The Hoosier Schoolmaster
Edward EgglestonGrosset & Dunlap, 1871, 281 pages
Reviewed by Steve Elliott, June 6, 2005
Here is a treasure of fiction that encompasses some great human themes. The footnotes and careful use of colloquial dialect seem to intimate that the author was seeking to preserve the Hoosier cultural experience. But I enjoyed it for the use of the old schoolmaster setting, its characters, and a nice tight plot.
The pages contain the experiences of a new schoolmaster to “Flat Creek” district of Indiana in about the 1850’s. The author gives you some great pictures and stories to draw you in, but then slowly weaves his plot around several colorful characters. It seems from the intro to my third edition that it was rather well known and a good seller in its day.First let me deal with some things that I did not like. I found the illustrations to be of no use or help in the understanding or meaning of the text. The copy I obtained was old, 1899, so I had to treat it with a lot of care. The footnotes, almost entirely given to explaining the origin of strange dialectical words like, “peart” for pert, or why the word “pail” did not seem to exist in 1850 Indiana, did nothing for me except break up my reading. I would have done more with the central bad guy, Dr. Small, to give him some blackness or at least emotional repulsion. Even at the end of the story, I still did not know him enough to hate him, but rather was baffled by some of his evil actions as the motive seemed lacking.
But all that aside, this was a great story. The schoolmaster, Hartsook, was believable and easily empathized with. The bulldog illustration will stay with me for some time. At moments there was something just shy of a Dickensian flavor to some of the scenes, especially the debtor’s prison. Little Shockey was simply a delight and in my opinion used by the author to give the whole a certain spiritual slant without too much preaching. That of course leads into the interesting plot use of preaching in the story. I would guess Eggleston was enamored with Whitman, Thoureau, et. al. and probably was not the biggest fan of organized religion, but I think this works to make this a stronger story. In the end, it sets up a beautiful messianic vision at the court of law, with truth and justice winning out of hypocrisy, and that all through the establishment of law rather than its acquiescence.
Lovers of American fiction, especially the Twain sort of mystery/comedy will enjoy this text. It has to hit my list of books about teaching simply for the bulldog illustration and the wonderful turning of the tables on the boy trying to dunk his teacher.