The Comforts of Romanticism
It is a good thing to succeed honorably in one’s business, but it is a better thing to succeed in one’s life; to be not only an efficient man or woman, but to be full of interest in large matters, to think about great subjects, to know and love the best the world has taught and said, to make life interesting, refreshing, and worth living for others. [ . . . ] To the man in the right place, as much as to the man in the wrong place, a door must open into a larger world; and for most men that door is private reading.
—HAMILTON WRIGHT MABIE, “MR. MABIE SUGGESTS COURSES FOR PRIVATE READING” (NOVEMBER 1908)
William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton—in the early twentieth century, having read these authors was a significant marker of cultural sophistication. And despite these authors’ tendency to criticize the culture of social mobility that undergirded the existence of the Ladies’ Home Journal, familiarity with their work was just as desirable for that magazine’s readers as it would have been for the readers of the North American Review or the Atlantic Monthly. Hamilton Wright Mabie, as we have seen, finessed his recommendations of these authors to focus on texts that would have been amenable to a particular type of self-interested misreading, which I have termed “reading up”: reading with an eye to social advancement, with the hope of material advancement, that makes it possible to ignore a work’s social critique if such a message would rankle. We have seen that, with regard to Howells, readers could easily see The Rise of Silas Lapham as a romance and, indeed, as a reinforcement of the reader’s own ambitious reading. We have also seen how Roderick Hudson and Portrait of a Lady could be read in a manner consistent with an upwardly mobile mind-set. We have seen that Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth infuriated readers who wanted a happy ending and turned readers against a cruel author rather than a cruel society.
While Howells, Wharton, and James were among the most frequently mentioned authors in Mabie’s columns, they were not dramatically more prominent than many other authors, certainly not in statistically significant ways. The Rise of Silas Lapham and The House of Mirth are two of the top twenty-eight most frequently mentioned single works, but there were others that made repeat appearances in the columns (see appendix A). Alongside perennial (and conservative) entries like The Scarlet Letter, David Copperfield, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we find contemporaneous offerings that do not fit comfortably within a “high realist” rubric: Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker, by S. Weir Mitchell; The Virginian, by Owen Wister; The Choir Invisible, by James Lane Allen; and The Grandissimes, by George Washington Cable. For the Mabie reader, these texts functioned as literary comfort food, refreshing romanticism after the sterner realism one needed to read for the sake of cultural capital. These were novels of romance and “local color,” and the Mabie audience could turn to them if they needed a distraction from, say, the depressing starkness of Ethan Frome.
For many years the romantic literature of the 1890s and early 1900s was ignored by scholars, who were focused on a linear narrative in which realism segued into naturalism and spawned modernism. In the 1990s, scholars like Amy Kaplan and Nancy Glazener renewed interest in the so-called romantic revival by paying long-overdue attention to the works that accompanied some realists on the popular books lists. Instead of dismissing these latter-day romances as “nostalgic retreat to a simplified past away from contemporary strife at home and abroad,” Kaplan argues that romances complexly reconfigured the contemporaneous U.S. foreign policy situation as chivalric theater.1 Glazener describes the ways that elite literary publications embraced the romance because of the serious financial straits that attended a waning readership.2 Consumerism ceased to be anathema to periodicals that had once sniffed at the “popular” as unrefined and primitive. These corrective studies force us to recognize the messy fracturing of the literary landscape at a very early point in the 1890s and 1900s, and to picture literary history not as linearity but as simultaneity. The romantic revival, the vogue for regionalist and “local color” writing, and the persistence of realism and nascent naturalism were all fomenting at the same moment, each mode perhaps taking relative precedence at various points, but all under contestation in the same periodicals, on the same shelves at libraries and bookstores, on the same lists at women’s clubs and in self-culture publications. We can see this simultaneity quite clearly in Mabie’s columns, and we can mark there the cultural tensions as readers negotiate modes, searching for the text that can maximize both profits and pleasures. As we have already seen, Mabie had a vested interest in appealing to a wide range of tastes while attempting to direct his readers towards the most culturally advantageous literature. Mabie presumes a romantic bent on the part of his audience (a safe assumption, as the majority of “best sellers” from the early 1900s were historical romances), but he hopes to somehow channel that audience towards at least some subset of literary realism. Regionalism, or “local color” literature, becomes a kind of intermediary step for him; he offers such texts as a bridge between the contemporaneous romance and “high realism,” repeatedly and consistently, from the first column in March 1902 through his final columns of 1912. When entertaining the question asked in the column “Are the American Novelists Deteriorating?” (September 1911), Mabie is able to answer in the negative because of the wealth of neo-romantic, regionally focused literature that he sees being published. Ticking off each region of the country, Mabie praises western author Owen Wister, New Englander S. Weir Mitchell, southern writers Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston, and Mary Watts and Mark Twain of the “Central West.” The last is, Mabie argues, “the best field for fiction in America,” because it “affords the largest field for observation of human character and occupation in this country, as it holds the political control of the country as well.” The Midwest is, Mabie claims, the repository for all the good independent spirit that migrated westward after the Revolution, and in addition to the quirky individualism chronicled by Twain, one may find there “a reincarnation of the refinement and distinction of the old Colonial aristocracy.” Ripe fodder for romance, that; as is the South, which produces authors who “imbibed early that spirit of idealization of the past which was not without justification, and is the expression of a sensitive and responsive imagination to the appeal of a vanished social order” (September 1911, 24).
Regional literature afforded Mabie an opportunity to champion nominally “realist” texts that nonetheless straddled the line into romance; they are atmospheric, their characters are noble and picturesque, and they typically resolve themselves more neatly than ambiguous James, ambivalent Howells, or aggrieved Wharton. Taking Mabie’s inaugural column as a template, we can look at two representative regional authors, Sarah Orne Jewett and George Washington Cable, as prototypical Mabie favorites. Their preferred novels offer avenues for sympathetic identification, and opportunities for romantic flights, that Mabie resists terming “sentimental” because of the social dishonor of that term. Mabie is able to present his readers with the kind of reading experience they prefer, with texts that accommodate more easily that practice, when he turns to regionalism; in so doing, he also feeds into and reinforces the critical process by which regionalism was coded a more degraded variety of realism. By examining how Mabie promotes the reading of regionalism, we can easily see that literary regionalism’s fluctuating critical fortunes are a result, not of anything inherent in regionalism, but of its attractiveness to “reading up” readers.
