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She Hath Been Reading

Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America

by Katherine West Scheil

Publication Year: 2012

In the late nineteenth century hundreds of clubs formed across the United States devoted to the reading of Shakespeare. From Pasadena, California, to the seaside town of Camden, Maine; from the isolated farm town of Ottumwa, Iowa, to Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf coast, Americans were reading Shakespeare in astonishing numbers and in surprising places. Composed mainly of women, these clubs offered the opportunity for members not only to read and study Shakespeare but also to participate in public and civic activities outside the home. In She Hath Been Reading, Katherine West Scheil uncovers this hidden layer of intellectual activity that flourished in American society well into the twentieth century.

Shakespeare clubs were crucial for women's intellectual development because they provided a consistent intellectual stimulus (more so than was the case with most general women's clubs) and because women discovered a world of possibilities, both public and private, inspired by their reading of Shakespeare. Indeed, gathering to read and discuss Shakespeare often led women to actively improve their lot in life and make their society a better place. Many clubs took action on larger social issues such as women's suffrage, philanthropy, and civil rights. At the same time, these efforts served to embed Shakespeare into American culture as a marker for learning, self-improvement, civilization, and entertainment for a broad array of populations, varying in age, race, location, and social standing.

Based on extensive research in the archives of the Folger Shakespeare Library and in dozens of local archives and private collections across America, She Hath Been Reading shows the important role that literature can play in the lives of ordinary people. As testament to this fact, the book includes an appendix listing more than five hundred Shakespeare clubs across America.

Published by: Cornell University Press

She Hath Been Reading

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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-9

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pp. ix-xvi

In September 1894, Elizabeth Armstrong organized a group of thirty women in the village of Avon, Illinois, to gather weekly and read Shakespeare in her home. Inspired by reading The Merchant of Venice, the group called itself the “Portia Club” and chose as its goals “mutual improvement and self-reinforcement” of members and “promotion of social...

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pp. xvii-xix

Many people and institutions made this project possible. Funding for research was provided by the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Bibliographical Society of America, and the Historical Society of Southern California. At the University of Minnesota, a sabbatical and sabbatical supplement, a McKnight Research...

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Introduction: Origins

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pp. 1-30

In the late nineteenth century, more than five hundred Shakespeare clubs, composed mainly of women, formed across America to read Shakespeare. From Pasadena, California, to the seaside town of Camden, Maine; from the isolated farm town of Ottumwa, Iowa, to the mining village of Cripple Creek, Colorado; from Swanton,...

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Chapter 1. Reading

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pp. 31-60

At its heart, this is a book about women reading—white women and black women; mothers and daughters; with men and with other women; in urban and rural locales; amid housework, child care, jobs, and other time commitments. And it is about women reading something specific: Shakespeare. A remarkable cache...

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Chapter 2. The Home

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pp. 61-78

A late nineteenth-century account of the Shakespeare Class of Peoria, Illinois, includes the following anecdote about an amateur performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Mrs. C. E. Nixon was playing the part of the ‘fat knight’ and had her own interpretation of the scene. She cut out the bottom of her laundry...

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Chapter 3. The Outpost

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pp. 79-94

“In a log-cabin in the woods of Southern Minnesota, on cold stormy nights in winter, after the ranch work is done,” a group called the Snow Blockade Club met in the late 1880s to read Shakespeare in Lanesboro, a town of just over 1,000 people. Less than ten miles from the Canadian border, in Swanton, Vermont...

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Chapter 4. Shakespeare and Black Women’s Clubs

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pp. 95-116

In 1899, the front page of the Topeka, Kansas, black newspaper the Plaindealer reported on the tenth anniversary of a women’s literary group called the Ladies’ Coterie. Made up of eleven black women, including founding members the artist Fanny Clinkscale and prominent society woman Mrs. Robert Buckner, the...

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pp. 117-122

The women whose stories of reading Shakespeare I have related in this book were, for the most part, not well known, and their names have long since disappeared from the historical record, if they ever had a place there to begin with. Yet their sheer number means that Shakespeare had a substantial impact on the lives of...

Appendix: Shakespeare Clubs in America

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pp. 123-139


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pp. 141-200


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pp. 201-222


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pp. 223-235

E-ISBN-13: 9780801464225
E-ISBN-10: 0801464226
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801450426
Print-ISBN-10: 080145042X

Page Count: 235
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 1