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"Doubtful Characters": Alphabet Books and Battles over Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Print Culture

Hoffman, A. Robin (2012) "Doubtful Characters": Alphabet Books and Battles over Literacy in Nineteenth-Century British Print Culture. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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More than mere tools for reading instruction, alphabet books offered nineteenth-century writers and illustrators a site for contesting dominant versions of literacy. They could address broad audiences in a genre that was uniquely suited to registering shifts in the social and material conditions of publishing, literacy, and education. This historical study recovers these efforts and traces the genre’s co-evolution with Victorian ideas about literacy. It exploits an overlooked material archive in order to refocus attention from the history of rising literacy rates, toward concurrent debates over how visual and oral culture should complement printed text within domestic education and formal schooling.
“Doubtful Characters” focuses on figures prominent in Victorian publishing, and reveals how the alphabet books they designed resisted pedagogues’ overweening emphasis on textual decoding. George Cruikshank, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Walter Crane promoted forms of visual literacy, including caricature and holistic book design. Edward Lear revived aspects of oral culture embedded within print. However, after national education reform (ca. 1870), alphabet illustration tended to leverage nostalgia against pedagogy. This is seen in works by Kate Greenaway and Hablot Knight Brown (“Phiz”). The study concludes by exploring satirical interpretations of the alphabet produced by Hilaire Belloc and Rudyard Kipling at the fin de siècle, which reflected growing ambivalence about industrialized print culture.
While recovering designers’ strategic use of satire and production values in alphabet books, “Doubtful Characters” resists assumptions about the transparent goals of didactic texts, and exposes the fragility of audience conventions. Satirical alphabets most clearly challenged a child-oriented perspective on literacy education and illustration that took hold by the turn of the twentieth century, and provided an effective platform for commenting on the ways that literacy was taught and exercised. But this study also shows how alphabet books deployed aesthetic theory, commercial contexts, and other rhetorical strategies in order to address adult audiences alongside or even instead of children. Through a combination of close reading, analysis of material culture, and historical contextualization of a series of illustrated alphabets, “Doubtful Characters” demonstrate how the form routinely interrogated and promoted a configuration of relationships among media forms and audience categories.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Hoffman, A. RobinALH73@pitt.eduALH73
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairGubar, Marahmjg4@pitt.eduMJG4
Committee MemberCarr, Stephenscarr@pitt.eduSCARR
Committee MemberBoone, Troyboone@pitt.eduBOONE
Committee MemberZboray, Maryzboraym@pitt.eduZBORAYM
Committee MemberZboray, Ronaldzboray@pitt.eduZBORAY
Date: 26 September 2012
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 17 May 2012
Approval Date: 26 September 2012
Submission Date: 2 August 2012
Access Restriction: 5 year -- Restrict access to University of Pittsburgh for a period of 5 years.
Number of Pages: 425
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: print culture, literacy, illustrated books, history of childhood, alphabet, history of education, Victorian literature, British culture
Date Deposited: 27 Sep 2012 02:14
Last Modified: 26 Sep 2017 05:15


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