Mr. Mabie Tells What to Read
Hamilton Wright Mabie conducted young ladies into the suburbs of culture and left them there.
—FRANK MOORE COLBY (1917)
Hamilton Wright Mabie’s authorized biography mentions the Ladies’ Home Journal only once, in an aside, and then only because Mabie mentions it in a letter that the biographer cites in full for its rhapsodic description of the Adirondacks. This neglect is no small oversight: Mabie contributed ten full-page columns a year to the Journal over the course of ten years, mentioning in those compendious pieces more than two thousand discrete titles and nearly as many authors. The erasure of the Journal tenure from Mabie’s biography was deliberate, a function of the desire to rehabilitate Mabie’s reputation from dismissive assessments like the facetious one-liner from Frank Moore Colby that serves as my epigraph. Anecdotally, this eulogy was all that Colby, an essayist and humorist, was able to muster on the occasion of Mabie’s death. Having been asked to write an appreciation by the editor in chief of the New York Globe, Colby agreed, but then presented no text for three days following the assignment:
His chief inquired several times and Colby said, each time, that he was still writing it. The chief had visions of column after column on Hamilton Wright Mabie, taking up all the space he had reserved for editorials against Tammany and in favor of certain municipal improvements. He was in despair. Finally, on the fourth day, the chief said, “Frank, we can’t give too much space to Mabie. Let’s see what you have written. We may have to cut it to get it into the paper now.” Colby handed him a sheet on which were written just these words, no more, no less: “Hamilton Wright Mabie conducted young ladies into the suburbs of culture and left them there.”1
By ignoring Mabie’s significant relationship with the Journal, Mabie’s widow and biographer hoped to recast him as “a torch-bearer on the difficult path leading to high ideals, attainable only through intellectual enrichment and spiritual enlightenment.”2 But it was too late—his contemporaries already knew him as a literary popularizer, and he eventually became a footnote to literary history, remembered only when critics wanted to mock the benighted old guard that could not appreciate the realism of William Dean Howells.
From 1902 to 1912, however, when he was writing for the Journal, Mabie was a household name and an incredibly influential cultural arbiter. He occupied the bully pulpit during a moment of significant transformations, both aesthetic and material, in the production and consumption of literature in the United States. As a growing number of readers entered the American literary marketplace at the beginning of the twentieth century, they found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of books—titles, editions, and formats were multiplying seemingly overnight. Governed by a sense that there must be some meritocracy to reading, and motivated by a culture of success that insisted that every action be directed towards upward mobility, these readers turned to a willing group of elite cultural arbiters for advice on what to read and why. These advisers, writing both in monographs and in the pages of elite and mass-market periodicals, were called on to popularize reading, but also to make accessible for their readers some of the more inaccessible literature of the day: American literary realism. Realist authors balked against both the American culture of success and the growing popularization of reading, but they depended on market forces to sustain their access to publication and therefore needed a good number of “common” readers to purchase their books—for whatever reason. And that reason, more likely than not, had very little to do with aesthetics, and more to do with the sense that reading could, by some mysterious alchemy, make one socially and financially successful.
Though a number of cultural arbiters disseminated their opinions in monographs or in more genteel literary periodicals like the Atlantic or the Century, the readers who could access such publications were already comfortable with the world of literature. The readers of a more truly mass-market periodical, like the Ladies’ Home Journal, were more likely to be relative newcomers to the world of letters, especially to the high-cultural titles that were usually offered in response to requests for lists of the five best books published by American authors in the last ten years. By the time Hamilton Wright Mabie began his ten-year stint as the Journal’s reading advisor, the magazine had already tried several times to provide a regular reading advice column. None was as successful, as regularly appearing, or nearly as long-lived, as Mabie’s column, which would run ten times a year every year from March 1902 through April 1912. Mabie’s column was successful because it achieved an ideal mix of prescriptive advice and permissive validation; Mabie told his readers what they should be reading, but he also told them it was okay to read what they wanted to be reading. Moreover, he refused to tell his readers what they should be getting from the books they read, leaving the door open for them to read what they “should” be reading the way they wanted to read it.
Joining the Journal when it was rapidly expanding its circulation, and when it was cultivating its appeal to men as well as to women, Mabie was uniquely positioned to affect the reading habits and cultural attitudes of a broad swath of the U.S. population. But his columns, in their persistent elision of the languages of aesthetics and economics, also reflected the larger American culture of “reading up.” His work in the Journal could be termed a missing link in the evolution of an unashamedly middlebrow aesthetic, the place where the otherwise obscured connections between the arbiters of taste and the people who read become discernable. His simultaneous direction of and responsiveness to the reading public made him the longest-lived, most successful books columnist in the Journal’s history.
Not Just for Ladies: The Journal at the Dawn of the Century
The Ladies’ Home Journal was the uncontested circulation leader for all monthly magazines from 1903 until it was leapfrogged after World War I by its fellow Curtis Publishing Company title, The Saturday Evening Post, and it had reached a paid circulation figure of one million by January 1904. Mabie’s tenure with the Journal coincided with this period of rapid expansion in that magazine’s popularity and influence. Edward Bok had taken over the editorial reigns in October 1889 and immediately began transforming the already moderately successful magazine into a cultural juggernaut. Touting itself as a friend and counselor in the home, the Journal successfully positioned itself as the ultimate authority on all elements of domestic life, and from the 1890s on, the Journal’s didactic, department-driven style and copious advertising made it a lifestyle magazine for the new consumer society.
Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the impact the Journal had on U.S. culture, particularly given its national reach and its universal appeal; despite its name, it was not just for the ladies of the home. Though particularly targeted to “white, native-born, middle-class women, who lived with the uncertain legacies of the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement and who tried to find a comfortable role in the rapidly changing world of the expanding middle class,” the Journal was also a family magazine, with a good deal of editorial content specifically directed towards men.3 Particularly during Bok’s editorial tenure (1890–1919), the Journal ran columns like What Men Are Asking and Between Father and Son.4 Bok promoted these efforts through his editorial pages, as in the November 1898 column marking the magazine’s fifteenth anniversary:
[The Journal] touches the people of every means, of every age, of both sexes and almost every clime. In city homes of easy accessibility it is found, as well as in homes of almost complete isolation—in some cases two and three hundred miles removed from a railroad. To the young and to the old alike it seems acceptable. Although it was originally designed as a periodical for women, indications are constant and unfailing that it is read by thousands of men. It has been said by one that no magazine reaches so many young men.5
These young men, presumably the school-age and early teenage sons of a subscribing family, were some of the important collateral readers that each issue affected as it was passed among family members and neighbors. Bok offers a degree of evidence for the secondary and tertiary circulation of individual issues in this same anniversary editorial: “At one time the Journal selected one hundred names at random from its subscription list and wrote to each subscriber, asking how many persons read his or her particular copy. From seventy odd answers received the average appeared to be more than six.” While the principal subscriber might be the woman of the household, many of the other readers were male; the pursuit of male readers was a central component of Bok’s plan to make the Journal indispensible and culturally ubiquitous. And, no doubt, it was a key to the growing circulation numbers. A subscription, which ran $1.00 per year in 1902, and went up to $1.50 per year by 1912, was a fairly sizable discretionary expenditure for many of its readers. If a family could afford only one magazine, it needed to be a magazine that would appeal to all its members.6 In the cases where the male of the household held the purse strings, an appeal to masculine readers would be even more essential.
Just as the readers of the Journal were not exclusively female, they were also not exclusively middle-class, despite the magazine’s contemporaneous reputation as a “handbook for the middle class.”7 The publisher, Cyrus Curtis, had initially harbored aspirations for a well-to-do audience. In 1893, for example, he tried to court the wealthy by sending “a prospectus of one issue’s contents to all of the people listed in the Blue Book, or social register, in San Francisco, Boston, and Milwaukee.”8 Bok, however, was more comfortable with the middle-class characteristics of his audience, and Curtis finally acquiesced; by 1897, Curtis would describe the Journal as “in every sense a popular home magazine . . . appeal[ing] to the income of the many rather than the few.”9 During the first decade of the twentieth century, the magazine also seems to have made a decided appeal to readers in the lower financial strata of the middle class, as well as to women working outside the home.10 The magazine frequently ran series such as “How We Saved for a Home,” which told how, for example, a Minnesota family with “nine children and $800 a year” or families in which the husband made $7 a week could achieve the magazine’s domestic ideal.11 In the same vein, the magazine offered advice on how young girls could save enough money to go to college, how women could supplement their “pin money” by taking in laundry or seamstress work, and how women working outside the home were able to overcome daily exhaustion to find “joy in work.”12 Though the magazine was filled with advertisements for aspirational consumables, and one might be able to read the articles cynically as a part of a disciplinary project to produce happy buyers, a more sympathetic reading is possible in which the readers derive comfort and learn strategies from such articles, and the magazine becomes, perhaps unintentionally, an instrument for negotiating the burgeoning consumer society for which so many readers were woefully unequipped—a handbook to, as well as for, the middle class.
In short, it is difficult to generalize about the Journal readership, but it is possible to talk about the kind of reader the Journal imagined for itself and to speculate that the readership would look for itself in the wide-ranging contents of each issue. Bok acknowledged that the magazine’s “vast audience represents every shade of taste,” and the eclectic mix of the editorial content reflects a goal of casting a wide net for the sake of greater circulation.13 At the same time, the Journal consciously constructed its readers as hungry for advice on matters material, social, and intellectual. In the adviser role, the magazine was certainly a taste maker, particularly when it came to the cultural acquirements that would make one a respectable member of the middle class. Importantly, middle-class respectability was not yet inherently a rejection of upper-class tastes and habits; this attitude would not predominate until the postwar period, about which Joan Shelley Rubin writes in The Making of Middlebrow Culture. The early twentieth-century Journal encouraged its readers to dress, act, and think like the more moneyed elite, and a key channel for such upwardly focused behavior was the pursuit of genteel, highbrow literature.
Early Attempts: Ramsey, Bok, “Droch”
Almost from its inception, the Journal made some gestures towards advising its readers in the literary realm. Most of these columns appeared only sporadically, and at first they were primarily focused on advice to readers who wanted to become writers, rather than on book reviews and reading advice. June 1889 saw the inauguration of a regular column authored by A. R. (Annie) Ramsey titled Books and Bookmakers. Ramsey promised that this new feature would be responsive to “the wishes of [my] vast army of readers all eager for the best, all anxious for ‘more light.’” Ramsey sets forth three governing principles for the column, asserting first that “no review will appear in these columns of any book which has not been thoroughly read and reflected upon” and next that “in spite of all the mad rush after the ‘latest thing out’ I shall ever remember that in our literary Past, we have gems without whose luster no diadem is complete.” Finally, Ramsey insists that she will respect the privacy of the authors she writes about, because they are simply “doing their duty in the sphere in which it has pleased God to place them.” And yet, after paying homage to the inviolability of domestic space Ramsey has no problem assuring her readers that her columns will still provide juicy, gossipy tidbits:
Therefore, when [authors] retire into their private lives and homes, and shut the doors between themselves and the outer world, pray let us leave them there, nor seek to penetrate the seclusion of their homes, as sacred to them as yours is to you.
What they do in a public way belongs to the public, and you have a right to this as fast as I can gather it.
