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University of Iowa News Release


April 5, 2011

UI Press releases letters of an early 20th-century school teacher

"An Iowa Schoolma'am: Letters of Elizabeth 'Bess' Corey, 1904-1908," edited by Philip L. Gerber and Charlotte Wright, will become available April 15, from the Bur Oak Books series of the University of Iowa Press.

Readers everywhere fell for Elizabeth Corey, the irrepressible, independent and fearless "Bachelor Bess," whose letters home to Iowa provided a firsthand account of her adventures on a South Dakota homestead from 1909 to 1919. Now, through the letters she wrote home between 1904 and 1908, readers can make the acquaintance of a younger Bess facing the realities of life in an Iowa country school system.

Sixteen-year-old Bess wrote her early letters when she was away from the family farm, trying to complete the ninth grade so she could become a teacher. That schooling was cut short in 1905, when her father died and she returned home to help her mother.

Later that year, she received a provisional certificate allowing her to teach, which she did from 1905 to 1909 in a succession of rural schools across Shelby and Cass counties. Always colorful and colloquial, unusually detailed and frank, Bess's letters are authentic documents of a discrete American time and place.

Full of puns, hyperbole, drama and above all else, honesty and authenticity, the 83 letters describe barefooted pupils, cantankerous and cooperative parents and school board members, classroom activities, and school picnics against a frugal background of early 20th-century chores, social occasions, party lines for telephones, chautauquas, church suppers and revivals, new ribbons for second-hand clothes, and buggy and train rides —- all seen through the eyes of a teenage farm girl not much older than some of her students.

Bess provides insight into the teaching profession as it was practiced in isolated Midwestern areas at the moment when our nation determined that, come what may, every American child was going to have access to a basic grammar-school education. Her letters create a veritable concordance of teaching in a one-room rural schoolhouse, a chapter of daily American life all but lost.

Pamela Riney-Kehrberg of Iowa State University wrote, "'An Iowa Schoolma'am' stands on its own as a lively story of early 20th-century teaching in addition to providing the essential background to 'Bachelor Bess.' Elizabeth Corey's vivid and funny letters provide a unique viewpoint on life in turn-of-the-century, small-town Iowa.

"The casual reader will enjoy Corey's letters on their own merits, while scholars interested in women's history, the history of education, and the rural Midwest will find the letters useful as well. If nothing else, 'An Iowa Schoolma'am' should simply be read for the fun of it!"

Philip Gerber (1923–2005) was Distinguished Professor of English at the State University of New York at Brockport and the editor of "Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909–1919," which was also published by the UI Press. Charlotte Wright, managing editor at the UI Press, holds a doctorate in English from the University of North Texas.

Books in the Bur Oak series represent the UI Press's dedication to celebrating the literature, history, geography and culture of the Great Plains with an intense focus on natural history and environmental issues. Covering subjects from archaeology, history and ornithology to prairie restoration, gardening and sustainability, Bur Oak Books emphasize the environmental past, present and future of the Midwest.

"An Iowa Schoolma'am" will be available at bookstores or directly from the UI Press, 800-621-2736 or Customers in Europe, the Middle East or Africa may order from Eurospan Group at

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: UI Press: Winston Barclay, University News Services,