Identification Crisis: Deephaven
By the time Mabie began his stint at the Journal, regionalism was already a genre with an identity problem. One of Mabie’s favorite regional writers, James Lane Allen, had registered pleasure in 1897 that “Refinement, Delicacy, Grace, Smallness, Rarity, [and] Tact,” which he saw as hallmarks of the “Feminine Principle” and a particular subset of literature with a regional focus, were finally giving way to the “Masculine Principle” qualities of “Virility, Strength, Massiveness, Largeness, Obviousness, and Primary or Instinctive Action.”3 Donna M. Campbell has read Allen’s curious criticism alongside commentary from Brander Matthews, Charles Dudley Warner, Hamlin Garland, and others, as a symptom of an ideological tug-of-war in the 1890s in which regionalism was “fragmented while it was almost simultaneously promoted as the key to a ‘national literature, rejected as a literary fad, reworked as a variety of proto-naturalism, and, most damaging of all, redefined and marginalized . . . before it disappeared into a host of other movements, including historical romance.”4 In the “literary” magazines, like the Critic, the Atlantic, and the North American Review, regionalist writers were coming out in force to denounce regionalism as an effete form, as the victim of its success, bastardized by market forces that had led authors to mass-produce texts that looked like regionalism, but which did not have the true connection to place, the “veracity” of description and characterization, as the purer, earlier form. Warner offered a eulogy to “local color” in the May 1896 Harper’s Monthly, explaining that “so much color was produced that the market broke down.”5 The backlash against regionalism was so strong, in fact, that Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman turned away from their previous subject matter towards the more marketable historical romance.6
We join both of those authors in the midst of this self-refashioning in March 1902 when Mabie makes his first explicit book recommendations: Jewett’s The Tory Lover, a historical romance, and Wilkins’s The Portion of Labor, her return to New England after The Heart’s Highway: A Romance of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (1900). While both novels were relatively recently published, both had been out for several months, so the choice was not made solely on the basis of novelty—clearly, other considerations were at work. In chapter 1, we saw how Mabie’s treatment of Wilkins’s text was symptomatic of his tendency to emphasize feeling and character over other critical concerns when recommending fiction, and we noted that the Jewett discussion was largely an opportunity to discuss her earlier work, which is always evocative of “delicate sympathy” from her readers. Jewett is, in fact, an ideal author for Mabie because of the ways that his two favored novels, Deephaven and The Country of the Pointed Firs, model appropriate sympathies through narrators and characters that very closely resemble a main portion of the Journal audience. Mabie seems patently unconcerned about the terminological battles over “regionalism” and “local color”—he is happy to continue to embrace both the more “refined” and the more hackneyed offerings of the genre. But tellingly, he never mentions either term when discussing regionalist fiction, preferring instead to note its “romantic” or “sympathetic” capacity. Mabie again sidesteps the controversies swirling about in the highbrow periodicals so that he may offer his readers access to the texts that will confer status.
In March 1904, when asked to name candidates for the “best three American novels,” Mabie chooses Deephaven as Jewett’s contribution. He also recommends Deephaven two months later, when a mother asks, “What six books, standard or modern, calculated to benefit, can I purchase for reading by my daughter of sixteen, with the taste and intelligence of the average girl, who up to this time has done practically no reading of a general sort?” (May 1904, 24). Deephaven is the “starter” Jewett book, Country of the Pointed Firs the more advanced, in Mabie’s October 1905 list “A Beginning in the Best Fiction,” and both represent Jewett in his September 1907 “Some Standard Novels” list. In the September 1909 column “Courses of Novel-Reading,” Deephaven appears in the “Novels of New England Life” list alongside A Country Doctor, Holmes’s Elsie Venner, Stowe’s Oldtown Folks and Minister’s Wooing, and Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. In all, Mabie recommends Deephaven six times, as many times as he recommends The Country of the Pointed Firs, and he recommends Jewett’s late historical romance The Tory Lover thrice.
Even when it was first published, Deephaven was not a critical favorite. Readers were generally underwhelmed by the novel’s episodic structure, seeing in the series of vignettes a failure of plot and, therefore, a violation of generic conventions. This critical consensus extends into the present day; one generally finds Deephaven described as a good first effort, but hardly a success. Paul R. Petrie locates the relative failure of the text in Jewett’s inability to fully realize her transformation of what he terms “linear Howellsian literary mediation into a more evocative, reader-participatory narrative mode that was fully able to grapple with Jewett’s spiritualized sense of temporal social realities.”7 It may be this precise “failing,” however, that makes Deephaven a more appropriate text in certain circumstances, to Mabie’s mind, than Country of the Pointed Firs. His lengthiest treatment of Jewett occurs in his inaugural column, in which he also discusses Wilkins’s work. Mabie’s treatment of Jewett’s subject matter provides a good framework within which we can “read” his future recommendations of Jewett without being influenced by twenty-first-century critical arguments over regionalism.
Miss Jewett’s field is also in New England, but it rarely touches Miss Wilkins’s territory; between them one can get a fairly complete impression of New England life outside the large cities. It is the simple, old-fashioned home, with its air of having sent boys and girls to college, whose interior Miss Jewett has often studied and sketched with the most delicate sympathy and the most sensitive skill. She understands also the hidden idealism of the plain people in farmhouses and farming towns, and she knows their humor as well. (March 1902, 17)
Mabie promotes Jewett as half of a diptych through which the reader can get a “fairly complete impression” of a region—this is the touristic, ethnographic model of regionalism that has been discussed by Richard Brodhead and Sandra A. Zagarell, among others.8 While we may reasonably object that such may not have been the intention of regionalists such as Jewett and Wilkins, this is clearly the use to which Mabie was putting their works, and the use to which he suggested his readers put their works. He likewise introduces a clear position for identification when he comments that the homes in Jewett have the air “of having sent boys and girls to college.” Certainly, some of the homes have such an air—the homes of the cosmopolitan visitors, though not those of the “local” inhabitants they visit. In Deephaven, for example, Kate’s brothers are meeting their “classmates” for a school vacation trip to Lake Superior and come to meet the girls while “waiting until it was time for them to go back to college,” but in the town of Deephaven itself there is no mention of anyone having gone to school save a shadowy, disappeared uncle of Kate’s whose path towards the Catholic priesthood renders him persona non grata in the small group of Deephaven gentry from which he has sprung.9 College is never mentioned in The Country of the Pointed Firs or in the most recommended of Jewett’s short story collections, The Queen’s Twin; in Tales of New England, the Reverend Dobin of “The Dulham Ladies” is a less-than-attractive college graduate. But explicit textual references are, after all, not Mabie’s main concern—he is interested in “selling” his readers on Jewett, or at least, on specific texts of Jewett’s, and this tactic is a useful one. Homes with the air “of having sent boys and girls to college” are the kind of homes one presumes Mabie imagines a majority of his readers coming from, or the kind of home he imagines his readers wanting to create for themselves, and therefore the kind of home about which they would be interested in reading.
