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Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women
Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women
Barbara Sicherman
The University of North Carolina Press, 2010
392 pp., $37.50

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Jennifer L. Holberg


Well-Read Lives

The impact of reading on American women of the Gilded Age.

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I still have the grubby little pack of cards, safe in its disintegrating orange box (surely a tell-tale design element of the 1970s), with which my sister and brother and I played endless games of Authors during our childhood over thirty years ago. A Go Fish-style of card game, Authors made its initial appearance during the Civil War and was then issued in its current form by Parker Brothers at the turn of the 20th century. As such, the game—which can still be purchased—provides a valuable window into at least one version of the late 19th-century literary canon. The writers featured (with the exception of Shakespeare) are all from the 19th century and either English or American. As children, my siblings and I delighted in the fact that so many of them had three names—the Fenimore in James Fenimore Cooper being called out with particular relish. So Cooper was joined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Walter Scott—as well as by their less flamboyantly named brethren Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Mark Twain. Just one woman writer joins this list. Perhaps surprisingly, that woman writer is not George Eliot or either of the Brontes or Jane Austen, but Louisa May Alcott.

Barbara Sicherman's delightful study, Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, explains why Alcott's inclusion in a literary by-product like the Authors card game is really not so unexpected after all. Sicherman, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values, Emerita, at Trinity College, writes beautifully, evoking the culture and milieu of late 19th-century America with sensitivity and great depth. The book extensively chronicles reading practices among women of the Gilded Age who, though they came from a range of classes, used reading and the social activities that surrounded it as an important tool in their personal, professional and civic lives. As Sicherman observes about this "culture of reading": "The Gilded Age was in many respects the high-water mark of literacy in America. Not only was reading sanctified as a means of promoting knowledge, morality and cultural competence, it was also a popular form of entertainment …. Its dual status, as admired cultural practice and pleasurable entertainment, helps account for reading's unusual impact at the time." Reading both alone and in concert with other women (friends and family alike), then, women found avenues to begin to imagine new ways of existing in the world and to thereby authorize new storylines for themselves and others.

The volume presents a combination of two complementary methodologies. In the particularly engaging first section of the book, "Young Women's Reading in the Gilded Age," Sicherman begins by providing an in-depth reception study of one text, Alcott's Little Women, and tracing out its profound effect on female readers, particularly intellectual girls and/or aspiring young female writers. Alcott's heroine Jo March, whom Sicherman labels an "exemplar of female independence," provided (and still provides, though Sicherman resists making concrete claims for the effect on women born after the 1950s) young women with a new kind of bildungsroman, one that Sicherman demonstrates was largely absent before the novel's publication—and indeed, she argues, was seldom replicated long after. While Jo's appeal is a strong component, the novel's success is also due in part, Sicherman argues, to its depiction of a range of female vocations, represented by Jo's sisters. Sicherman sketches out the sizeable range of readers who have resonated with this text and demonstrates that Little Women has been able to bear a multiplicity of interpretations, helping women readers to "legitimate endeavors that often became occasions for building 'castles in the air' and, for some, formulating concrete future plans as well."

It is these formulators of "concrete future plans" to which the rest of the book is devoted. Moving outward from the study of Little Women, Sicherman presents case studies of "individual reading communities" and the role they played in the lives of a variety of late 19th-century women— from the privileged Hamilton family and M. Carey Thomas to social reformers like Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells to Jewish immigrant women. Importantly, Sicherman not only presents a series of remarkable women but also establishes the significance of their collaborative reading practices as central to these women's successes.

For the women of the "comfortable classes" (here the Hamilton sisters and their cousins, M. Carey Thomas, and Jane Addams), Sicherman contends, there was a "direct connection between a seemingly private activity [of reading] and women's entry into public life." These "privileged readers" used the literature they consumed to fire their aspirations and feed their ambitions—not just to make their own lives better, but to serve society. And what ambitions! In these chapters, we find the story of the first female Harvard professor, of the first female president of Bryn Mawr, of a best-selling popularizer of antiquity, of the pioneering founder of Hull-House, and more. These were women of great public achievement, their histories well worth knowing. Well-Read Lives goes a step farther by portraying their intellectual histories, their reliance on texts which made their success possible. At the same time, Sicherman's scholarship is particularly laudable because of the nuance she brings to the individual women portrayed. Hers is not a volume of sweeping generalizations, but of careful representation of the desires, values, and personal mythologies each of these women cultivated to become the kind of heroine each desired to be. It is not a surprise, perhaps, that almost all of these women wrote autobiographies (some unpublished) to reify this heroinism, to contribute new narratives of female achievement.

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