She Hath Been Reading

She Hath Been Reading: Women and Shakespeare Clubs in America

Katherine West Scheil
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z8jf
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  • Book Info
    She Hath Been Reading
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6422-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Introduction: Origins
    (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, Vermont, on the Canadian border, to Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast, women were reading Shakespeare in astonishing numbers and in surprising places. The figures are impressive: thirty-seven clubs in California, fifty-one clubs in Texas, fifty-four clubs in New York, and thirty-four clubs in Kansas; most of these clubs were formed...

  6. Chapter 1 Reading
    (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 of material survives about these women readers of Shakespeare, from the late nineteenth century through the twentieth. In many instances, we know exactly what texts they read and how often they met, how quickly or slowly they read each text, what criticism they read, what material supplemented their study of...

  7. Chapter 2 The Home
    (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 basket and when the proper time arrived she draped herself in a sheet, stepped into the basket, took hold of the handles and walked off the stage followed by the two servants. The director [a fellow club member] was a little upset but the audience enjoyed it...

  8. Chapter 3 The Outpost
    (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 (population 1,200), a club of women gathered in 1893 to read Shakespeare. In a tiny village in northern Michigan that numbered between 400 and 600 citizens at the time, the Northport Shakespeare Club received its traveling library shipment of “Shakespeare and American Literature” to...

  9. Chapter 4 Shakespeare and Black Women’s Clubs
    (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 group was described as “the nucleus around which modern Topeka society was formed.”¹ The Coterie hosted a lecture by Ida Wells Barnett titled “The Evils of Lynching’” in 1895 during her antilynching tour, as well as “church suppers, whist parties, literature selections, relief work.” It centered its literary work on “the best...

  10. Conclusion
    (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 ordinary women, who may not have achieved fame or fortune but who nevertheless influenced their own families and communities. They remind us of Shakespeare’s role in the history of women’s lives, particularly for ordinary women who were not famous authors, public figures, or...

  11. Appendix: Shakespeare Clubs in America
    (pp. 123-140)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 141-200)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 201-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-235)