Classics and Commercials

Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers

by Henry Nash Smith
Oxford University Press, 204 pp., $13.95

In 1895, about a month after the humiliating jeers and boos that greeted his play Guy Domville, Henry James made an entry in his notebooks that epitomizes the plight of most of the American novelists discussed in Henry Nash Smith’s new book. “The idea of a poor man, the artist, the man of letters, who all his life is trying—if only to get a living—to do something vulgar, to take the measure of the huge, flat foot of the public: isn’t there a little story in it possibly…?”

The story turned out to be “The Next Time,” in which a young novelist, Ray Limbert, pathetically declares, “I want to sell…. I must cultivate the market—it’s a science like another…. I haven’t been obvious—I must be obvious. I haven’t been popular—I must be popular. It’s another art—or perhaps it isn’t art at all. It’s something else; we must find out what it is.” Ray is said to be a genius whose work won’t sell, and he has the additional misfortune of having as a mother-in-law a novelist named Mrs. Highmore who can’t fail to sell even when she tries to make her work “what she called subtle.”

Democracy and the Novel is an investigation of the reactions of the great American novelists—Hawthorne, Melville, James, Mark Twain, Howells, etc.—to the Mrs. Highmores who came to dominate popular literary culture. Smith also includes a chapter on Henry Ward Beecher, whose Norwood was to a crippling, but exorbitantly successful, degree shaped by the popular taste of the 1870s and 1880s.

A d…d mob of scribbling women” was Hawthorne’s famous phrase for those who by 1850 had cornered the market in popular fiction. Their books were selling “by the 100,000,” he complained, and “I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash—I should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed.” He is referring specifically to Maria Cummins’s The Lamplighter, published in 1854, which sold 40,000 copies in the first eight weeks. Such figures were unprecedented. Cooper, whose most successful books never sold more than 10,000 copies within the year of their publication, and Hawthorne, who was happy when The Scarlet Letter sold 5,000 copies in the first six months, had never imagined for themselves the success that greeted The Lamplighter or Susan B. Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, which sold half a million copies in the United States alone between 1850 and the end of the century. A good account of these sentimental-domestic novels can be found in James Hart’s The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste, published nearly thirty years ago. “The main characters,” Hart writes, “were women—women who overcame all sorts of dilemmas through Christian fortitude and faith that eventually establishes them securely in prosperous middle-class homes, tangible symbols of an eventual call …

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