With only the transition of a carriage return, Ramsey launches into an intimate and detailed narrative of Robert Louis Stevenson’s courtship and marriage, a description of his current ailments and the Adirondack retreat which they necessitated, and a thorough accounting of the advances and profits he has made from the sales of his latest serials, books, and forthcoming travel diary (more than $30,000 that could be readily determined; even greater sums are “whispered”). Ramsey continues in a similar vein in this first column, discussing the new vogue for literary teas in New York and the apparent trend for society women to take up the pen. Finally addressing a literary text, Ramsey laments the regrettable ubiquity of the “theological” novel, and the overexposure of Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere in particular. Despite her opening promise to help her readers attain “more light,” Ramsey’s column is concerned less with actual literary products than with literary gossip and the personalities of authors.14
Just before Ramsey was beginning her column, Curtis read and became interested in a syndicated literary “letter” appearing in newspapers and penned by a young syndicate chief named Edward Bok. Bok had worked as the advertising manager for Scribner’s Magazine, the house journal for the publishing company of Charles Scribner’s Sons and a distinctly highbrow publication affiliated with the Atlantic Monthly.15 While at Scribner’s, Bok had begun his own syndicate, the Bok Syndicate Press, specifically focused on content that would be appealing to women readers. In the mid-1880s, he began to write his own column of literary advice and gossip for the syndicate, and it was this column that Curtis invited Bok to produce exclusively for the Journal, apparently without concern for the potential overlap with a feature already in place.16 Indeed, the first installments of Bok’s Literary Leaves columns differed somewhat from Ramsey’s in their address to readers who hoped to become literary producers themselves, but this angle did not become Bok’s exclusive focus until much later in 1889. At first, Bok, like Ramsey, addressed only glancingly the content of recent literature, choosing instead to discuss expansively the personalities and habits of authors and editors. In his autobiography, he identifies the column as a “literary gossip” column, and it is in his unembarrassed embrace of the gossip genre that Bok differentiated himself from Ramsey. Where Ramsey writes from the perspective of a curious outsider, Bok places himself in the midst of the literati, self-aggrandizingly emphasizing his frequent social interactions with the most brilliant literary lights of the day. He parlays his intimacy with popular writers into insight for his Journal readers, as in this profile of Grace Greenwood from his sophomore column, printed in the September 1889 issue:
Sitting directly opposite “Grace Greenwood” (or Mrs. Lippincott, as she is known to her friends) not many evenings ago, I could not help noticing what a striking face this remarkable woman possesses. It is a face that at once impresses you, I think, as belonging to a woman of singular force of character. Shadows play upon it continually, as if in sympathy with the feelings which sway its possessor. The eyes that are so restless are deep and penetrating, and your very soul seems to be undergoing a thorough examination as they look at you. One moment the eyebrows will contract and almost completely hide the orbits underneath; another moment and the eyes are fastened upon you with a keen and searching brilliancy. The forehead is high and domelike in shape. Of late, the raven-black hair that fringes Mrs. Lippincott’s head has shown silvery threads. I have always questioned whether we have a more truly brilliant writer in our literature today than Grace Greenwood.17
Bok’s observations are not secondhand, and he shows none of Ramsey’s compunction in offering intimate details—such as a writer’s graying hair—to his readers. Also unlike Ramsey, who at least pays lip service to the preservation of an author’s private life, when he reveals Lippincott’s real name he completely dismantles the separation that the author had established between her private self and her public persona. He then renders his readers intimates of Mrs. Lippincott by using the real name, not the pseudonym, for the rest of the column. The logic of the sketch is precisely this obliteration of the public/private divide, as when he praises the way that his subject’s face is—or at least “seems” to be—a perfect sympathetic mirror of her internal, emotional life. Echoing the prose style of the popular sentimental or sensation fiction of the day, Bok renders Lippincott a character straight out of a Grace Greenwood novel; if not a dewy-eyed heroine, she is the wise older mentor, exactly the kind of author a reader would want to place her trust in. Even more than a review of any specific book, this profile recommends Lippincott/Greenwood’s fiction to the reader by confirming the sensitive insightfulness of the author. Anything arising from this magnetic woman’s pen is necessarily worthwhile reading.
In August 1889, Bok’s column Literary Leaves began appearing side by side with Ramsey’s column, even sharing column space with Ramsey. By November 1889, Bok seems to have gained something of an upper hand, as the woodcut that had initially appeared over Ramsey’s column was used as the heading for Bok’s, with only a small notice that this column was Bok’s Literary Leaves and not actually Books and Bookmakers. Bok’s column had, by this point, come to address more exclusively the reader who wanted to become a writer, a focus that makes the reassignment of the illustrated banner even more confusing. While her column’s marginalization was probably distressing, the separation of subject matter must have been a relief to Ramsey, who had spent the previous months being scooped by Bok. In September 1889, Bok reported that “Margaret Deland’s new novel, ‘Sydney Page,’ will not see publication before the end of the present year or the beginning of the new.”18 Ramsey mentions this in her October 1889 column, with the editorializing comment that “[i]t is the best of signs when an author refuses to be hurried into hasty (and generally unworthy) work”; on the same page, Bok’s column announces that “Margaret Deland put the finishing touches on her new novel at Kennebunkport, Maine—the same place where she completed the last chapters of ‘John Ward, Preacher.’”19 Bok was a step ahead of Ramsey when it came to literary gossip—probably as a result of his closer ties to the publishing industry—and Ramsey’s columns had begun to look amateurish by comparison. Her peevish complaints about the lack of worthwhile fiction and the public fascination with religious novels seem all the more petty alongside Bok’s revelation of the true identity of “The Duchess” or his portrait of George Washington Cable’s domestic felicities.
Finally, by January 1890, Bok and Ramsey began to share space under the same heading, each of them contributing much briefer portions of a miscellany column on books and literature. The Duchess became a regular contributor of miscellany, as did Will Carleton, whose working habits were a focus of Bok’s August 1889 column. In February 1890, the new multiply authored column was rechristened In Literary Circles, with Ramsey contributing the critical angle, Carleton offering insights into the world of the writer, and Bok talking about the business angle of writing and publishing. With Bok focusing on the work of literature, Ramsey had more latitude to focus on the offerings in children’s literature, and to criticize the fans of Little Lord Fauntleroy, without looking trivial by comparison. The fracturing of the literary column into briefer individually authored pieces enabled the simultaneous publication of apparently contradictory pieces, as in March 1890 when an unsigned piece titled “Romance Reduced to Figures” appeared with a review of William Dean Howells’s A Hazard of New Fortunes. The “Romance” piece looks, at first glance, to be a facetious critique of the formulaic nature of romantic novels:
There is an English literary man who at the end of each year penetrates into the published fiction and extracts therefrom very often some exceedingly interesting figures. The results of his researches into last year’s fiction are entertaining. Of the heroines portrayed in novels, he finds 372 were described as blondes, while 190 were brunettes. Of the 562 heroines, 437 were beautiful, 274 were married to the men of their choice, while 30 were unfortunate enough to be bound in wedlock to the wrong man. [ . . . ] The personal charms of the heroines included 980 “expressive eyes” and 792 “shell-like ears.” Of the eyes, 543 had a dreamy look, 390 flashed fire, while the remainder had no special attributes.
