Reading as skill or technique matters less to the history of education than the shifting social contexts which organize and motivate reading practice. Because the 19th century knew nothing of the prolonged school careers we take for granted, reading had not yet been shaped by the demands of a lengthy, prescribed curriculum. Flourishing with more prestige than we can easily imagine in the parlors of the middle-class and the well-to-do, serious reading, journal keeping, correspondence and conversation were cultivated daily in a spirit that is difficult for us to appreciate today. Whether in the parlor or in the literary societies, in reading clubs or church groups, an alert commitment to edification and mutual self-improvement helped to set the tone for relationships among family, friends and associates alike. Along with the high-minded books and periodical literature with which it was so closely allied, reading was at once the instrument and the emblem of gentility and refinement.
Several books discuss “parlor culture” together with the politics of race and gender that was internal to it: Louise Stevenson, The Victorian Homefront: American Thought and Culture, 1860-1880 (Cornell, 2001 edition); Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (Vintage Books, 1993); Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beech Stowe: A Life (Oxford, 1994); Thomas Augst, The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and the Moral Life in 19th Century America (Chicago, 2003); Elizabeth McHenry, Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African-American Literary Societies (Duke, 2002).
For a glimpse of the way public entertainment could reinforce or threaten parlor culture in Lexington, see Gregory A. Waller, Main Street Amusements: Movies & Commercial Entertainment in a Southern City, 1896-1930 (Smithsonian Institution, 1995) and Kolan Thomas Morelock, Taking the Town: Collegiate and Community Culture in the Bluegrass, 1880-1917 (University Press of Kentucky, 2008)
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