of the text. While each textbook uses a different name for this section — "Reading Strategy," "Literary Analysis," or "Literary Focus" — the objectives are the same: to direct students to parts of the text and either check for their comprehension or have them make connections to larger ideas. For example, the Glencoe text asks the student, "How do the details and characterization of the cloaked man in the preceding two paragraphs contribute to the story?" (627). The Prentice Hall text asks students, "Where in the first paragraph does the narrator indicate that he is providing a personal account intended to be read by others? Explain." (511). There is at least one question like these, and often two, per page, leading students through the text and selecting the elements on which they will focus. Such a method is what Dallas Dillon, in his paper on the use of textbook anthologies, calls the "recipe to literary study" (4). Having students identify elements of different genres or specific details in the story encourages them to comprehend different structures and checks for plot comprehension. However, as Benjamin Bloom points out in his taxonomy of the varying levels of intellectual behavior, the ability to answer a question about a text and the ability to initiate an analysis of the text are two different skill sets and require different levels of thinking. While general comprehension and the identification and explanation of a textual element are important, these are not higher-order thinking skills. In contrast, employing the skills of application, analysis, evaluation, and creation in response to a work of literature demands a higher level of critical thinking. While presenting set questions does not bar students from conducting their own analyses, the questions can be quite leading, and they can block the idea that one's own analysis is necessary or preferred. Thus, when students arrive in the university classroom, they may believe there is a "right" answer to an analytical question and may not possess the ability to engage critically with a work through analysis and critique.
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