The enumeration of romantic clichés continues to plot-points (seventy-one children were rescued from watery graves; “seven husbands had notes found in their pockets that exposed ‘everything’”). The humor, though, is undercut with a sense that such quantification, while it exposes the highly conventional nature of the romance, is not entirely fair—“And thus is the romance of a year reduced to figures.” Set alongside a review of A Hazard of New Fortunes that laments Howells’s decision to portray the Marches from Their Wedding Journey as a “disillusioned” middle-aged couple, and looks askance at the “requirements of Realism,” the tone of “Romance Reduced to Figures” seems more ambiguous than its actual content would suggest.20
Perhaps the experiment with a single-authored literary column was short-lived because Ramsey preferred to write travel articles (this genre would be her new area of expertise in the 1890s), or perhaps it was doomed by the interposition of a man the publisher was hoping to name as editor. In either case, the column, even in its fractured form, lasted only through May 1890. That the column was not long-lived does not mean the Journal readership was uninterested in receiving reading advice. Once Bok ascended to the editorship, he presumably no longer had time to devote to his literary musings, but he still harbored serious literary ambitions for his magazine. In 1896, he made a significant step towards realizing them when he hired Robert Bridges, who was then the editor at Bok’s previous employer, Scribner’s Magazine, to pen a regular advice column under the pseudonym of “Droch.” This choice signals the publications Bok thought of as his competition, as well as evidencing his willingness to poach from them. In his autobiography, Bok explains that hiring Bridges was a part of his “idea of making the American public more conversant with books,” but his ambiguous phrasing leaves open the question of whether this task should be accomplished by making the “literary” more popular or by elevating the popular to “literary” status.21 When Bridges took the latter approach, his columns were short-lived; as we shall see, when Hamilton Wright Mabie decided to take the former approach, he became a longtime contributor.
From December 1896 through November 1897, Droch’s Literary Talks appeared every month, a full-page, four-column article with a thematic organization. Separate columns covered the reading of “old favorites” and “contemporary favorites,” British and American fiction, historical fiction, humor writing, heroines, heroes, “outdoor books,” and vacation reading, among other subjects. The columns are, as Bok put it, “conversational,” with a permissive tone that frequently veers into the condescending.22 Though Bridges was the editor of a magazine that frequently published works of high literary realism and muckraking pieces like Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1892), “Droch” took the position that readers wanted to enjoy their reading, that they wanted to be reassured and comforted by their reading. Consequently, he rejects any works that would call into question the comforts of the hearth, the embrace of the family, and the idealism of romance. He discourages his readers from taking their reading too seriously and does not want them to read to the exclusion of other activities, like cycling or fishing. In his first column, Droch explains that there is plenty of information out there for people who read to gain knowledge; he is interested in offering guidance for “the pursuit of pleasure in reading.”23 Such privileging of pleasure over any moral or intellectual goal may have been reassuring to some of Droch’s readers, but in other ways it comes across as patronizing. He tells his readers in his closing column that “I have tried to advocate a natural, sensible attitude of mind on the reader’s part toward the books that may be the amusement of her leisure hours. There are many things more worth while for the average person than ‘being literary.’ That, also, like the game of wealth, is a game in itself—and there are many called, but few chosen” (November 1897, 15). In other words, true “literariness” is something most of his readers should not even bother striving for—it’s not worth it, and it’s not something in the reach of the “average” reader.
The insinuation that literature is “supposed to be light” is symptomatic of the Droch approach throughout his year of columns: literature should be pleasurable, recreational, and beautiful. Droch adopts the stance and righteously indignant tone of the consumer advocate, protecting his readers from authors who would offer unsavory fare to an unwitting and defenseless public. In direct address to his audience, Droch insists that “you have a right to demand of a book that you read for simple pleasure, that it shall fill your mind with something of beauty that was not there before—whether it is beauty of thought, of imagery, or of character.” Authors who persist in representing “ugly thoughts and images” are “bad company,” Droch claims; their unpleasant aesthetic choices are unmannerly, antisocial (December 1896, 23). For Droch, the easiest solution is to embrace classic literature and romances, and he gives his readers this advice in his first two columns. He encourages his readers to return to Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Keats, and suggests substituting Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray for contemporary fiction. “If you are really fond of what you call ‘sensation novels,’ and it is often a perfectly healthy appetite (a part of the hunger of youth for life), you can find all you want of it in Scott, Hugo, Dumas (excellent translations of the Frenchmen can be easily had)” (January 1897, 15). This kind of reading need not be expensive, either; cloth-bound editions of the classics can be purchased “for less money per volume than the current sensational novel in paper covers. And when you have invested in them you have something that is worth keeping.” Inexpensive reprint editions have even managed to flatten the distinctions between Dickens and Thackeray (the fans of the latter having once suffered from superiority complexes “something like the attitude assumed by George Meredith’s admirers of the present day”). Reading the classics can even be a part of one’s patriotic duty, as Droch insists in a brief postscript to his column “Some Old Favorites”: “As an American girl you ought to find one of your keenest pleasures in reading Hawthorne, Irving, Poe and Cooper. These novelists have stood the test of time, both as writers of marvelous English and as the preservers of the heart and core of some phases of American life and tradition” (January 1897, 15). These American romantics are historical, their works have stood the test of time, and they are patriotic—what better reading for the striving young American woman?
Outside the occasional comment about the reading habits and preferences of professional men (“light” reading to rest overtaxed minds), Bridges directed his columns almost exclusively towards a younger female audience, recommending stories and characters that will “appeal to your womanly nature” (January 1897, 15). As this phrasing suggests, these recommendations were not particularly flattering to the feminine intellect. He makes all sorts of blanket generalizations about the kinds of fiction women like, as in his column “Heroines in Fiction” in which he asserts that “the truth probably is that a novel is not worth the name to a woman reader unless it is a love story” (September 1897, 15). When Droch speaks of older readers, he does so in tones that imply that they would not be reading his column directly—he takes this approach despite Bok’s constant insistence that people of all ages read the Journal. In his inaugural column, Droch refers to his readers’ presumed task of finding a perfect Christmas book for “the dear old lady who preserves in her warm heart the traditions and good will of at least half a hundred Christmases.” The portrait progresses in tone from sentiment to condescension, in ways that would probably be odd, if not uncomfortable, for that “dear old lady” were she in fact Droch’s primary audience. Though her body is aging, Droch muses that “there is one thing about her that is perpetually young, and that is her dear old romantic heart. So that if you want to please her, give her a real good romance to read. She has no sympathy with modern realism and pessimism. She knows better, for she has lived her life deeply, truly, honestly, and she will tell you that it was good to have lived it” (December 1896, 23).
