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  • Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland
  • Suzanne L. Bunkers (bio)
Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland by Margaret Baker Graham. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2003, 276 pp. $29.95 paper.

Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland is well worth reading—and viewing. Its author and editor, Margaret Baker Graham, describes the book as a "collection" that includes primarily letters but also diary entries, newspaper stories, photographs, family records, recipes, receipts, Bible passages, and informal notations. Victorian America's narrative begins with the marriage of 17-year-old Margaret Bruin to Charles Machette, a landowner and slaveholder who was also a widower with two sons. Margaret and Charles Machette, who lived in St. Charles, Missouri, had five more children before Charles died in 1851. Shortly thereafter, as Margaret Baker Graham explains, Margaret Machette sold "Real Estate and Slaves" belonging to her late husband's estate. The family left St. Charles and eventually settled in Fulton (Callaway County), Missouri, where Margaret began operating a boarding house for students attending Westminster College.

Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland, which begins in 1860 and concludes in 1902 (the year Margaret Machette died), contains four chapters, each of which covers approximately a decade, beginning in the 1860s and concluding at the turn of the century. These chapters are prefaced by Professor Graham's scholarly introduction and her explanation of the editorial principles underlying the creation of the collection. Genealogical information on descendants, along with bibliographic citations and index, provide the concluding sections of the book.

The letters selected for inclusion in Victorian America come from a much larger collection of more than 3,000 letters written over a century's time (1823 to 1937) by many members of the Machette family over several generations. As one after another descendant of Margaret Machette inherited the letters, each descendant added to the collection. Eventually, the extensive collection found its way to Mary Virginia Baker of Fulton, Missouri, with whom Margaret Baker Graham arranged to edit the letters and other primary source materials, which are complemented by carefully rendered reproductions of nineteenth-century family photographs.

The publisher of Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland, Truman State University Press, describes the book as emphasizing "the multiple perspectives from which a family story unfolds." The richness of these multiple perspectives, combined with the expertise of editor Graham, a professor of English at Iowa State University, has resulted [End Page 215] in a book that will appeal to a wide readership, including generalists and specialists in nineteenth-century American literature, women's studies, life writing, and midwestern United States history. The primary source materials that provide the backbone for Victorian America: A Family Record from the Heartland reflect such themes as the need for meaningful connections with other human beings as well as the need for a forum for commentary on religion, politics, and world events. Over several generations, family members come alive for the reader through Professor Graham's juxtaposition of photographs with documents and family stories.

Professor Graham incorporates a wealth of secondary source materials, deftly interweaving her own and others' scholarly analyses of gender relations, nineteenth-century American notions of domesticity, and the effects of slavery and segregation on midwestern history with excerpts from diaries and letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and other primary source materials. Graham skillfully analyzes and assesses the ways in which middle-class white Victorian American values were adhered to and subverted by individual family members; as the author notes in her introduction, the letters and other documents included here "also reveal some of the constraints white women endured in the late nineteenth century" (9).

Engaging and compelling narratives are woven into the fabric of this complicated narrative, which traces the experiences of Margaret Bruin Machette, her husband Charles Machette, their children, and their extended family members through numerous periods of war, epidemics, political upheaval, and social change. Several family members were well educated and used their letters not only to convey family news but also to comment on household matters, marriages and deaths in the family, religious beliefs, politics, and a myriad of other topics.

Highly original, Victorian America: A Family...


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pp. 215-216
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