Michigan State University

Advice Books

Well before the nineteenth century, advice or conduct literature was among the commonest type of book to be found in most households. As such, they constitute a prime source for research on the period in which they were produced and used. Conduct literature aims at defining and prescribing the relative roles and duties of men and women, and developing boys and girls. Covering manners and morals, questions of household management and advice on what to read, children's education and the treatment of servants, dealing with fashion and leisure as well as with religious meditation and sexual conduct, conduct books shift in the cultural perception of the modern individual. As is increasingly recognized, they have a great research interest for anyone reconstructing and exploring the cultural formation of national, class and gender identities. In particular, they reflect changing precepts of behavior for men and women as conflicting religious ideologies and the rise of capitalism made their impact on the formation of civic society and the modern family unit.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, conduct literature flourished. According to many recent studies, the antebellum era was a period of middle class solidification and one in which conduct literature flourished, producing more than a hundred new works between 1820 and 1860. There continues to be some disagreement as to the centrality of children in this development. Some scholars contend that much of this literature was targeting adults, but as this collection shows there was a component of it aimed at youth attempting to negotiate the new social, political, and economic forces. These how-to books as frequently as not revealed attempts to reconcile Christian doctrine and dogma with everyday life, and they also address a host of contemporary issues.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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