One might imagine that romance thus promoted runs the risk of being classed by a youthful readership as the genre of the grandmother, and therefore of being shunned by a younger audience. Droch’s subsequent championing of the mode balances things out, but it is nevertheless true that he has some serious tonal difficulties when it comes to addressing his audience. He patronizes his readers continuously during his year at the Journal, and while Bok himself frequently adopted this tone in his editorials, condescension was apparently not a successful approach in the books column. Droch’s feature lasted only one year in the Journal. This short term was perhaps by design, but one imagines Bok, who took great pride in his responsiveness to his audience, would have figured out a way to prolong the column if his readership had demanded it. As Droch, Bridges sought to minimize his readers’ ambitions for literariness and played into a preference for the romance without offering a way for his readers to access works with greater cultural capital. He wrote of financial ambition but did not acknowledge his readers’ cultural ambitions or the interconnectedness of the two. Furthermore, Bridges treated all his readers like adolescent girls and young women, and neglected to offer reading advice for the much broader Journal audience. Ultimately, Bridges did not read his readers properly, and he thereby could never have acquired the kind of active following that would sustain Hamilton Wright Mabie through a ten-year relationship with the magazine.
Mr. Mabie’s Secret Shame
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, if one read only Hamilton Wright Mabie’s authorized biography, written with his wife’s blessing in the years just following his death, one might not know that he spent ten years as the books columnist for the largest-circulation periodical of the time.24 The period between 1902 and 1912, when Mabie was occupied with the Journal, is actually deemphasized in the biography as “the middle period in Mabie’s life—the period following the culmination of his purely literary career . . . and preceding the crowning event of his public activities, his mission to Japan as the representative of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace” in 1912.25 The precise coincidence of this supposed “fallow” period with Mabie’s tenure at the Journal seems to signal at the very least a reluctance to associate Mabie with a popular periodical, and it almost certainly signals the writer’s dis-ease with the popularizing approach Mabie took in many of his Journal columns. The erasure of such a significant body of work cannot have been accidental or unintentional, and was probably a part of the image rehabilitation project Mabie’s widow envisioned for the biography. Jeanette Mabie apparently had some difficulty finding someone willing to write a proper biography of her husband, perhaps because his reputation at his death had been greatly diminished by the post–World War I revolt against the “genteel critics” of the 1890s and 1900s. After contacting a number of his surviving colleagues to request letters to include in an exemplary biography, and searching unsuccessfully for someone who “might truly record and represent his life and the influence of his rare spirit,” she settled on Edwin W. Morse, who was essentially a pen-for-hire.26 She clearly had the right of refusal on details mentioned in the biography, and she did not want the Journal to figure in Mabie’s lasting legacy.
Read in light of the biography’s revisionist project, the letter mentioning the Journal actually offers significant insight into Mabie’s attitudes about his Journal work, revealing his ambivalence about his audience and his strategic approach to the assignment. Morse cites this letter in full, with little commentary; it has no discernable relationship to the surrounding anecdotes, and while it might be going too far to suggest that Morse included it for the sake of its Journal reference, it does function a bit like the “return of the repressed.” The letter, which is only “about” the Adirondacks insofar as Mabie describes them in a graceful rhetorical opening, was apparently written in response to an acquaintance’s commentary on a Journal column and actually signals a complex pragmatism on Mabie’s part with regard to his writings in the Journal:
It was good of you to read my screed and send your comments on it. Of course character is the root of every virtue and strength. I was, however, dealing specifically with the question of the kind of books young people ought to read; and I have found that the only way to help the Journal readers is to be specific and point out the exact steps to be taken in any field of education or life.27
Without the opening salvo in this exchange, it is difficult to gauge precisely why Mrs. E. D. North criticized Mabie’s column, and on what grounds she disagreed with him. But there is a suggestion in Mabie’s response that she faulted him for an insufficient emphasis on the ideal of reading as a “character building” exercise. We may then read Mabie’s justification two ways: if we take him at his word, his answer comes across as an indictment, from the perspective of six years in the books columnist’s seat, of the typical Journal reader as either, at best, overly dependent and insecure or, at worst, unimaginative or obtuse. This reading is particularly available to us if we adopt the biographer’s apparent embarrassment about Mabie’s association with the Journal as reflective of Mabie’s own attitudes. It is more intriguing, and perhaps also more likely given Mabie’s continuing tenure at the Journal, to read this response as a moonlighting popularizer’s attempts to preserve his credibility with the more genteel audiences to whom he owes his reputation by representing the absence of “character” talk in his columns not as an accommodation to popular tastes but as a pragmatic concession to the shortcomings of the general reader.
In addition to barely mentioning the Journal, Mabie’s biography further downplays that association by obliquely misrepresenting the columns as advice primarily targeted to the youngest readers: “Through his articles on books and authors and literary matters generally he reached an enormous audience of young people, who were entirely distinct from those with whom, through the Outlook, his books and his lectures, he had been in touch.”28 While some of the columns do address the reading habits of children and young men and women, most of them have a more general focus, and most, as we shall see, directly address adults pursuing “self-culture.” Unlike Droch, Mabie clearly envisioned an expansive audience for his columns, and he rarely addresses any one group to the exclusion of others. Even more remarkably, and unexpectedly, Mabie’s recommendations are largely gender-neutral. When a reader’s query requires it, he does claim to tailor his recommendations for particular ages and genders, but there is little discernable difference between these targeted lists and the general recommendations that he offers to every reader. This openness apparently vexed a number of his readers, who perhaps joined Mrs. E. D. North in expressing their distress that he gave his readers too much latitude. By the fourth year of his tenure, in his October 1906 column, Mabie felt it necessary to address questions about his approach more explicitly, emphasizing that the conditions of his assignment require that he cast a wide net with his recommendations. After diplomatically observing that “[q]uestions which have been asked and occasional good-natured criticisms show that some readers do not quite understand the point of view from which current books are discussed on this page,” he continues, “it is the purpose of the reviewer to keep in mind the needs of a very large and widely-scattered body of readers, of all creeds and conditions, in all stages of education, and to select from the mass of books of the day those which are likely to interest, to educate or to refresh the greatest number.”29 Most important, Mabie does not dissuade certain groups from reading particular books. This position is a part of his larger philosophy of approval rather than condemnation; he simply does not have time to pass negative judgments, but must focus on books “which are, in the judgment of the writer, wholesome and worth reading, and they are described rather than criticized; there is room only for the briefest comment.” Mabie chooses to offer a large number of possible books rather than discuss titles in great detail; this approach offers his large audience considerable latitude of choice, and keeps him from the didacticism of Ramsey, Bok, and Droch.
