Edward Eggleston’s novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster is recognized as a flagship of the regionalist literature that flourished in the United States after the Civil War.
Based on his brother’s teaching experiences, Eggleston’s 1871 work was innovative for having documented the Hoosier dialect of the mid-nineteenth century. His record of colloquial American speech may be considered a precursor to such renowned works as Huckleberry Finn.
The eldest son of a prominent Virginian, Edward Eggleston was born in Vevay, Indiana on the Ohio River in 1837.
A frail child whose upbringing was somewhat disrupted by the early death of his father, Eggleston’s formal education was intermittent. Stewarded by a charismatic high school teacher and his Methodist stepfather, however, Eggleston undertook independent study in language and literature, history, philosophy and religion.
After a year of schooling in Virginia, he quit the slave-holding state out of moral indignation and rejected an offer to attend “Mr. Jefferson’s university”. His brothers, on the other hand, renewed their paternal roots, and went on to fight as Confederates during the Civil War.
Edward, meanwhile, pursued a life as a Methodist circuit rider in Minnesota and Indiana, married, and had three daughters. Early forays into the world of publishing were born of his activities as a preacher, and as a father.
His first editorships were at The National Sunday School Teacher and The Little Corporal, a children’s paper to which he contributed stories. It was as editor of Hearth and Home that Eggleston began serializing the stories that would eventually comprise The Hoosier Schoolmaster.
Although originally hesitant to avail himself of the coarse language that had heretofore appeared only in the work of the area’s “primitive humorists”, Eggleston wrote the novel “in the dialect spoken in my childhood by rustics on the north side of the Ohio River.”
The serialized results reportedly increased the magazine’s subscription five-fold, and were syndicated in English-language papers around the world. The Hoosier Schoolmaster subsequently appeared in French, German, and Danish language versions, translators having gone to great lengths to come up with equivalents for such expressions as “I’ll be dog-on’d”.
After this early success, Eggleston pursued work as a minister and an editor, all the while continuing to write, with a focus on stories in dialect, historical fiction, and children’s literature. Among the latter are Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans and a series of biographies of American Indians, which he undertook with his daughter Lillie Seelye.
In his later years, he devoted himself to the writing of a cultural history of the United States, of which he completed two volumes, and served as president of the American Historical Association. Edward Eggleston died in 1902 at his home at Lake George, New York, where he’d lived for the previous twenty years.
The Hoosier Schoolmaster may be seen in an pantheon of provincial American regionalism that includes the stories of Sarah Orne Jewett and Bret Harte, the poems of James Whitcomb Riley, and most notably, the novels of Mark Twain.