Mabie’s readers of Jewett, then, might be more likely to identify with the intercessory narrator and, perhaps aspirationally, with her wealthier friend Kate, than with the “locals” about whom Jewett was writing—even in Country, which by all accounts is the work that brings her closest to realizing an insider standpoint. Zagarell contends that the intrusive invocations of readers in Deephaven are addressed to “either cultivated, upper-class, and primarily Anglo-Saxon New Englanders like Kate Lancaster and members of Jewett’s circles, whose sense of origins New England regionalist literature articulated, or, like Helen Denis, members of the newly professionalized upper middle class that identified with the class and ethnic standing exemplified in the book by Kate.” Zagarell continues, “In introducing elite-identified readers to Deephaven, the narrative makes Anglo-Saxon Deephaven available to the population that carries on the ethnic traditions attributed to Deephaven.”10 This dynamic would certainly hold true for a large number of the readers of the Journal to whom Mabie was writing, but there would also be a good number of rural readers, and perhaps even some urban working readers (particularly young women) who would be inclined to pick up Jewett because of the frequent mentions of her work as “always worth reading.” When they pick up the text, they are pushed into identifications with characters they do not resemble, and they construct sympathies that function more as wish fulfillment and which work to buttress the social order while rendering “realistic” works fantasy works.
One of the more complicated scenes of identification in Deephaven occurs when the two Bostonians, Kate and Helen, end up showing a group of tourists around the Deephaven lighthouse and one of the tourists, mistaking the genteel, cosmopolitan Kate for a simple lighthouse-dweller, offers to give Kate a reference for a job in Boston. When Kate’s true class identity is revealed by her leisure-class hands and her expensive ring, the working girl, whom Jewett has until this point described as a paragon of manners, backtracks apologetically: “I ought to have known better; but you showed us around so willing, and I never thought of your not living here. I didn’t mean to be rude” (D, 38). Zagarell notes that in this episode, “foregrounding an urban worker’s anxious respect for a member of the superior class, Deephaven signals distress over contemporary challenges to upper-class authority,” and certainly it does so.11 But it likewise signals distress over the difficulty one might have in telling the difference between a member of the superior class and a lighthouse-dweller once the former has taken up so seamlessly with the latter, in an act of such complete sympathy that she begins to resemble the lighthouse-keeper, or at least to act just like her. Perhaps it also cautions the reader against too much vacationing in the other’s identity—the lines should remain drawn as clearly as possible, and a reader should not become too clearly identified with any character who is too far outside the bounds of the reader’s original identity.
Another avenue into Deephaven for the Mabie reader comes through Kate and Helen’s reading, though there is little explicit evidence of their reading during the main body of the text. At the beginning of the novel, during her narrative of the meeting that sets the stage for the trip to Deephaven, Kate makes reference to a number of texts that locate her and Helen’s literary life firmly in the realm of juvenilia. First, Kate accompanies a giddy, teasing announcement of her intentions to remove to Deephaven with “a few appropriate bars of music between,” at which point Helen is “suddenly reminded . . . of the story of a Chinese procession which [she] had read in one of Marryat’s novels when [she] was a child: ‘A thousand white elephants richly caparisoned,—ti-tum tilly-lily,’ and so on, for a page or two” (D, 12). Helen easily recalls the literature of childhood, and Kate’s piano playing is probably meant to recall it, but both girls are clearly entering into this reference with their tongues firmly in cheek. Less critical is the friends’ propensity for citing the popular poetry of Jean Ingelow, a member of John Ruskin and Christina Rossetti’s circle, whose literary career was founded on her popular juvenile novel, Mopsa the Fairy, and on a number of collections of children’s verse.12 Kate punctuates her invitation to Deephaven with an Ingelow reference, which Jewett is careful to have Helen flag for the benefit of her readers:
She seemed to have finished her story for that time, and while it was dawning upon me what she meant, she sang a bit from one of Jean Ingelow’s verses:—
“Will ye step abroad, my dearest,
For the high seas lie before us?”
