CLST Director Ron Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray Publish Two Essays on Popular Reading during the American Civil War

Ron and Mary Zboray have recently published two essays that draw from their massive NEH-funded project on print media use by Civil War Americans.

The first essay, “‘My Unsocial Habit’: Reading and Emergent Youth Subcultures in Civil War America,” came out in a volume edited by Pitt Cultural Studies Program Alumna Christine Feldman-Barrett.  Her book is entitled Lost Histories of Youth Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2015).  Its twelve essays by scholars from various disciplines explore youth cultures in different times and places: from the Extreme Metal underground in Japan, to gay rap subcultures in Iran, to cultures of youth fashion in Beijing.   One of these essays, “Lost Province of German Youth: Remembering East Prussia’s Last Generation,” is by Dr. Feldman-Barrett, who is a professor in the School of Humanities at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and author of We Are the Mods, A Transnational History of a Youth Subculture (2009). The book is based upon her dissertation written under Ron Zboray's direction.

The Zborays’ essay explores how young people during the American Civil War were at the cutting edge of transformations taking place in reading habits, the most dramatic of which was the change from group oral reading to solitary silent reading—the main form of reading practiced today.  As such, the essay explores how the principal media of the era—printed literature—was used in everyday life by youth to navigate the disruptions brought about by war.  Reading fiction, travel literature, poetry, and biography in their private quarters helped young people to escape from the ubiquitous discussions of war, death, and patriotism around them.  Reading literature also allowed them to protest the war through a form of “passive resistance.” For African American and Mexican American youth in the Union, solitary reading provided a forum for negotiating their ethnic and racial identities during a time of intensifying nationalism.   

[Click here for more information on Dr. Barrett-Feldman, author of We Are the Mods. Click here for more on her Lost Histories of Youth Culture.]   

The second essay is entitled “The Bonds of Print: Reading on Home Front and Battlefield.”  It looks at the many ways reading materials helped maintain ties between soldiers and civilians during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.  It is among nine other chapters included in Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion, edited by Matthew Mason, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015).  Massachusetts, the Zborays contend, had  developed in the three decades prior to the war, a strong “socio-literary” culture characterized by reading aloud in group settings, the formation of literary societies, gifting of print matter, and informal book borrowing and lending from home libraries.  Massachusetts soldiers sent off to battle were reluctant to forego these experiences and strived to re-establish them through correspondence home.  They stuffed envelopes with newsclippings, original poems, or transcriptions from books, along with letters bearing instructions for loved ones to read the items.  Other combatants held virtual group-reading sessions by scheduling with civilians an appointed time each day in which all involved would read from the same book.  Those on the homefront obsessively scanned newspaper reports which were often the easiest, but not always most accurate means of learning about where a soldier was stationed, whether he was wounded or not, or if he had died. Massachusetts civilians often read these reports forensically, piecing together scattered bits of information from diverse sources, to detect their loved one’s whereabouts.  This essay also explores the roles that African Americans played in sustaining socio-literary culture, especially as promoters of literacy among freedpeople in Union occupied areas of the Confederacy.  By tapping into personal papers—1,094 letters and 97 diaries authored by 123 men and women from 46 cities or towns in the Bay State, the Zborays have been able to recover a world of intimate meaning-making in which war-torn Massachusetts denizens candidly reveal their most desperate fears, earnest hopes, and deepest joys as expressed through engagements with print media during a time of unprecedented turbulence.   

For more on the essay, click here
Click here for more on Ronald and Mary Zboray
Sources cited above:

Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, “‘My Unsocial Habit’: Reading and Emergent Youth Subcultures in Civil War America,” came out in a volume edited by Pitt Cultural Studies Program Alumna .  Her book is entitled Lost Histories of Youth Culture, ed. Christine Feldman-Barrett (New York: Peter Lang, 2015), 17-34.

Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, "The Bonds of Print: Reading on Home Front and Battlefield," in Massachusetts and the Civil War: The Commonwealth and National Disunion, ed. Matthew Mason, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), 195-223.