Well-Read Lives

How Books Inspired a Generation of American Women

By Barbara Sicherman

392 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 12 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-3909-6
    Published: August 2012
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-9824-6
    Published: April 2010

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In a compelling approach structured as theme and variations, Barbara Sicherman offers 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.

Some women, like Edith and Alice Hamilton, M. Carey Thomas, and Jane Addams, grew up in households filled with books, while less privileged women found alternative routes to expressive literacy. Jewish immigrants Hilda Satt Polacheck, Rose Cohen, and Mary Antin acquired new identities in the English-language books they found in settlement houses and libraries, while African Americans like Ida B. Wells relied mainly on institutions of their own creation, even as they sought to develop a literature of their own.

It is Sicherman’s masterful contribution to show that however the skill of reading was acquired, under the right circumstances, adolescent reading was truly transformative in constructing female identity, stirring imaginations, and fostering ambition. 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. Reading themselves into quest plots and into male as well as female roles, these young women went on to create an unparalleled record of achievement as intellectuals, educators, and social reformers. Sicherman’s graceful study reveals the centrality of the era’s culture of reading and sheds new light on these women’s Progressive-Era careers.

About the Author

Barbara Sicherman is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Institutions and Values Emerita, at Trinity College. She is author of Alice Hamilton: A Life in Letters and The Quest for Mental Health in America, 1880-1917 and coeditor of Notable American Women: The Modern Period.
For more information about Barbara Sicherman, visit the Author Page.


"A beautifully crafted monograph. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice

Well-Read Lives deftly balances the big picture of Gilded Age literary culture with the specificity and uniqueness of its individual subjects. With nuance and insight, Sicherman makes a convincing case that private reading practices had a profound impact on Progressive women’s public endeavors.”--Journal of American History

"An important book for those interested in issues of gender, literacy, or nineteenth-century American life. . . . A fine example of how historical scholarship about these issues can move between specific case studies and generalized trends or patterns."--Clio

“Sicherman’s analysis deepens our understanding of the nature of reading itself, exuding some of the very magic that books clearly held for these young women. . . . An extraordinary contribution to the history of the book, to women’s history, and to our understanding of reading’s power as a cultural resource for change.”--Legacy

“Great depth of scholarship and insightful analysis. With its wonderful readability it should also appeal to a more general audience, and will contribute to contemporary conversations about reading in a way that helps us avoid uninformed comparisons between reading today and in the past.”--SHARP: Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing

"An elegant historical survey. . . . Sicherman's well-chosen examples . . . make a good case for her argument that reading mattered crucially."--American Historical Review

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