New book charts literacy's influence on family of 19th century women


imageDrawing on archives at Syracuse University, Dr. Claire White Putala, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at SUNY Oswego, has produced a study of women’s literacy as expressed in a 19th century upper middle class family spread out from Nantucket to Philadelphia to nearby Auburn.

Her book, “Reading and Writing Ourselves into Being: The Literacy of Certain Nineteenth Century Young Women,” was recently published by Information Age Publishers as a volume in its series on Language, Literacy, and Learning. The River’s End bookstore in Oswego will host her book signing at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 6.

Her main source was the documents—letters, ledgers, diaries, notes and verse—in the Osborne Family Papers at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Resource Center. “In this family, everything got saved,” she said.

While the collection extends from the early 19th century to 1968, Putala focused mainly on letters among the women of several interconnected and prominent families from 1838 to 1862.

For these women, reading widely and deeply and writing abundantly and earnestly, if mainly to family members, allowed them to share in the wider intellectual community of their times and helped them think critically about their society.

Not only are the letters examples of literacy in themselves, but they also are records of what the writers read in the way of books and periodicals. Putala said the correspondents wrote about what they were reading and how they responded to it. In ledgers included in the papers, they recorded their purchases, including books.

But, Putala argues in her study, literacy had a constraining effect on these women’s lives as well. For various reasons, the women on whom she centers the study retreated from their families’ prior penchant for public activism and reform into the domestic sphere.

The central figure of Putala’s book is Eliza Wright Osborne of Auburn. She was the daughter and niece of two organizers of the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention, Martha Coffin Wright and Lucretia Coffin Mott.

Eliza Osborne’s letters show her to be intelligent and strong-willed but primarily dedicated to domestic concerns, Putala said. The author argues that much of the reading material available to Eliza Osborne incorporated gender expectations that influenced her in living the life she did.

“Claire Putala’s skilled weaving together of scholarship from several disciplines has resulted in a tapestry that adds immeasurably to our understanding of the lives of educated families in mid-19th-century America,” Joan Burstyn writes in the book’s foreword. Burstyn is an emerita professor at Syracuse University, where Putala did her doctoral work. The book is derived from Putala’s doctoral dissertation.

Available in area bookstores, “Reading and Writing Ourselves into Being” sells for $63.25 in hard cover and $31.95 in paperback.

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PHOTO CAPTION: Existential Literacy—Dr. Claire White Putala, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at SUNY Oswego, works with the documents she studied to write her recently published book, “Reading and Writing Ourselves into Being: The Literacy of Certain Nineteenth Century Young Women.”

(Posted: Feb 23, 2005)

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