Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940

By Carl F. Kaestle; Janice A. Radway | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 24
Aflame with Culture
Reading and Social Mission in the
Nineteenth-Century White Women’s
Literary Club Movement

Elizabeth Long

.  .  .

The late nineteenth century witnessed a remarkable consolidation of high culture, including the development of a canonical literary culture and the stratification of high culture from popular culture, blunting the populist thrust of such forms as opera and Shakespearean drama. As Lawrence W. Levine and Paul DiMaggio have argued, the American upper classes widely subscribed to a program of building museums, theaters, and concert halls, which became citadels of high culture and a regime of high seriousness.1

The newly “sacralized” culture, to use Levine’s term, helped legitimate the cultural authority of the upper classes and underscored their commitment to the superiority of the English and German cultural heritage. The cultural themes of nationalism, individualism, and the Anglo-Saxon heritage contributed to a civil culture more broadly diffused through public schools and popular culture.2

This cultural and ideological development had some unintended consequences. The effort to establish the authority of high culture also diffused literacy, which could be used by diverse groups of people to explore their particular interests, expand their horizons, and craft their identity. However assiduously educators and members of the literary establishment tried to police what reading should be (what Roger Chartier called “the order of books”), the encounter between reader and text remained open-ended, maintaining the possibility, as Janice Radway terms it, of “going awry.”3 Moreover, as canonical literary works became quasi-sacred during this period, they perforce also became a cultural resource by which individuals and groups could achieve their own ends. Such processes of appropriation are complex. They are capable of reconfiguring identities, reworking cultural frames, even unsettling social hierarchies. The nineteenth-century white women’s literary club movement exemplifies these ironies, demonstrating the transformative potential of reading, especially in as-

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