Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

by Barbara Sicherman
     
 

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In a compelling approach structured as theme and variations, Barbara Sicherman offers insightful profiles of a number of accomplished women born in America's Gilded Age who lost--and found--themselves in books, and worked out a new life purpose around them.

Some women, like Edith and Alice Hamilton, M. Carey Thomas, and Jane Addams, grew up in households filled

Overview


In a compelling approach structured as theme and variations, Barbara Sicherman offers insightful profiles of a number of accomplished women born in America's Gilded Age who lost--and found--themselves in books, and worked out a new life purpose around them.

Some women, like Edith and Alice Hamilton, M. Carey Thomas, and Jane Addams, grew up in households filled with books, while less privileged women found alternative routes to expressive literacy. Jewish immigrants Hilda Satt Polacheck, Rose Cohen, and Mary Antin acquired new identities in the English-language books they found in settlement houses and libraries, while African Americans like Ida B. Wells relied mainly on institutions of their own creation, even as they sought to develop a literature of their own.

It is Sicherman's masterful contribution to show that however the skill of reading was acquired, under the right circumstances, adolescent reading was truly transformative in constructing female identity, stirring imaginations, and fostering ambition. With Little Women's Jo March often serving as a youthful model of independence, girls and young women created communities of learning, imagination, and emotional connection around literary activities in ways that helped them imagine, and later attain, public identities. Reading themselves into quest plots and into male as well as female roles, these young women went on to create an unparalleled record of achievement as intellectuals, educators, and social reformers. Sicherman's graceful study reveals the centrality of the era's culture of reading and sheds new light on these women's Progressive-Era careers.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Great depth of scholarship and insightful analysis. With its wonderful readability it should also appeal to a more general audience, and will contribute to contemporary conversations about reading in a way that helps us avoid uninformed comparisons between reading today and in the past.—SHARP: Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing

An elegant historical survey. . . . Sicherman's well-chosen examples . . . make a good case for her argument that reading mattered crucially.—American Historical Review

Each chapter in this book could serve as a stand-alone essay for the reader who was looking for resources on these particular women. . . . A valuable resource for understanding Progressive Era women's culture.—Women and Social Movements in the United States

[Sicherman] writes beautifully, evoking the culture and milieu of late 19th-century America with sensitivity and great depth. . . . 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 representations of the desires, values, and personal mythologies each of these women cultivated to become the kind of heroine each desired to be.—Books & Culture

A beautifully crafted monograph. . . . Highly recommended.—Choice

An important study of the impact of reading on young women growing up in the Gilded Age.—American Studies

Well-Read Lives provides a highly accessible, engaging examination of the latent potential in the female literary culture of the Gilded Age….This is a rewarding look into the power of reading to transform lives.—H-Net Reviews

An important book for those interested in issues of gender, literacy, or nineteenth-century American life. . . . A fine example of how historical scholarship about these issues can move between specific case studies and generalized trends or patterns.—Clio

Well-Read Lives deftly balances the big picture of Gilded Age literary culture with the specificity and uniqueness of its individual subjects. With nuance and insight, Sicherman makes a convincing case that private reading practices had a profound impact on Progressive women's public endeavors.—Journal of American History

Sicherman's study of female reading is as inspirational, entertaining, and comforting as the books her subjects pursued and celebrated. This is truly a text to be reckoned with as both a model and resource of the complicated ways that readers make sense of their texts.—Reviews in American History

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807839096
Publisher:
The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
08/01/2012
Edition description:
1
Pages:
392
Sales rank:
445,137
Product dimensions:
8.70(w) x 5.60(h) x 0.70(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Through extraordinary archival research and careful reading of diaries, letters, autobiographies, and other writings, Sicherman provides a thoughtful, well-documented, and original account of how young women's 'deep reading' in fiction, biographies, and histories enabled them to think their way into different, quite unprecedented lives. Elegantly written and a delight to read.—Janice A. Radway, author of Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature

Barbara Sicherman has gifted us with a treasure! This is an extraordinary book that explains, quite simply, how we got to be us: women who read across all our differences; beyond all barriers. Women like Jane Addams, Rose Cohen, Ida B. Wells who seek to understand deeply, learn profoundly, build community in mean and difficult times. This is a timely, marvelous book for this moment of change, danger, hope.—Blanche Wiesen Cook, John Jay College and Graduate Center, The City University of New York

Meet the Author


Barbara Sicherman is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita, at Trinity College. She is author of Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters and The Quest for Mental Health in America, 1880-1917 and coeditor of Notable American Women: The Modern Period.

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