and then came over to sit beside me and tell the whole story in a more sensible fashion. (D, 12)
The lines are from “The Days without Alloy,” a rhythmic and nostalgic tribute from the point of view of an ex-sailor to the siren call of boats being rigged in port. Though Helen marks Kate’s invocation of the romantic and fanciful Ingelow as not entirely “sensible,” it is a part of Kate’s allure for Helen, an allure towards which Jewett is not at all ambivalent. Both references underscore what Ann Romines identifies as the fundamental childishness of Helen and Kate’s plans in this opening chapter: “[N]ever do they seem to feel that they are doing more than playing house, building a sandcastle.”13 They self-identify as “girls,” and they are “twenty-four, unmarried, genteelly unoccupied; at the edge of an adulthood they are not wholly eager to claim.”14
Not unlike Catherine Moreland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, the girls like to imagine the presence of romantic—even gothic—secrets in Miss Brandon’s and Miss Chauncey’s houses. They do not like to use the “best parlor” of the house: “[A]ll the portraits which hung there had for some unaccountable reason taken a violent dislike to us, and followed us suspiciously with their eyes” (D, 25). At an earlier point in her description of Miss Brandon’s house, Helen remarks that “[i]t is very remarkable that there seem to be no ghost-stories connected with any part of the house,” but when no mysteries present themselves legitimately, the girls work to create them:
The wide window which looks out on the lilacs and the sea was a favorite seat of ours. Facing each other on either side of it are two old secretaries, and one of them we ascertained to be the hiding-place of secret drawers, in which may be found valuable records deposited by ourselves one rainy day when we first explored it. We wrote, between us, a tragic “journal” on some yellow old letter-paper we found in the desk. We put it in the most hidden drawer by itself, and flatter ourselves that it will be regarded with great interest some time or other. (D, 24)
Though Helen as narrator treats these instances with a degree of self-mockery, Jewett’s hand is so gentle that it is easy to read them as charming evidences of youth and high spirits rather than to see them, as in Austen’s novel, as evidence of youthful imaginations run amok under the influence of too many novels. Indeed, the girls leave the journal despite having found two “legitimate” romances already—a stash of Kate’s grandmother’s old love-letters, which Helen barely mentions, and “a little package of letters; ship letters mostly, tied with a very pale and tired-looking blue ribbon” (D, 31), found alongside a faded miniature and dried flowers in Kate’s maiden aunt’s escritoire. The former seem unromantic because, of course, we know how they turned out—Kate’s grandmother married her grandfather, gave birth to her mother, and lived a standard domestic existence. The latter, on the other hand, by their very existence give Kate and Helen a new perspective on Miss Brandon. “So there was a sailor lover after all, and perhaps he had been lost at sea and she faithfully kept the secret, never mourning outwardly” (D, 31–32). Even though they put the letters aside, intending to read them, they eventually accord them the privacy they do not give to other letters from Miss Brandon’s school friends, and herein lies some room for readers to critique Helen and Kate’s conclusions. First, we do not know whether the sailor was indeed a lover—nor do we know that he was lost at sea. Perhaps, instead, affections on one side or the other were alienated? The presence of another packet in the drawer renders an explicit counterpoint to this blue-beribboned package—another one, tied with black ribbon, which “had evidently been untied and the letters read many times” (D, 32). Which is the more important relationship?
Mentions of reading or books are fewer during the “body” of the text, but they come back at the end when Helen starts mentioning the things they did that summer that do not make the cut into the rest of the narrative. And as it turns out, their plans for summer reading far outpaced their accomplishments (a familiar phenomenon, indeed):
We are fond of reading, and we meant to do a great deal of it, as every one does who goes away for the summer; but I must confess that our grand plans were not well carried out. Our German dictionaries were out on the table in the west parlor until the sight of them mortified us, and finally, to avoid their silent reproach, I put them in the closet, with the excuse that it would be as easy to get them there, and they would be out of the way. We used to have the magazines sent us from town; you would have smiled at the box of books which we carried to Deephaven, and indeed we sent two or three times for others; but I do not remember that we ever carried out that course of study which we had planned with so much interest. We were out of doors so much that there was often little time for anything else. (D, 248–49)
Helen then mentions a number of books in what seems less like a definitive list of the things they brought with them to Deephaven and more like a “greatest hits” of Helen and Kate’s library. In fact, Helen does not list any of the books which would seem to have instituted a “course of study,” or any book for which the friends would require the services of a German dictionary. Instead, we are told that Kate “said one day that she did not care, in reading, to be always making new acquaintances, but to be seeing more of old ones” (D, 249); as it turns out, such is the actual practice, as opposed to the well-meaning intentions, of the two friends in between their interactions with the Deephaven locals. We find that Kate and Helen are not “highbrow” readers by any stretch of the imagination—they are in fact somewhat immature in their reading and cling to books generally considered “juveniles.”
In Mabie’s May 1904 list to the young girl whose mother sought his recommendations, Deephaven becomes a category representative; since her mother has not given Mabie any specific guidance about the “natural bent of the reader’s mind,” he offers her a list of books “chosen not because they constitute an ideal list but because they are all of the best quality, are in different fields, and are interesting to young people of average intelligence” (May 1904, 24). Alongside Jewett on the list appear Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia, Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho, John Greenleaf Whittier’s “Snow-Bound,” Washington Irving’s Sketch Book, and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Jewett is a young girl’s transition into realism; it is light, it ends with a return to urbanity and the world of courtship and colleges, and it affords an opportunity to exercise the idealizing and sympathizing impulse.
Creole Sensibilities: The Grandissimes
In his inaugural column, Mabie refers to George Washington Cable as one of “three popular authors of to-day.” He praises Cable’s early works for “show[ing] the most delicate feeling and art,” and identifies The Grandissimes and Doctor Sevier as works possessing consummate “fineness and charm.” Though Cable seemed to have lost his touch with the clunkily titled John March, Southerner (“it seemed to be the product of hard work, and no book is really successful unless it gives the impression of having been written easily”), Mabie is happy to welcome him back to form with his new novel, The Cavalier.
In “The Cavalier” the charm has come back; the narrative is stirring, the incidents crowd fast upon one another; movement, action, variety carry the reader on from chapter to chapter. There are delightful bits of description, charming scenes, the old air of romance. It is a story of the Civil War. There are two love stories, and the novel suffers somewhat from excess of incident and lack of clearness in the narrative. (March 1902, 17)
Until the final line of this thumbnail review, The Cavalier seems an ideal romance—clearly, though, there were limits to the amount of adventure one text could contain. The Grandissimes, however, remained superlative, a perennial favorite recommendation for Mabie. A highly wrought, romantic novel of French Creole life in New Orleans just after the Louisiana Purchase, The Grandissimes is one of the novels in the running for the “best three American novels” in the March 1904 column. It also appears consistently in Mabie’s fiction reading lists: in March 1903, he includes much of Cable’s oeuvre, including The Grandissimes, in a list of “the freshest and sincerest” American fiction of all time (March 1903, 17), and it is present with Old Creole Days in the October 1905 column on self-culture. Mabie’s judgment of The Grandissimes’ staying power seems to have been a bit off the mark, but his equating it with novels that have tended to pass the canon tests, like Portrait of a Lady and The Scarlet Letter, can be seen as symptomatic of his desires for his readers, of his assessment of their desires, and of their readerly and social expectations. Mabie does not have to sell The Grandissimes to his audience in the same way that he might have needed to promote or explain “high” realism; he needs simply to mention it, sometimes to classify it, and then to sit back while his readers pursue it.
