Public schools spread throughout the nation in the 1870s. The change was especially important in the South, where public education was not available until it became a lasting benefit of Reconstruction. Adults too old for school were so eager to learn that they flocked to public lectures called chautauquas held in hundreds of locations all over the country. The number of Americans who couldn't read dropped from 20 percent in 1870 to about 10 percent in 1900, despite the influx of millions of initially poorly educated immigrants. However, in 1900, almost half of nonwhite Americans still couldn't read. Only 40 years before, it had been against the law to teach slaves to read in much of the South.
College education got a big boost from the Morrill Act (1862), which reserved some of the proceeds from the sale of public lands to found land-grant colleges in new states. Land-grant colleges are state schools with public backing in all of the United States that allow people to get higher education even if they come from poor families. In another higher education development, Johns Hopkins University (1876) provided the first serious graduate-degree programs in the United States.
More people could read than ever before. They chose books with stories that seemed to speak to their own lives and dreams. The books they read then proceeded to reshape the way readers saw the world:
- Horatio Alger wrote more than 100 novels with titles like Luck and Pluck (1869) and Tattered Tom (1871). The young heroes of Horatio Alger stories advance through hard work and honesty from poverty to middle-class economic safety, not from rags to riches, as people who have never read the stories have come to believe.
- Walt Whitman continued his poetic tributes to human nature, loosened social restraints, and his native land through the 1870s. His work expanded the understanding of poetry.
- America and the world found a new literary friend when a failed silver miner named Samuel Clemens took the pen name Mark Twain. His writing, from The Innocents Abroad (1869) to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), helped make reading widely popular and broadened the meaning of great literature.