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date: 18 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

This article argues that despite the New England Primer's emphasis upon authority, as children were invited into unmediated communion with the text they gained a sense of themselves as agents with the power to shape both literary meaning and an interior realm of subjectivity. The Primer's history thus reflects dramatic changes in childhood. Its inclusion of joyous prayers and solemn meditations on death suggest that these individual rituals were central to its pedagogy. The evangelical revisions of the Primer were part of an ongoing shift within New England religious culture from patriarchal hierarchy to individual spiritual responsibility. The reading practices inaugurated by the Primer are perhaps best summarized by a reader who in 1849 asked, “whose brain has not been effectually confused by copious and involuntary draughts of John Cotton's Spiritual Milk for Babes [and been] reminded, in a moment of despondency, that his Book and Heart Must Never Part?”

Keywords: New England Primer, Book and Heart, subjectivity, childhood, joyous prayers, literary meaning

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