In truth, the qualifications Mabie offered about The Cavalier apply very well to The Grandissimes; Cable’s prose is highly wrought, there is hardly a direct statement in the whole of the novel, and the plot is labyrinthine. The circumlocutions not only add to the sense that all the social and racial identities in the novel are complicated and partially obscured but also make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for the casual reader to follow all the tangled lines of relation. A reader must be dedicated to figuring out The Grandissimes from the moment he or she opens the text, because if not, the opening scene at a costume ball will be entirely impossible to read. For not only do we see the maskers primarily through snippets of dialogue from other observers, but much of that dialogue is rendered in dialect, and layered on top of that is Cable’s own indirect style. The maskers are, moreover, gender-bending in their costumes—Dr. Charlie Keene is dressed as the Native American queen Lufki-Humma, the matriarch of the Fusilier family—and unknown to the majority of the people present are two female maskers, one of whom is gender-bending in a monk costume.
The passing maskers looked that way, with a certain instinct that there was beauty under those two costumes. As they did so, they saw the Fille á la Cassette join in this over-the-shoulder conversation. A moment later, they saw the old gentleman protector and the Fille á la Cassette rising to the dance. And when presently the distant passers took a final backward glance, that same Lieutenant of Dragoons had returned and he and the little Monk were once more upon the floor, waiting for the music.
“But your late companion?” said the voice in the cowl.
“My Indian Queen?” asked the Creole Epaminondas.
“Say, rather, your Medicine-Man,” archly replied the Monk.15
And so on. The circumlocution and propensity for convoluted epithets continue, as in this passage where Cable ostensibly “explains” the family trees of the two clans whose stories set the background for the action of the novel:
Thus, while the pilgrim fathers of the Mississippi Delta with Gallic recklessness were taking wives and moot-wives from the ill specimens of three races, arose, with the church’s benediction, the royal house of the Fusiliers in Louisiana. But the true, main Grandissime stock, on which the Fusiliers did early, ever, and yet do, love to marry, has kept itself lily-white ever since France has loved lilies—as to marriage, that is; as to less responsible entanglements, why, of course—(G, 31)
The 1907 edition, fortunately, is full of helpful illustrations by Albert Herter, none of them with captions, but all placed at key points in the text to assist readers in understanding that, indeed, Lufki-Humma is “the daughter of the Natchez sitting in majesty, clothed in many-colored robes of shining feathers crossed and recrossed with girdles of serpent-skins and of wampum, her feet in quilled and painted moccasins,” and so on, at great length (G, 28). The epithet “daughter of the Natchez” is here used for the first time to describe Lufki-Humma, and the picture helps us know that indeed we are still talking about the same person. Last names multiply and interweave, as the two founding families marry Nancanous and De Grapions. The basic outlines of relations, in other words, are labyrinthine, and the names exotic; this text is a far cry from the clarity and reticence of Wilkins or Jewett.
Cable’s anthropological diction likewise distances his audience from the identifications that are much more available in Wilkins and Jewett. The language surrounding Lufki-Humma is in part respectful, in part anthropological, as in this florid passage describing her mental capacities:
And as to her brain: what can we say? The casket in which Nature sealed that brain, and in which Nature’s great step-sister, Death, finally laid it away, has never fallen into the delighted fingers—and the remarkable fineness of its texture will never kindle admiration in the triumphant eyes—of those whose scientific hunger drives them to dig for crania Americana; nor yet will all their learned excavatings ever draw forth one of those pale souvenirs of mortality with walls of shapelier contour or more delicate fineness, or an interior of more admirable spaciousness, than the fair council-chamber under whose dome the mind of Lufki-Humma used, about two centuries ago, to sit in frequent conclave with high thoughts. (G, 26–27)
The anthropologists, while here vaguely critiqued for their fetishizing and clinical ways, are yet closer to Cable’s audience than they are to Lufki-Humma herself; the intercessory narrator through whom we access their diggings is more of an ethnographer than perhaps he would like to admit. And when the omniscient narrator is not available to offer such reflections on the older families, Dr. Charlie Keene, by name alone identified as an outsider in New Orleans, serves as the mediator between the normative Anglo audience and the exotic Creole Grandissimes and Fusiliers. In a lengthy bit of exposition, he lays out the family trees for another outsider, the German immigrant Joseph Frowenfeld (one expects this name is an anglicization of “Frauenfeld” and wonders why, when so many French Creole names in the novel have not been anglicized, Cable normalizes the German). The identifications in The Grandissimes, in other words, lie firmly with the non-Grandissime general public; these wealthy and exotic personages are the objects of investigation, not the stand-ins for the Ladies’ Home Journal reader.
At the opening of The Grandissimes, it seems clear that the novel should fit clearly in the category of romance, and it seems unashamed in its tendency towards literary tourism. But as Donald A. Ringe explains, this romantic pose was strategic on Cable’s part, an attempt to make palatable a story that had already been rejected by the editors of a number of the major literary magazines of the day, “including Richard Watson Gilder of Scribner’s Monthly and George Parsons Lathrop of the Atlantic.”16 The story at “both the physical and the intellectual center of The Grandissimes” is the complexly narrated but rather straightforward history of an African prince sold into slavery and married off to his master’s illegitimate mixed-race daughter.17 At his wedding banquet, the prince, now called Bras-Coupé, has too much to drink and after provoking his master runs away to hide in the swamp while placing a voodoo curse on the house of Fusilier.
