Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 198-199
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This collection of essays follows in the tradition of Cathy Davidson's Reading In America, with an emphasis on the social and cultural aspects of the reading experience. Reading Acts: U.S. Readers' Interactions with Literature, 1800-1950 differentiates itself by focusing exclusively on the reading experience. The editors, Barbara Ryan and Amy Thomas, work from the poststructuralist assumption that books are deeply embedded in culture and that the readers' response and the social context in which they read are as important as the texts. With this active interpretation of reading, the editors supplement the historical analysis of this topic, which has often relied on impersonal data such as subscription lists, census data, and estate inventories, to highlight what ordinary readers made of the "act of reading."
While not specifically focused on female readers, seven of the eleven essays address women's experiences. Scholars already familiar with the existing work on reading will recognize some essays, since one-third are reprints of foundational essays by authors such as Mary Kelley and Regina Kunzel. In addition to its connection to the work of Cathy Davidson, this collection is beholden to the work of Janice Radway, who pushed the boundaries of reader-response criticism and examined actual readers' experiences and interactions with texts. Like Radway, the essayists investigate records of "real" readers. Barbara Sicherman argues in "Reading and Middle-Class Identity in Victorian America" that "a culture of reading" played a central role in molding new identities for white, middle-class Americans. Her examination of commonplace books, diaries, letters, and other autobiographical materials reveals that the readers' "interpretative [End Page 198] strategies and social mode of reading helped women... first imagine themselves as actors in the public sphere and then to carve out space there for themselves" (151).
As in many histories of reading, middle- and upper-middle-class readers receive the bulk of the critical attention, which makes two of the essays particularly noteworthy for their investigations of working-class readers. Regina Kunzel's "Pulp Fictions and Problem Girls" draws on fan letters to a mass circulation confession magazine in 1949 to argue that single, pregnant working women used fiction to negotiate social stigmas about "problem girls," to explain how they ended up in "trouble," and to find information to help them cope. Jane Greer's "'Ornaments, Tools, or Friends': Literary Reading at the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, 1921-1938" uses student writings to investigate how students often challenged their instructors' assumptions about the "right" way to read. All five of the essays on reading in the twentieth-century are based on sources from fairly large groups of readers, such as fan mail, student essays, and authors' letters, and these materials present a rich description of the twentieth-century reading experience. For "'They Flash Upon That Inward Eye': Poetry Recitation and American Readers," Joan Shelley Rubin placed an advertisement in the New York Times Book Review asking readers to share their experiences reciting poetry in school between 1917 and 1950. She received nearly five hundred responses, which provide insight into how readers used their early exposure to poetry throughout their lives.
This is not to suggest, however, that scholars of the nineteenth century are confined to impersonal data, but their sources do come from a narrower range of readers, either specific, individual readers or middle-and upper-middle-class white readers of the Northeast, who have left more traces of their reading experiences. Based on letters and diaries, Elisabeth Nichols challenges the dominant view of prescriptive literature for women in the early republic to argue that while readers "absorbed prescriptive rhetoric about the necessity of reading nonfictional works, they rearranged the terms of those admonitions to suit their own purposes." Amy Thomas's essay "Reading the Silences: Documenting the History of the American Tract Society Readers in the Antebellum South" examines...