And yet, Mabie does not refrain entirely from evaluative comment; the principle of selection is itself critical comment. If we look closely at the rhetorics of Mabie’s advice over his ten years of writing for the Journal, tracing in some respects their evolution towards pragmatism and in others a growing conservatism, we can see how he both accommodates popular tastes and works to steer his readers towards accessible “high” cultural products. We can also understand the apparent contradictions in Mabie’s literary recommendations and piece together a portrait of upwardly mobile middle-class readers at the beginning of the twentieth century concerned with “profits” both intellectual and pecuniary. Ultimately, we will see how Mabie’s columns in the Ladies’ Home Journal both reflected the larger American culture of “reading up” and worked to produce and validate it through their persistent elision of the languages of aesthetics and economics.
“Read What You Like”
As with all long-running features, it took some time for Mabie’s columns to settle into a regular format. In 1902, the columns were all Mabie generated, copiously illustrated with photographs of the authors discussed, and focused on brief reviews appearing after longer discursive sections about burning issues in reading practices. In 1903, authors’ houses replaced authors’ photographs as the accompanying images, and each column was laid out around the perimeter of a larger-font inset list of recommended directed readings, suitable for book clubs. By 1904, the titles of Mabie’s columns begin to change, from Mr. Mabie’s Literary Talks to the more explicit Mr. Mabie Tells What to Read, or, with increasing frequency, Mr. Mabie Answers Some Questions. This last format of columns becomes a regular part of the mix from 1904 onward, as reader queries are reproduced, identified only with anonymous initials and sometimes a gendered honorific, to be answered by Mabie. A significant number of these reader queries ask for lists of books, and the lists become more numerous in the body of Mabie’s column as a result. Readers apparently wanted to be given specifics, and after 1905, Mabie was increasingly willing to oblige. By 1907, we find entire spreads dedicated to lists of various sorts, of novels suitable for young readers (September and October 1907); “Courses for Private Reading” (November 1908); “Study Programs for Clubs” (October 1910); or “Courses of Novel-Reading” (September 1909). By the end of Mabie’s tenure, the columns devoted to answering readers’ questions become scarce as Mabie dedicates more of his time to thematic columns, discussing recently published works in dedicated issues and offering longer meditations on subjects both academic (“Our Use of English,” February 1909) and practical (“How to Live on 24 Hours a Day,” November 1910).
While the internal structure of Mabie’s columns changed over the years, the overall philosophy remained remarkably consistent. His ideals are, for the most part, those of the genteel tradition of criticism, which celebrated fineness of sentiment, the mind and originality of the author, and the transformative qualities of the text. According to Mabie, reading could have a profound impact on the reader, and it was therefore his duty to ensure that the reader read the right kinds of books—ennobling and significant books—and to steer them away from the wrong types. At the same time, he repeatedly validates the “refreshing” qualities of literature, and even legitimates reading the book that is “not enduring” but also “not harmful.” This task is a delicate balancing act, in which one can discern the pressures of the marketplace: Mabie has a preference for the elite book, but he is writing to an audience both attracted to this book’s cultural capital and daunted by its perceived difficulty. His readers already read “recreationally”; rather than rail against that trend, Mabie attempts to refine his readers within this comfort zone, to encourage them to read better books recreationally, and to celebrate their impulses to read at all. This accommodation is key to the working of “reading up” and is foundational to the reproduction of literary standards. Mabie and his readers all acknowledge the hierarchies of literary taste; “reading up” allows for the consumption of serious fiction in a recreational fashion.
An early column about the value of magazines could be read as a précis of the Mabiean mind-set. Mabie is, of course, writing in the circulation leader of all monthly magazines, so his position is awkward to say the least: it is a foregone conclusion that he should validate the reading of magazines against the magazine’s critics, but how is he to do so when the criticisms are lodged in the name of literary excellence? He opens with the counterargument: “It is often said that the magazines are the enemies of books; that they divert attention from literature, and that they absorb readers who might more profitably find their mental food in the libraries” (July 1902, 19). But, Mabie contends, the magazine was from its inception a medium of literary fineness, with Dr. Samuel Johnson one of the first contributors to one of the first magazines. “It is not uncommon,” he observes,
to hear people who constitute themselves the custodians of literature dismiss the magazines with one sweeping condemnation as commercial enterprises which are steadily lowering the intellectual tone of the English-speaking peoples. It is a curious fact, in the face of these oft-repeated predictions, that since magazines began to appear the reading public has steadily expanded, the sale of books increased, and the distribution of the classics grown to immense proportions.
Without claiming causation, Mabie is either suggesting a correlation between the two phenomena or, at the least, defending the magazine against accusations that it is destroying the “intellectual tone” of society—albeit in terms of production and distribution, more than in terms of reception, the latter being much more difficult to ascertain with any certainty.
If he were sure that the reading public, his public, had a “proper” relation to magazines, and if he were entirely comfortable with the literary content of magazines, the next portion of his commentary would, of course, be unnecessary. He couches it as “common-sense” but asks, “[A]re magazines the only things which are abused in their use?” What follows sounds a pragmatist’s defense of the periodical in which he writes:
The magazines present every month a good many articles which would best be left unread, not because they lack substance or form, but because other and better things can be read in their place. The same magazines present every month contributions to literature and to knowledge which one who wishes to know his own time, as well as other times, cannot afford to miss. In the tables of contents are found the names of nearly all the men and women who are making literature; in their pages are found the most intelligent and authoritative accounts of recent achievements in art, discoveries in science, experiments in sociology and economics.
Magazines are, it seems, necessary adjuncts to books; they are vehicles for other kinds of information, more “current” literature and nonfiction. At the same time, Mabie cannot countenance everything in all magazines—tellingly, he does not mention the kind of domestic information that makes up the bulk of the Journal’s back-of-the-book. This omission is again a marker of the uneasy peace that Mabie has made with his current publication and a sign of why he might have chosen to agree to publish in this venue. He hopes to steer his readers towards the good, away from the bad, in the hopes of making the good the popular. His closing comments about magazines sum up nicely his overall approach to all of the literature he will review and recommend over ten years in the Journal: “The end of the whole matter is that there are good and bad magazines, that magazines must be read with intelligence, not with omnivorous appetite, that they have their own place and work in the modern order of things, and that no wise reader will ignore them” (July 1902, 19). That there are few absolute pronouncements but an abundance of strategic suggestions in Mabie’s articles no doubt is the key to his enduring success both with the Journal readers and with his opinionated editor, Edward Bok.
