445: Grammaire Francaise by Mary Stone Bruce

by Gerard

445: Bruce, Mary Stone. Grammaire française a l’usage des élèves de l’enseignement secondaire [French grammar for high school students]. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1904. 290 pp.

Dewey Construction:

  • 400: Language
  • 440: Romance languages: French
  • 445: Grammar and syntax of standard French

Imagine being a high school student of the French language in the early part of the 20th century. While not directly conscious of it, America was in the throes of the Roaring Twenties (ironically referred to by the French as the “Crazy Years”). This was the age of the flapper, Art Deco, and Felix the Cat. But, for Harold and Helen McKinley of 69 Bartley Avenue (city unknown), it was simply the age of French class and, as we will see, a lot of doodling.

Bruce’s Grammaire Française covers the use and grammar of the French language fairly thoroughly. Starting with the basic parts of speech and ending with verb conjugation and complex conjunctions, almost the entire text is in French. This type of immersion learning works either really well or really badly (depending on how you learn).

I found it very useful. Right from the start, you have to suss out various meanings and translations and that helps your vocabulary grow without boring vocabulary lists. I was very pleased just how much of my French I still had (at least in the reading ability—I still can’t hold a lengthy conversation). Also, I thought about how much grammar should be taught in schools. It’s hard to find a person under 20 who knows an adjective from an adverb. It’s time to go old school.

The other, more compelling part of this book had nothing to do with Bruce’s writing—it was the previous owners. First of all, I know of only one other person in the country with this book (a fellow in Finger Lakes, NY). Second of all, even that person does not have the luxury of the illustrations that I have in my copy. I didn’t want to expose a 108-year-old textbook (already falling apart) to flash photography, so unfortunately, I can’t show you what’s inside: I can only tell you about.

From what I can tell from the inscriptions and doodles, Harold McKinley was the first to use this book. He attended MHS (it might be Mansfield, OH as the above address exists in that town) as a member of the class of 1925. He wrote his name a few times around the book, but the prize for creativity goes to his sister Helen. All throughout the book are disembodied heads of flapper girls with the traditional bob cut and large teardrop earring. They’re everywhere. It’s as if the only thing keeping poor Helen awake through her French lessons were these drawings. If Helen had used the book first, Harold would have worn quite a few erasers getting rid of intrusive doodles.

It made me think of my early days in reading. As a kid, I would page through our 1984 Encyclopedia Britannica, sometimes reading passages, sometimes drawing long-stringed balloons in the margins, a repetitive sign that I lacked a connection to what I was reading. I have a few books in my collection carry distinctive marginalia. Some of it are my college notes, and some are glimpses into a past user’s mind. Books are mostly about the reader, and this case, in between the uses of relative and conjunctive French pronouns, it’s about a vision of the world about the reader.