- Reviewed by
If, in the words of Rose Pastor, "the whole world is what it reads," readers of this thoroughly enjoyable and well-crafted narrative will [End Page 115] carry with them a new understanding of the importance of literature and reading to young American women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The first section of Sicherman's monograph is constructed around readers' responses to Louisa May Alcott's now-classic, Little Women. However, Well-Read Lives offers much more than an analysis of the escape or refuge offered by literature to young women. As Sicherman explains, "It is the overall pattern of reading" that she examines: a pattern that, through literature, allowed women to conceive of a different, more expansive life, which also provided an important social outlet for groups of women as they met to discuss their books.
As Sicherman explains, the profound impact of Alcott's novel was multidimensional. First published in 1868, Little Women was marketed as a quasi-autobiographical work. Readers were intrigued by Alcott's Jo March, a character who allowed young women to imagine a life for themselves through a character that "strove so passionately for a future of her own making" and exposed readers to a female role model that was largely missing from postbellum culture (p. 15). If Jo was Alcott and Alcott was Jo, readers could ground the female independence of the character within the famous author and begin to imagine new possibilities for their own lives. Additionally, as Sicherman argues, the other March daughters offered an array of female roles for those aspiring to more generally accepted cultural norms.
Sicherman reminds us that parents did not always approve of their daughters' interest in literature. Even Alice Stone Blackwell, the daughter of two prominent abolitionists and women's-rights activists was discouraged from reading fictional works by her father who preferred she read history. So why then were so many young women so profoundly attracted to literature? Sicherman explains that works of fiction "depict worlds women can enter, in ways women can enter them" (p. 66). The balance of Well-Read Lives is devoted to exploring the ways in which women, inspired by their collaborative and individual reading experiences, entered the public world. [End Page 116]
In the second and third sections of Well-Read Lives, Sicherman offers a nuanced and well-researched look at several women across a broad sweep of economic, cultural, and racial lines within the Gilded Age reading community. While the accomplishments of some of these women, such as Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells, are better known, others such as M. Carey Thomas (the first female president of Bryn Mawr College) and writer Rose Gollup Cohen are especially memorable. Throughout these sections, Sicherman makes compelling points for her central argument that it was through reading that women began to imagine their own futures. Many of these women, for example, Addams and Wells, not only forged active and intellectually full lives for themselves but also spent much of their public lives serving others.
Through Well-Read Lives, we learn just how much was lost as young women shifted away from literature and looked instead to new cultural icons and mediums. More than simply a change from reading to watching television and film, Sicherman reminds us that Gilded Age reading also ignited a passion for public service in young women—a passion largely absent in today's reading culture that is decidedly more "self " focused. If we are what we read, Well-Read Lives might inspire a new generation of writers to once again offer readers models of female contribution and activism in the twenty-first century.
Linda C. Frank teaches history in upstate New York and is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her dissertation explores the development of antebellum reform politics.