In Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, Barbara Sicherman uses a compelling approach structured as theme and variations to offer 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. She argues that 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. The book includes discussions of Edith & Alice Hamilton, Jane Addams, Rose Cohen, Ida B. Wells, and others.
The book is now available in paperback. A free Reading Group Guide is available at the book page on the UNC Press website.
In the following guest post, Sicherman writes about the books in her family library as she grew up and how her work in library archives as an adult triggered memories of her father.
While researching Well-Read Lives, I finally made sense of one of my father’s rare excursions into childhood reminiscence. It happened in the archives of the New York Public Library, where I was deep in reports of children’s librarians on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. My father grew up in that place at that time, the son of immigrants from Sighet in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Romania). Matter-of-factly, as if it were the most ordinary of occurrences, he would recall washing his hands in puddles before entering the local library. At this remove, I don’t remember whether there was more to the story, some larger context perhaps. I do know that I didn’t get it. (As a social and cultural historian, I am still chagrined that the primitive plumbing in New York’s tenement district did not come to mind.) The answer jumped out at me as I read the librarians’ lamentations about the filthy hands of the Jewish children who sometimes waited for hours to gain entry into one of the crowded public libraries that dotted the neighborhood. Those who failed inspection were sent away; in extreme cases, their library cards were confiscated—a severe punishment since to a child growing up in poverty a card of one’s own was a cherished possession and an entree into America. My father must have hoped to forestall humiliation—and to gain immediate access to the books he coveted: better hands washed in puddles than not at all.
It would be stretching matters to claim that my book on women’s reading in the late nineteenth century originated in my father’s story. The larger point is that from his life, as from the story, I did not doubt his reverence for books. (My mother was also a reader, but her taste ran to detective fiction and the Saturday Evening Post which I early learned not to take seriously.) Both parents graduated from law school without first attending college, the last generation of Americans who could do so. Largely self-educated in literature and history, my father assembled a small but well chosen library that included a number of classics. There were multi-volume editions of Dickens, Poe, and Shakespeare, along with a six-volume set of nineteenth-century British poets, the last in gold leaf. Stray titles included: Herodotus’s history, Montaigne’s essays, The Arabian Nights, and a two-volume edition of the works of Rabelais with an intriguing white binding that fascinated me as a child (the binding and illustrations not the content, which I don’t recall perusing). There was also a plaster bust of Dickens of the sort that graced many parlor libraries a generation earlier. My father must have collected these books as a young man eager to claim the nation’s cultural heritage as his own. I wonder how he chose them. Did they come recommended, perhaps by the public school teachers of whom he spoke with such admiration? Perhaps he selected them from lists he compiled of books to be read, such as those he made for me as a teenager. Books of this kind were absent from the homes of the friends we visited. They were not only for show. He took pleasure in them, rereading his favorites, Shakespeare especially, often aloud. Today they line my shelves, gathering dust for the most part, although some proved useful in the course of my research on late-nineteenth-century women’s reading.
Well-Read Lives evolved from my interest in women’s history and biography that my father did not live to witness. He would surely have had his doubts about the gender angle. But I like to think that my admiration for his literary interests informed my choice of subject, if not my approach to it. At the very least, it prepared me to take seriously the rapturous descriptions of books and reading that I found not only in autobiographies (which are after all for public consumption) but in the letters and journals that were such an important part of nineteenth-century women’s lives. It is somehow a comfort to know that both the pleasure women born a generation or so before my father found in books and the culture many of them revered became accessible to a child of immigrants through the libraries and schools on the Lower East Side.
Barbara Sicherman is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita, at Trinity College and author of Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women.