Reading Between the Lines; Or, The Literary Lives of the Davis Family

Amelia Benner, '09, Illinois Wesleyan University


Although they lived on the Illinois frontier, David and Sarah Davis were clearly products of the literate, Eastern middle class. Although David Davis was a voracious reader, most of the books that appear in the letters are mentioned by women, in an interesting parallel to the "feminization" of literature that occurred during the first half of-the 19th century. Meanwhile, many historians have pointed out that "middle-class values," such as the cult of domesticity and the idealization of childhood, became dominant in America in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Nearly all the works on the “Davis reading list," whether fiction or nonfiction, religious or secular, reinforce these values. By reading these books, we can gain insight into how the popular press transmitted the ideology of the age to its audience, and better understand the relationship between antebellum, middle-class readers and what they read. The books that the Davises read reflect then forces that were affecting the society in which they lived, and provide a glimpse of the "literary lives" of middle-class Americans in the mid-19th century.