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The following review appeared 8 May 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In the Company of Books is, in many ways, about the inherent contradictions of democracy and a market economy and about both their promise and their perceived threat to the cultural status quo. During the nineteenth century, literacy in the United States expanded greatly, alongside the proliferation of cheap printed material, precipitating what Sarah Wadsworth defines as a "culture war" (13). In a time when Americans were seeking to identify just what it meant to be "American," people believed in the power of literature to define and mold society, to solidify a sense of national identity, and to recognize its unique diversity. Writers such as Walt Whitman heralded the "democratization" of literature, empowering readers to think for themselves and become "the intellectually liberated, self-reliant citizens upon whom true democracy depends" (4). Others were convinced that the taste of the newly literate masses was not to be trusted and worried that the proliferation of cheap books would cheapen literature itself. Writing for publication increasingly became simultaneously an act of artistic or cultural production and a fundamentally commercial endeavor. The relationship between quality and popular success became an important new question, and Wadsworth argues that as the country and its readership expanded, segmentation of the literary marketplace was necessary for successful competition in the publishing field: authors and publishers had to define a target audience, to define for whom their books were intended.
Early American publishers were local and diverse, serving a variety of needs for a relatively concentrated population. As transportation services made it possible to distribute literature nationally, specialization offered refuge from competition, and so publishers targeted particular types of readers while serving a more diffuse population. Wadsworth argues that "one of the most conspicuous developments in the nineteenth-century publishing industry was its ability to target specific classes of readers with individual titles, series, or clusters of books tailored, packaged, and advertised to appeal to their particular interests" (5). Recognition of the needs of different types of readers by authors and publishers gave those readers voice and shaped them into communities with collective identities that together "inescapably transformed the landscape of the cultural field" and "foster[ed] new areas of literary production" as well as "new configurations of audience and genre" (8-9). The purchasing power of the targeted groups exerted influence over the types of books that were created and published for them, in turn giving members of these groups a new sense of collective identity in the market.
In the Company of Books presents six case studies that illuminate segmentations of target audiences, marked first by age and gender then by intersections of gender with social class, focusing not only on the content of the texts written for these audiences and the innovations of authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Henry James, but also on the physical qualities of the texts' publication and marketing. The "case study" approach is both a strength and a weakness of the book, allowing Wadsworth to focus on particular examples, while impeding some of the connections she might otherwise make among them. Further, consideration of the impact of immigration, race or ethnicity is unfortunately limited to an attenuated discussion in the epilogue, in spite of its centrality in nineteenth-century discussions of national identity. In spite of these flaws, however, Wadsworth's research provides important context for understanding the impact of publication practices and the influence of particular readerships on the development of American literature and its place in American culture. She explains that we can begin to understand the "full cultural work of 'the book' in nineteenth-century America" only if we examine the "competing productions that informed their development as texts and influenced their consumption as books" along with the "publishing economy that was responsible for disseminating them" (12), and indeed, it is here that Wadsworth's book is at its strongest.
In Part One, Wadsworth traces a segmentation of the literary market that began by separating texts created for adults from those aimed specifically at children, a growing phenomenon that she links to the "expansion of the middle class, increasing literacy among young people," improvements in formal education practices, increased leisure time and spending money, and "not least, the popularization of a Romantic sensibility that fundamentally reconceived of the nature and status of childhood as a uniquely privileged stage of life" (17). Wadsworth uses Bernard Wishy's formulation of mid-nineteenth century America's shift from a vision of "The Child Redeemable"--an understanding of the plasticity of character that allows a child to be molded through proper instruction--to "The Child Redeemer"--innocent and pure, naturally superior to adults and able to save them from their own failings (34)--in order to contextualize the aims and innovations of authors who sought to write for children and the publishers who sought to capitalize on this increasingly lucrative market. While this trend toward the publication of books intended specifically for children began in the eighteenth century, it was not until the social, economic and cultural climate of the 1830-70s that the market for "juvenile" reading material became a substantial force in America, attracting some of the nation's best writers. In separate case studies, Wadsworth looks specifically at the ways in which Hawthorne, Alcott, and Twain transformed juvenile literature, responding to and resisting publishers' definitions of what childhood should mean and what children should read.
While most readers today know Nathaniel Hawthorne primarily through his writings for adults, Wadsworth offers us a fresh perspective, demonstrating how Hawthorne's success in the adult market enabled him to return to writing children's literature, the site of some of his earliest "scribbling," how it empowered him to react against and revolutionize the juvenile market. The early expansion of children's literature was accomplished predominantly through the classroom: historical sketches and textbooks aimed specifically at particular age groups of boys and girls. One of the most successful authors and editors of such books was Samuel Griswold Goodrich, who created the phenomenally popular Peter Parley series of instructional books, which sold over seven million volumes by mid-century. Goodrich hired "freelance writers to produce new volumes" that he planned, and while Nathaniel Hawthorne and his sister Elizabeth received only $100 for ghostwriting Peter Parley's Universal History on the Basis of Geography in 1836 (28), the volume sold over one million copies--which must have convinced Hawthorne of the lucrative possibilities of the children's book market (28). After he had achieved stature in the field of adult fiction, Hawthorne turned back to children's literature, causing a revolutionary shift toward fiction and fantasy--a shift that went directly counter to contemporary notions of what was "good" for children to read, deliberately attacking and undermining the Peter Parley ideal of children as objects to mold (34), using his own experience as a parent to understand what children wanted to read (37-39). With the publication of A Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales, Hawthorne offered to children an "'intermixing' of fairy tales, myth and 'stories of real life'" (34), written in a style that "portrays childish whimsy and naughtiness as natural and even preferable to a more mannered and artificial state" (36). Children, in short, met themselves in Hawthorne's pages, in direct contrast to the "artificial" and unimaginative view of childhood they were used to seeing in didactic nonfiction and fiction. Further, Hawthorne refused to indulge in the contemporary tendency to "write downward, in order to meet the comprehension of children" but rather, "suffered the theme to soar" (40), engaging their imaginations and acknowledging their intelligence.
