The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century

by Harvey J. Graff

CoverOriginally published in 1979 by Academic Press and in this updated edition by Transaction Press in 1991, Harvey Graff’s pioneering study presents an insightful and impactful interpretation of the place of literacy in 19th-century society and culture. Based on an intensive comparative historical analysis, employing both qualitative and quantitative techniques and a wide range of sources, The Literacy Myth reevaluates the role typically assigned to literacy in historical scholarship, cultural understanding, economic development schemes, and social doctrines and ideologies—leading ultimately to a redefined understanding of literacy in the 19th century. Original and revisionist, The Literacy Myth stands out among work by scholars including Brian Street, Shirley Brice Heath, Sylvia Scribner, and Michael Cole, who along with Graff created The New Literacy Studies in the mid 1980s.

Table of Contents

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Front Matter



Introduction to the 1991 Transaction Edition

Introduction to the 1979 Edition: Literacy and History

1. The Moral Bases of Literacy: Society, Economy, and Social Order

Section I. Literacy and Social Structure in the Nineteenth-Century City

2. Illiterates and Literates in Urban Society: The Mid-Nineteenth Century

3. Persistence, Mobility, and Literacy

4. The Children of the Illiterate: Education, Work, and Mobility

Section II. Literacy and Society

5. Literacy, Jobs, and Industrialization

6. Literacy and Criminality

7. Literacy: Quantity and Quality

Appendix A. Sources for the Historical Study of Literacy in North America and Europe

Appendix B. Literacy and the Census

Appendix C. Classification of Occupations

Appendix D. Illiterates: Occupations, 1861

Appendix E. A Note on the Record Linkage

Subject Index

Related Work

1. The Literacy Myth at Thirty 

Graff, H. J. (2010). The Literacy Myth at Thirty. Journal of Social History, 43(3), 635–661, Reprinted in 2011 in Literacy Myths, Legacies, and Lessons: New Studies on Literacy by Harvey J. Graff, Transaction Publishers.

2. The New Literacy Studies and the Resurgent Literacy Myth

Graff, H. J. (2022). The New Literacy Studies and the Resurgent Literacy Myth. Literacy in Composition Studies, 9(1), 47–53.

Publication Information: Graff, Harvey J. (2023). The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century. The WAC Clearinghouse. (Originally published in 1991 by Transaction Publishers)

Publication Date: September 24, 2023

Contact Information:
Harvey J. Graff:

Landmark Publications in Writing Studies

Series Editor: Mike Palmquist, Colorado State University

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