At a key stress point in the novel’s romance plot, Aurora (Nancanou) evokes Bras-Coupé’s situation as a parallel to her own—on the verge of eviction, without a picayune to her name, she and her daughter must make a last stand against the scion of the Grandissime family, who has fallen in love with Aurora and who we, as readers, know will save her. This evocation, while it could function to keep the antislavery thematic at the front of many readers’ minds, ultimately undermines that plot by relegating it to the status of a symbolic mirror. Do readers who come to Cable’s novel with the hope of getting some “local color” of New Orleans, a healthy smattering of Creole patois with their culture, really pause to consider the plight of the enslaved as they root for Honoré Grandissime to hand over Aurora’s wrongly seized land? Do the same readers really take seriously Clementine’s heavily accented, but utterly accurate, indictment of the system that undergirds the attractive, if quirky and backward, New Orleans society? Even the emotionally brutal description of Clementine’s torture and murder near the end of the novel can be forgotten in the wake of the comedic resolution, in which the two couples who were meant to marry do marry, and all the problematic mixed-race characters, with whom readers have not really been induced to sympathize, are scuttled off to foreign lands to languish or else to commit suicide. These were certainly the reading experiences of Cable’s contemporaneous readers in the 1880s, and there is little reason to believe that much had changed by the 1900s. If William Dean Howells and his wife, for example, entertained themselves after reading The Grandissimes by speaking to each other in the Creole patois of Aurora and Clotilde, what kinds of reactions might other readers have had, following Mabie’s lists and noting his celebration of the “refreshment” that can be afforded by the perusal of regionalist literature?18
Romancing the Revolution: Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker
While Mabie spent a lot of time teasing out the romantic elements in realist fiction, he did not ignore bona fide romances entirely. Aside from Vanity Fair and The Rise of Silas Lapham, the single work that Mabie recommends most frequently is S. Weir Mitchell’s historical romance, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1896). The story of a young Quaker who rails against the restrictive rule of his observant father, is expelled from the Society of Friends (on 4 July 1776!), and eventually finds his niche fighting for George Washington in the Revolution, Hugh Wynne was serialized in the Century from November 1896 to October 1897 and was among the best-selling books of 1898 after being released in novel form.19 The popularity of the book was such that Mabie would reference it six years later when answering a “reader letter” that wondered about the reason for the brisk sales of “the latest novels.” “Is this due to increased intelligence or skillful advertising, or is it because we are giving up more solid reading?” asks a questioner signed only “Reader.” In responding, Mabie reminds his audience that
The novels which have attained very wide popularity, and the sales of which have been sensationally advertised during the past few years, have been for the most part well worth reading. When it is remembered that among them are to be counted “The Choir Invisible,” “Richard Carvel” and “The Crisis,” “The Virginian,” “Hugh Wynne” and Miss Johnston’s stories of adventure in Colonial times, it is clear that the interest in these books is not an indication of degenerate taste, or of a taste for cheap reading. (March 1904, 16)
All of the titles he mentions in this reply are repeat recommendations of his, and all fit the rubric of neo-romance, or quasi-romance, with a local color or regionalist inflection.
All are also historical fictions, which “serious” critics like Brander Matthews and William Dean Howells had spent the last years of the nineteenth century condemning with broad brushstrokes as escapist and inartistic, “as untrue to the complexion of the past as to personality in any time, or rather as crudely tentative and partial.”20 Matthews leveled extensive charges of irreality against the historical novel in an influential essay in the Forum for September 1897:
One of the foremost merits of the novel, as of the drama, is that it enlarges our sympathy. It compels us to shift our point of view, and often to assume that antithetic to our custom. [ . . . ] We learn not merely what the author meant to teach us: we absorb, in addition, a host of things he did not know he was putting in—things he took for granted, some of them, and things he implied as a matter of course. This unconscious richness of instruction cannot but be absent from the historical novel—or at best it is so obscured as to be almost non-existent.21
Because the author of the historical novel must do so much backward projection, Matthews argues, there is no more incidental depth to the novel; this quality renders Uncle Tom’s Cabin a good “historical novel” about the South before the Civil War, but Cable’s fiction would be dreadful in Matthews’s eyes.
We can therefore understand why, when Mabie praises Hugh Wynne as an exemplary specimen of historical fiction, he does so not because of its facticity but because of its atmospheric accuracy. As he writes in a 1909 column, “An historical novel does not necessarily follow the lines of history. If it deals with historical events it must not distort or misrepresent them; but historical novels, as a rule, deal with a period or a man with integrity of truth rather than with integrity of fact” (September 1909, 28). Even when he discusses the presence of Washington in the text, Mabie focuses more on the quality of character drawing than on the historical accuracy. Terming Mitchell’s portrait “very engaging and bear[ing] many marks of fidelity to its subject,” he seems to prefer it to Thackeray’s more demonstrably researched version in The Virginians (November 1905, 20). He takes a similar stance when referencing the book’s historicity in an October 1908 column that addresses the approaches book clubs might take to the reading of history, as well as in March 1909 when he offers Hugh Wynne as a book though which a reader might “pass beyond the bounds of . . . personal experience into the larger experience of the race, to see how other men and woman have lived” (March 1909, 42). Historical books, in this formulation, are most useful because they “make us acquainted with the experience of our ancestors,” not because they are expected to be historically accurate. Like the original reviewer of Hugh Wynne in the New York Times, Mabie directly addresses Matthews by accepting his definitions of successful novels and insisting that they apply to Mitchell’s text. The Times review, appearing as it did only one month after Matthews’s Forum essay, addresses Matthews directly: “Although it presents a permanently interesting picture of the Revolutionary time, to call it a historical novel would be to narrow its scope, and might perhaps suggest the type of fiction against which Mr. Brander Matthews has made so brave an assault, and in which ‘humanity is choked by archaeology.’”22 Both Mabie and the Times reviewer need to offer more intellectually legitimate validations of Mitchell’s novel, and both hit on his ability to evoke the “human element” through characterization as the means of doing so.
Other critics with a predilection for realism took a similar approach to the genre-bending novel. The portrait of Hugh’s mother was the highlight of the novel for Willa Cather, who reviewed the novel under the pseudonym of “Helen Delay” in the Home Monthly. Hugh’s mother is “certainly a much finer woman than the blushing Dorothea [sic] whom the young hero goes daft over and finally marries,” Cather writes. “But then, I wonder are men’s sweethearts ever so good as their mothers?” Second only to Mrs. Wynne is “his reckless old Aunt Gainor, who read with avidity all the novels published in England and France, and drank a great deal of claret, and could lose at cards until four o’clock in the morning without flinching. Not an admirable character by any means, but a clear cut one and thoroughly alive.” Next to these two, Cather finds the historical component in the novel—and the chivalric romance elements—superficial and even irritating.23
It is indeed possible to read Hugh Wynne with an eye to the family romance and only scant attention to the Revolutionary War plot. The subtitle of the book, which is really the extended title of Wynne himself (“Sometime Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on the Staff of His Excellency General Washington”), promises more exposure to the Revolution and George Washington than the text really delivers; Wynne does not meet Washington until the halfway mark of the novel, by which point the battleground-minded reader may well have put the book aside. Zelig-like, Hugh is the person who informs Benjamin Franklin about the Battle of Lexington; he hears John Nixon read the Declaration in front of the Philadelphia Statehouse, has a battle wound dressed by Benjamin Rush, and witnesses General O’Hara deliver Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. But the Revolution provides little more than a backdrop for the tensions within the Wynne family. Hugh’s grandfather had been the squire of a large Welsh estate, but he had forfeited the title when he converted to Quakerism. His middle brother, William, died childless, and the proprietorship of the estate had fallen to the youngest brother, Owen. Hugh Wynne’s grandfather immigrated to America shortly after his Quaker conversion, and Hugh is raised in a household whose stiff Quakerism is leavened only by his lively French mother. When Hugh is a young teenager, he meets his elder cousin Arthur, Owen’s grandson, who has been stationed in America as an officer with the Scotch Grays. Hugh’s admiration for Arthur ends quickly when both fall in love with the enchanting Darthea Peniston. They become tense rivals, a situation exacerbated by their competing political inclinations. Hugh gradually comes to sympathize more openly with the Revolutionary cause, and after the death of his mother and his expulsion from the Society of Friends, he leaves his home to fight for the rebellion.