Mabie’s columns are frequently broken up with editorial headings, the authorship of which is uncertain. It seems unlikely that Mabie wrote, or even approved of, some of them, as they often misinterpret the upshot of the discussion that follows. In the July 1902 column on magazine reading, for example, a paragraph that concludes that readers need not like all genres of literature but should “select the best of the kind to which we are attracted” is given the much more permissive heading “Read What You Like” (July 1902, 19). Mabie does not mean that one should really read whatever one likes; he instead wants to steer his readers away from reading history, for example, simply because they think they should read history. Rather than suffer miserably through Edward Gibbon’s histories, his readers should choose a quality novel or a quality biography. The heading, though, is either reassuringly permissive to the skimmer (who would be unlikely to follow any of Mabie’s other advice anyway) or suggestive and intriguing to the casual reader, intended to draw that reader in. This paratextual material also conditions response to Mabie’s advice and renders it more palatable, renders the definitions of “the best” a bit looser.
Even after following Mabie closely for months or years, the Journal reader might have only a fuzzy notion of what “the best” is in any given situation. Mabie gives specific recommendations, of course, but his meditations about “enduring” books versus “books of the moment” are frustratingly inchoate. Take, for example, the following discussion from his column “Mr. Mabie Comments on Books of the Season”:
In every season a few novels of real importance appear; many more wholesome and readable stories are published which are not to be numbered with the books of permanent value, but which, in moderate numbers and as recreation, are worth reading; and beyond these, in the outer circles of the vast field of book-making, are to be found an immense number of stories, made up, so to speak, for the market; untrue to life, full of sham sentiment, of false views of human relations, of distorted pictures of society, and as devoid of any kind of beauty as many contemporary houses are devoid of any truth or beauty of architecture. The cheap, trashy, vulgar story ought to be left untouched on the newsstands; it lies in the power of the public to put an end to its prolific life; when such stories cease to be read they will cease to be written. (January 1906, 30)
We can see here the idiosyncratic nature of Mabie’s writings in the Journal. His reviews are primarily concerned with managing the book-selection process and, ultimately, the reading experience. He early on takes the tack that “reading is preeminently an individual matter, to be determined solely by what we need and by what we like [italics mine],” insisting that “[i]t is better to be honest and ignorant of the classics than to profess a liking for them because it is good intellectual form to know them” (July 1902, 19). Such advice tells us a good deal both about Mabie’s readers and about the dual nature of his mission in the Journal—to reassure readers who find themselves lost when it comes to the classics and to prod them to try and read whatever of the “classics” falls within their comfort zone. Striving for excellence is not only a good idea; it is imperative: “Duty to our highest growth does not compel us to like all great books or any one class of great books; it demands of us that we select the best of the kind toward which we are attracted.” Still, the Journal reader is Mabie’s client, and Mabie must therefore liberally sprinkle his recommendations with support for stories “which cannot be regarded as literature, but which are well worth reading,” like The Hound of the Baskervilles. But in the same column, Mabie can become a firmer guiding hand, as when he tells his readers that “[n]o one has any right to allow children to grow up in a bookless home” (July 1902, 19). Mabie is inflexible when it comes to the idea that people should read; he is more ecumenical when it comes to what they should read, and how. In October 1906, he explains that “cheap, vulgar, morbid books, however widely circulated, are intentionally ignored. Many books of great value are passed over in silence because they appeal to small groups of people.” At the same time, “books of no permanent value are often mentioned [in this column] because they are diverting and restful; and people need diversion quite as much as they need education.” The promotion of “diverting” qualities in literature, particularly fiction, is ultimately not distressing to Mabie because he “contents himself with a simple warning that the book is for the hour and not for all time” (October 1906, 22). He is, in other words, allowing his occasionally philistine readers the “refreshment” of light fiction, without any apparent anxiety about the possibility that such literature might crowd out more “serious” volumes for space on publishers’ lists. We might recall here that this was precisely Edith Wharton’s concern in “The Vice of Reading,” published in the North American Review just three years before Mabie’s statement of reviewing philosophy. Unlike Wharton, whose chief concern was for the authors of serious fiction, Mabie is primarily concerned in his Journal writings with the needs of his readers, and the “greatest number” of them at that.
The most striking comment in this passage, however, may be his contention that any critical work in the column happens between the lines, in the exclusion of a book from consideration if it does not meet his standards of “value” and “wholesomeness”: “The element of criticism on this page is to be found chiefly in the selection of books” (October 1906, 22). Mabie is utterly comfortable recommending books that may have “no element of permanency”; such is his stance, for example, towards Katherine Cecil Thurston’s Max in March 1911. Thurston’s previous offering, The Masquerader, had been a frequent recommendation of Mabie’s over the previous years, despite his admission that the novel was merely “a very clever piece of fiction, written simply to help readers pass away the time. It was entirely devoid of reality, but it was distinctly entertaining, an audacious invention” (March 1911, 30). While Max is in the same vein and, moreover, “is overcharged with sentiment,” Mabie is willing to list it in the “New Novels of Incident” section of a column titled “New Books Worth Reading” because “it will interest a good many people.” These are hardly stringent criteria for inclusion. Overall, while Mabie’s process of selection is also a process of deselection, the criteria for both are ultimately profoundly subjective, and frequently contradictory—or, more generously, ecumenical. This attitude allows Mabie considerable latitude to navigate the critical debates of the day and allows Mabie’s readers a generous measure of freedom in their reception of the literature to which Mabie directs them. And it enables Mabie to continue his mandate to talk about “which among the books of to-day are really worth reading, and something of their authors.”30 While he recommends particular books of the “enduring” sort more frequently and consistently than the books “of the moment,” the latter ultimately make up the bulk of his recommendations in the aggregate. These recommendations, while fascinating, are scattershot, and are rarely repeated; we can tell more about Mabie’s aesthetic goals for his audience by looking at his repeat recommendations and at his occasional essays on the processes of self-culture, the importance of the “reading habit,” and the aesthetic goals of the novel. These reveal the underlying philosophy that Mabie’s readers would absorb from their reading of his columns, and it is here that we can see the competing and interdependent motivations that sustain the practice of “reading up.”
