Barbara Sicherman: It Happened in the Archives

Well-Read Lives: How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women, by Barbara SichermanIn 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.


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  2. I was very moved by the story of Barbara’s father and the deep concern to get access to the public library and by his careful collection of a personal library. The works she mentions wer so much a common core of reading in the nineteenth century, in both the United States and Great Britain. I know that the woman I am writing about, who became a journalist at the end of the nineteenth century, mentions many of these volumes as her own reading and what concerns they raised for her in thinking about life and in writing her own books before becoming a journalist. I think Barbara’s understanding of reading patterns and the effect of this reading on the lives of the readers is both insightful and wonderfully captured in her book on “Well Read Lives.” She has done a great service to historians and biographers in pursuing this topic, and she has left a lasting mark on her profession.

    • Dorothy Helly’s generous comment about my blog post speaks to the continuity of canonical reading in the U.S. and Great Britain which lasted for more than a century. Flora Shaw, the influential British journalist whose biography Dorothy is writing, almost certainly had easier access to that canon than did my father, Jacob Sicherman. But for children not born into privilege who were eager to expand their horizons, public libraries were often if not an equalizer, then at least an entree into new worlds, a point underscored in “Well-Read Lives.” Public schools did this as well. Central High School in Buffalo, New York, celebrated “Dickens Day” on February 7, 1912, the centenary of the writer’s birth, with an ambitious theatrical program. In a scene from “The Christmas Carol,” my father (whose family had moved to Buffalo) played Scrooge, while his life-long best friend, Paul Nolan, played the Stage Manager.

  3. I have recently been noting that among the upper classes whose weddings were decribed in detail in newspapers like The Times in the 1890s, it was usual among the wedding presents to find not only jewelry and objects of home decoration in precious metals, but also full sets of classic nineteenth century authors like Austen, Scott, Thackeray, Dickens and Eliot. I read this to mean that their children would find these books in their home libraries and engage in the kind of reading that caharacterizes the teenagers in Barbara’s book about America.

  4. That sounds about right.

    When do you think it became unacceptable to give books, even expensive sets, as wedding presents?

  5. Post Script

    I recently visited The Tenement House Museum on New York’s Lower East Side for the first time. The “Hard Times” tour took us to two flats at 97 Orchard Street, one simulating the 1870s and 80s, the other the 1930s. I was quite overcome by these visualizations of the conditions in which so many immigrants and their children, including my father, lived.

    The tour also shed additional light on my father’s recollections of washing his hands in puddles before entering the local library. The 1880s flat had no indoor water or plumbing, while the 1930s flat had only a tiny sink in the kitchen that was used for personal hygiene as well as for washing dishes. I know nothing about plumbing conditions during my father’s time in the neighborhood (about 1895 to 1910), but it was easy to see why children resorted to puddles to wash their hands. And, in my father’s case at least, why they didn’t want to recall much about their early lives–and why libraries were such a shining exception.

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