After Hugh joins Washington’s army, he is wounded and taken prisoner; Arthur sees him in the prison at the moment when he is near death and abandons him, telling no one in the family that he has seen him. When Hugh finally escapes from prison, his aunt (not Arthur’s mother) suggests that Arthur might be nervous about his right to the old Wynne estate in Wales. As it turns out, Aunt Gainor is right; Hugh’s uncle William had ceded the land back to Hugh’s grandfather; Owen Wynne, suspecting the existence of a later deed, had dispatched Arthur to search for it and destroy it. The events of the Revolution interposed, and it was only after the cessation of international hostilities that the Wynne family drama could be played out. By this point, Darthea, who had been engaged to Arthur, discovers her fiancé’s treachery and consents to marry Hugh. The ambitious Aunt Gainor, with the purest of aristocratic intentions, pursues the land case and presents the evidence to the prospective future Lady of Wyncote; Darthea promptly burns the deed, horrified that she might be responsible for turning even someone as odious as Arthur out of his home. Hugh had never intended to leave America for an ancestral manse in the Welsh countryside, anyway; he reprimands Darthea for distrusting his resolve, she apologizes, and they live happily ever after on a sizable estate in the Pennsylvania countryside.
Hugh’s story was certainly intended to be a metaphor for the new nation—any doubts on this score evaporate when one reads that his dismissal from the Society of Friends takes effect on 4 July—but some scant reader-response evidence from the letters page of the New York Times Book Review suggests that this was far from the central concern of all of Mitchell’s readers. Instead, contra Matthews, they worried about historical accuracy and, on a metafictional level, about whether the novel was “original” or imitative of prior Revolutionary War novels. As we noted above when discussing the House of Mirth controversy, Times letter writers—and the subset of those whose letters were actually published—are probably not representative of a cross-section of the thousands of people who read Hugh Wynne at the turn of the century. But their responses, and the fact that they were sustained enough to prompt correspondence, can be read as symptomatic of a particular nexus of reading, in which generic divisions were simultaneously porous and politically very important.
In April 1898, apropos of nothing, the New York Times Book Review published a letter from “Frederica Edmunds” of Trenton, New Jersey. Admitting that her review was “somewhat belated,” Edmunds contradicted the Times review by complaining first that Hugh Wynne contained too much period detail—“why give us every alley and footpath of old Philadelphia?”—and then that some additional detail could have been lavished on the “great events of the day.” “It is true this is realistic treatment, but the reader is not satisfied without some artistic perspective, or the compensating conviction that the characters are working out some strong plot of their own.” After praising the character drawings, the letter closes with a lament that “the author has told us no story, that the plot possesses no cumulative interest, and is continually impeded by the dragging in, without due warrant, of early Philadelphia celebrities of whose patriotic virtues we are quite ready to hear when not thrust upon us as romance.”24 The novel, it seems, has offered its historicity in all the wrong places for this reader, and in approximating a realist mode it has become considerably less satisfying. The intermodal text, in other words, fails to satisfy either expectation.
After this letter, Hugh Wynne is absent from the New York Times Book Review pages until November 1899. The occasion for its return is the publication and review of Winston Churchill’s Revolutionary War novel, Richard Carvel. In a provocative letter, a reader signed “Similia Similibus” details a number of significant plot parallels between the Churchill and Mitchell novels. “Hugh had an always present fairy aunt—Richard’s grandfather was his protecting angel. In his youth Hugh’s aunt presented him with a mare, ‘Lucy,’ fleet as the wind, and he became a masterful rider, which served him well later in the war—Richard’s grandfather brought him ‘Firefly,’ a mare of lively disposition, and he learned to ride like a centaur, which afterward served him very well when challenged to ride the wild stallion on the London streets.”25 Similia Similibus continues with the comparison for some time, then registers regret that she had read Carvel first, rather than its “prototype.” Once this gauntlet is thrown, readers are eager to weigh in on the possibility that Churchill has engaged in unethical borrowing. “Charles H. Young” ups the ante by citing Thackeray’s Virginians as another source text for Carvel, and a poorly executed one at that. To any of these texts, Young vastly prefers Paul Leicester Ford’s Janice Meredith, which “is original; it has more life; it is more picturesque than a chromo and strong enough for a Turner oil painting.” If its heroine is silly, “she has the merit of being silly throughout, and, according to accepted literary tenets, all heroines of that period in America seem to have been silly.”26 In the same issue, “Desdichado” offers the blanket critique that “[a] slight sense of proportion would hardly hurt some of these writers, and the lack of it is perhaps what gives the strongest ground to enemies of fiction in general.”27
The following week, the Book Review editors published a clarification that may well have been prompted by a flurry of letters on the plagiarism controversy. “It seems necessary to emphasize the point that ‘Richard Carvel’ was conceived, mapped out, and mostly written several years before ‘Hugh Wynne’ was published.”28 This seems an adequate refutation, and a clear one; when the editors go on to try and argue for the necessary overlaps between works that deal with the same historical epoch, they get into trouble. Certainly, the two novels could mark similar historical landmarks, like Lexington and Yorktown, but these were not the elements that Similia Similibus and Young delineated. What the editors do not want to entertain is the highly formulaic quality of the Revolutionary War novel; they cannot validate “mechanical fiction” in their pages. To their aid comes “L.,” whose letter on 23 December offers several examples of other literary “coincidences,” plot resemblances between Quo Vadis and The Last Days of Pompeii, and between Reds of the Midi and Ange Pitou.29