Though Wadsworth argues throughout her text that readers gained a sense of identity from the "books that collectively addressed them" (10-11), she actually demonstrates conclusively that the revolutionary changes made in this and each of her other case studies arose from a writer's or publisher's personal experience with and understanding of a particular market audience. Such experience enabled the author or publisher to move beyond a limited conception of what the target audience ought to read toward a more complete fulfillment of its actual needs, desires and identity. Wadsworth continues her discussion of the juvenile market by following its segmentation into separate markets for boys and girls books around mid-century, discussing two authors who resisted traditional, ideal gender models and shaped "new kind[s] of fiction" by focusing on "realistic" protagonists: Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. Her discussion of Alcott is particularly strong, arguing cogently that along with resisting and revising "traditional models of femininity," Alcott was "both responding to and writing against" an enormously successful writer of the Oliver Optic series for boys (45), William Taylor Adams, "whose most popular books sold at a rate of more than 100,000 a year" (50). The success of these books prompted publisher Thomas Niles to pressure Alcott to write a similar series for girls. Though Alcott initially resisted, Niles's persistence led to the writing of Little Women and the sequels that followed (49), and while one could wish that Wadsworth included specific sales figures for Alcott as well as for Adams, her analysis of the new kind of relationship between editor, writer and their jointly identified target audience is intriguing.
Unfortunately, the case study of Mark Twain's role in creating the "boy book" is less satisfactory because it is less contextualized and it simply recapitulates ground well trodden by others. Though Wadsworth cites Twain's own references to the popular publications of the day, she never engages his revision of them as she does in her other case studies. Further, while she discusses the subscription market Twain chose as a distribution vehicle, she does not fully integrate her analysis of its impact with the other publishing markets or distribution networks that she discusses more thoroughly. And indeed, Twain is an odd absence at the center of her argument, even though she uses a scene from The Gilded Age as a segue into Part Two, "Masses and Classes." While the central chapter in this section focuses on travel writing and has a title that is a clear allusion to Twain, "Innocence Abroad," her argument makes no reference to him nor does it offer even a brief discussion of how his own The Innocents Abroad affected the context or expectations of the readership in this market. Even if one argues that Wadsworth's focus is on female travel writing and novels based on the character of the American ingénue abroad, and therefore a discussion of Twain's very male protagonist would be tangential, her own title for the chapter belies this. But while these flaws might be damning, particularly to members of this Forum, let me say again that Wadsworth has written an important book, establishing a fascinating and fruitful context even if she does not dot the i's and cross the t's in regard to Twain. "Innocence Abroad" is a fascinating chapter, setting Henry James's Daisy Miller squarely in the context of the female novel for the masses as he works to reclaim and re-envision the female story and body for the upper-class, Euro-American male gaze. Clearly, Wadsworth's underlying focus in this section is not so much on gender and class as it is on women and class.
The opening chapter to Part Two, "Seaside and Fireside,"
takes as its beginning a scene in William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas
Lapham, in which the upstart millionaire's young daughter Irene is confounded
to discover that George Eliot's Middlemarch is not a new novel, though
it has just appeared in "the Seaside Library" (107). While we as
readers get the point that Irene is accidentally getting "culture"
from what is obviously a mass-market reprint, Wadsworth uses this chapter
to help us to understand the broad impact of such publications and their targeting
of women as their primary audience, helping to restore the allusion's context
for its contemporary readers and thereby enriching our understanding. Her
discussion of the enormously popular Seaside Library and other "libraries"
that were printed in newspaper format for cheap distribution and mass consumption
clarifies the ways in which the publishing field became more "commercialized
and modernized," falling under the control of "large, impersonal
corporations" (133) even as Wadsworth makes the personalities of the
men behind these libraries come alive. She helps us to see how books became
associated with a "brand" and how this fit into the "development
of a nationwide audience" (133), and while we could wish that she developed
further our understanding of how Twain fit into this movement (beyond an off-hand
reference to the books from "cheap series" that he kept in his own
library ), her discussion overall is thought-provoking and enlightening.
Wadsworth is at her finest in discussing the ground-swelling popular texts
and their distribution systems, in helping us to see the readers' hunger for
books that reflected a target group's identity and aspirations. These discussions
restore the context out of which more familiar texts arose, helping us to
understand topical historical allusions that we might otherwise skim over,
and bringing into our line of vision the "crucial subtext" (107)
that we might otherwise miss.