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Circulating Literacy

Circulating Literacy

Writing Instruction in American Periodicals, 1880-1910

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Alicia Brazeau


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
210 pages, 6 x 9, 8 illustrations


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About the Book

Near the dawn of the twentieth century, more than a million Americans had subscriptions to popular magazines, and many who did not subscribe read the periodicals. Far more men and women were learning advanced literacy through reading these magazines than by attending college. Yet this form of popular literacy has been relatively ignored by scholars, who have focused mainly on academic institutions and formal educational experiences. In Circulating Literacy: Writing Instruction in American Periodicals, 1880–1910, author Alicia Brazeau concentrates on the format, circulation, and function of popular and influential periodicals published between 1880 and 1910, including the farming magazines Michigan Farmer, Ohio Farmer, and Maine Farmer, which catered to rural residents, and two women’s magazines, Harper’s Bazar and the Ladies’ Home Journal, that catered to very different populations of women.

Brazeau establishes how these magazines shared a common strategy in the construction of literacy identities by connecting a specific identity with a particular set of reading and writing practices. She explores how farm journals were preoccupied with the value of literacy as a tool for shaping community; considers how the Journal and the Bazar deployed distinctly different illustrations of literacy values for women; shows how the Journal and editor Edward Bok cast women as consumers and sellers of literacy; and looks at the ways in which Bazar editors urged readers to adopt habits of reading and writing that emphasized communal relationships among women. In Circulating Literacy, Brazeau speaks to, and connects, the important topics of rural studies, gender, professionalization, and literacy sponsorship and identity, arguing for the value of the study of periodicals as literacy education tools.


Alicia Brazeau is the director of the writing center at the College of Wooster. Her writing has appeared in College English and Children’s Literature Association Quarterly.


Circulating Literacy examines how readers of periodicals near the beginning of the twentieth century engaged in literacy learning. Close readings and analysis of five popular women’s and farm journals provide a great deal of primary research. The field of composition will benefit from continuing to examine how literacy education occurs in ‘extracurricular’ spaces, and this book successfully makes the case that we should be paying more attention to the ways voices such as editors (and readers) impacted literacy learning.”—Charlotte Hogg, author, From the Garden Club: Rural Women Writing Community

“Brazeau presents fresh material, filling in gaps about the literacy practices of turn-of-the-century women. As a historian, I find it interesting and relevant and believe others will as well.”—Lisa S. Mastrangelo, author, Writing a Progressive Past: Women Teaching and Writing in the Progressive Era

"A masterpiece of exhaustively researched, impressively unique, and exceptionally well written scholarship, "Circulating Literacy: Writing Instruction in American Periodicals, 1880 - 1910" is an invaluable and unreservedly recommended contribution to community, college, and university library American Popular Culture History collections and supplemental studies lists." —James A. Cox, Midwest Book Review

"Central to Brazeau’s work is her concept of literacy, by which she does not just mean literary taste or general writing ability. Beyond cultural values or basic writing skills, the work focuses on “advanced literacy,” which allows readers “to participate in a community of readers and writers outlined by the magazines” (p. 8). She also makes a sharp distinction between “literate” and “literacy,” emphasizing the importance of communication over grammar or writing skill."--Richard Mikulski, Drew University

"Brazeau's book is a reliable contribution to scholarship about the influence of popular magazines on American culture in general and literacy in particular. It sees literacy as a means of empowerment for the aspiring middle class around the turn of the last century, during the Progressive Era. The book is informed by close examination of what Barton and Hamilton call "domain specific" (20) publications: in other words, magazines that shape and are shaped by interacting with their target audiences."--Stephen Curley, American Culture