After this skirmish, the Review again falls silent for a month, until a slow February spurs a challenge. “A.U.” writes in to introduce a parlor game of sorts: “Which of these three books [Richard Carvel, Hugh Wynne, or Janice Meredith] is the best?” The prompt suggests that they be “considered both as literary productions and as historic studies of the men and times of the Revolution,” in other words, along the fault lines that have already demarcated the debate over the “value” of a historical novel.30 The discussion becomes a referendum on the form and on the possibility that one text could fulfill all the requirements of literary and historical excellence. Mrs. E. J. Moore weighs in early that Carvel is superior, followed by Hugh Wynne, and that Janice Meredith is not only immoral (the heroine is engaged three times!), but “the mixture of history, mostly imaginary, and romance is exceedingly crude, and at no times rises to the plane of literary excellence.”31
“Veritas” wants more like Janice Meredith because “[t]here is no mawkish sentimentality; there is no vulgar sensuality; there is no fashionable self-analysis; but it is just a plain, healthy novel . . . .”32 “J.T.H.” thinks that Carvel “presents the most picturesque picture,” but that between the three plots “it is the toss of a cent which we take. They are all good and worth preserving.”33 George Middleton votes for Richard Carvel because it has more action, while Janice Meredith is “slow, and ‘Hugh Wynne’ slower.” This writer also compares the climax of the romance plots for relative gratification: “Hugh wins Darthea while riding on horseback, and there is nothing beautiful about it at all; in ‘Janice Meredith’ the final scene is very pretty, though it did not impress me half as much as the scene in ‘Richard Carvel,’ where Dorothy kisses the forehead of her lover, Richard.”34 “L.A.M.,” on the other hand, predicts that most readers would find Hugh Wynne more gratifying because of its intimate portraits of historical personages and because “many people prefer the story of the struggle for liberty on the land rather than on the sea.” This reader is unbothered by “superficial” similarities among the novels, arguing that these “would naturally occur in any American historical fiction of that period.”35
I have offered the key points of these selected letters in scattershot fashion to emphasize a point: the responses to the question are as varied as they are impassioned, though they mark for each letter writer a particular alignment with the terms of professional critical debates over the historical novel. A reader who prefers a fast-paced plot will balk against a perceived focus on self-investigation, as will a reader who seeks out historical detail. A reader who is drawn to “intimate portraits,” on the other hand, finds fault with more encyclopedic treatment of characters and events. “Literariness” is attributed to whichever characteristic is more positively connoted, and there is no clear consensus on the preferred mode—neither is there consensus on the quality that each novel exemplifies. The editors of the Times surely had a role in the selection of the letters, and most likely they chose to offer a number of letters in support of each novel, both for the sake of author relations and to keep readers from feeling marginalized. Such ecumenicalism, though, implies the presence of all “faiths” among the readership. There was neither realist nor romantic orthodoxy when it came to the historical novel. The plasticity of the historical novel served Mabie well in his recommendations because it was so easily assimilable to preexisting personal preferences. As literary “comfort food,” the historical romance, like regionalism, could be justified, but it could also be a guilty, escapist pleasure.
The Varieties of Literary Experience
An attentive reader will have already objected that even the texts I have identified as the most frequently mentioned in Mabie’s columns are hardly ubiquitous, appearing perhaps a dozen times in one hundred columns. The truly remarkable thing about Mabie’s writing for the Journal is, in fact, the profound infrequency of repetition. Writing ten columns a year for ten years, one might expect him to return to the same favorite authors and texts more than once or twice a year. But Mabie was truly ecumenical in his recommendations, covering a wide range of nonfiction as well as fiction, and touching on many authors only once or twice. On the other hand, reading Mabie regularly, one gets a strong sense of his preferences, and certain novels seem to figure even more prominently than the sheer numbers would suggest. I have chosen, for the sake of this study, to focus on Mabie’s recommendations of works of “high realism,” because these were the core of his project: in encouraging his readers to sophisticate their reading, he needed to package realism along with the older “romantic” works with which they would already be familiar, and which they would already embrace (e.g., The Scarlet Letter); to avoid alienating his readership, he needed to put “high realism” on a continuum with other literature that was “quality” literature, “of lasting value,” but not as bleak or, ultimately, as valuable in terms of cultural capital. If a Mabie reader can come to speak as readily of Howells, James, or Wharton as he or she does of Thackeray, F. Marion Crawford, or Kate Douglas Wiggin, then he or she may enter the precincts of the educated and enjoy all the (vaguely suggested) benefits thereof. We might consider, for example, the case of a reader who has come to The Grandissimes after having read Mabie’s November 1908 column, “Mr. Mabie Suggests Courses for Private Reading.” This column, immediately following an October 1908 column about reading lists for women’s clubs (“When a Club Can Do Good Work”), offers some of the most unambiguous expressions of his philosophy regarding the benefits of reading to the upwardly mobile man or woman:
Private study is especially the resource of those whose occupations and surroundings are dull. Instead of breaking away and seeking fortune at a distance it is often wiser to stay by a task for a time and make ready, by study, for something more congenial. A man who can make a good horseshoe has mastered an honorable and difficult craft, but sometimes a youth is at the anvil who belongs somewhere else; it is not a question of the relative dignity of occupations, but of finding the occupation which Nature had in view for the particular boy. Here, for instance, is a young man striking vigorous blows on an anvil, whom Nature intends shall become a distinguished lawyer. How shall he find his way from the workshop to the courtroom? Not by abruptly leaving his trade, but by reading law at night. In one particular case the young man read through fifty volumes of reports and cases and kept up his work at the same time. Here is a boy reading law in an office whom Nature plans to do the work of an engineer; how shall he make the change? By giving up every spare minute to private study of books on engineering and the working out of problems in the seclusion of his own room. The country is full of able and spirited young men who are supporting themselves by hand-work by daylight, and getting ready for their life-work by brain-work by candlelight. The stories of these quiet workers who, by intelligence, persistence and self-denial, build bridges from the occupation most accessible to that most desirable are chapters in the great, unwritten romance of American life. (November 1908, 36)