A Taste for Feeling
In Robert Bridges’s “Droch” columns, the old-fashioned romance was preferable on many levels to realism because it was comfortable, comforting, and spiritually elevating. Even though Bridges was editor of a competing periodical that would publish muckraking journalism and cutting-edge realist fiction, as “Droch,” speaking to a presumably less intellectual audience in the Journal, he took the path of least resistance by playing into what he perceived as his readers’ preexisting inclinations. Hamilton Wright Mabie took a different tack, and the popularity of his column indicates that it served him well. While continuing to privilege the romance at all turns, and to hold up particular romance novels as the pinnacle of literary achievement, he refused to demonize realism, and even recommended certain works of realism as important books. Key to this accommodation was Mabie’s imprecision when it came to generic classifications; he terms texts, or elements of texts, “realist,” or “romantic,” or even “sentimental” and “sensational,” without rigorously defining these categories or analyzing the aesthetic and political implications of each category. In other words, he speaks in buzzwords that are all but evacuated of their meaning and allows his readers to fill in the blanks with their own conceptions—whether accurate or inaccurate—of what those terms mean. This terminological imprecision, as we shall see, also allows Mabie and his readers to creatively recategorize some texts or to read texts in ways unintended by their authors—to identify with particular characters who might resemble romantic heroes or heroines, for example, despite the fact that they appear in a realist text that undermines their “heroic” qualities. In other words, such ambiguity was not just sloppiness on Mabie’s part; in his writings in the Outlook he was an outspoken and intellectually precise critic; it was, rather, strategic, because it enabled Mabie to encourage particular texts without having to worry about their aesthetic alignments. Mabie recognized the cultural importance of realism, even if he could not condone all of the principles behind realism, and this strategic positioning offered his readers the chance to add realist texts to their personal libraries while retaining a fondness for romance.
Mabie pursued this strategy from his very first Journal column, and his very first recommendations. After an opening that complimented the reading public for its progress towards elevated tastes, he directs his readers to the works of “Miss Wilkins and Miss Jewett,” whose stories “have been talked about and read most widely during the past four or five months” (March 1902, 17).31 He introduces Wilkins, pictured in the act of taking tea, as having “a field which is not wide but which she thoroughly understands . . . the abnormal types produced by excess of individuality and bearing fruit in what is called ‘crankyism,’; with occasional experiments in the portraiture of the half-nun-like simplicity and monotony of spinsterhood.” After this oblique reference to Wilkins’s already famous short story, “A New England Nun,” Mabie turns to her new novel, The Portion of Labor, in which
she describes factory life in a small town with a first-hand knowledge which makes her readers feel the terrible weight of the significant title of her story resting on their hearts before they are half through the book. The family of the young girl who is the central figure is characterized so vividly that every member of it stands out with perfect distinctness. The girl is a beautiful creation; a new figure in American fiction; a kind of woman who is growing up in all parts of the country, but who has never before had a biographer. This is a story to read for information quite as much as for pleasure. (March 1902, 17)
Mabie’s opening comments about Wilkins classify her work by region and by focus—she is a character-driven author, and one whose “definite pictures of American life and sharply defined types of American character” are, above all, accurate. At the same time, he guarantees a dramatic, emotional reading experience, which he describes in slippery terms—readers will “feel” the importance of Wilkins’s title and will find it has a “terrible weight”—that suggest either sentimental identification, or romantic escapism, or both. Mabie specifies that the book focuses on a young woman, thereby ensuring the interest of young women who look for characters like themselves in their fiction, and he entices the sociologically inclined reader with the claim that the novel works as a “biography” for a new American type. He finally synthesizes these somewhat scattered and polarized observations by describing the novel as one that will, in fact, satisfy those at both extremes of the realism-romance reader expectation continuum—those pursuing “information” as well as those pursuing “pleasure.”
I am here interested not so much in determining whether Wilkins and Jewett were “really” sentimental authors, or “really” romantic, or “really” realists, as I am in mapping Mabie’s categorization of their work as simultaneously realistic (with “accurate” portrayals of factory town life); romantic (offering “pleasurable” reading experiences); and sentimental (with sympathetic protagonists and affecting plots). In many ways, this conundrum is endemic to regionalist writing, and Mabie is hardly doing something revolutionary by signaling the way Wilkins’s novel responds to several readerly positions.32 Not coincidentally, The Portion of Labor in its negotiation of the demands of realism and the popular interest in romance and sentiment is even more ambivalent than much of Wilkins’s work. The novel, published in 1901, was widely anticipated after her comments on it in a Harper’s Bazar interview published in January of the previous year: “The new novel at which she is hard at work is a strictly modern one, the scene laid in the shoe-factory of a large city. Miss Wilkins says of it: ‘I do not try to solve the labor problem. I simply present it. The story seems to me to promise well. I like it myself. It is rather realistic, but not grimly so, its pathos being cheerful rather than tragic.’”33 There are two plotlines in The Portion of Labor, both centered on the protagonist Ellen Brewster. Ellen, a prototypical young girl from the provinces, has a working-class background and comes to work at her town’s shoe factory through a series of misfortunes. She leads the workers on a strike against pay cuts, but then leads them back to work after she sees their suffering during a harsh winter. Ellen is also romantically involved with, and finally marries, the factory-owner’s nephew. As Dorothy Berkson contends, “The first plot emphasizes class solidarity and the dignity of labor; the second, the aspiration of the working class to attain the leisure, education, and taste of the upper classes.”34 Given the Ladies’ Home Journal’s audience and the task with which Mabie was charged, this combination is for him ideal, and he will repeatedly assure his audience that “reading is preeminently an individual matter, to be determined solely by what we need and by what we like” (July 1902, 19).
While Mabie offers the book as relevant to a number of reading practices—those associated with “feeling,” “pleasure,” and “information”—he also de-emphasizes important aspects of the novel. The only details he touches on are the protagonist’s age and gender, the fact that her family is an object of focus in the novel, and the general subject, factory life in a small New England town. Mabie does not discuss the labor element of the novel, except to note that the “full significance” of the title, The Portion of Labor, becomes clear to the sympathetic reader. While he gives little indication that the novel is deeply concerned with the parameters of labor-management conflict, he likewise gives no signal of the romance plot. The element that receives the most attention is Wilkins’s reputation for accurate representations of quirky regional characters, and the novel’s fulfilling of that reputation. When we wed this to the rhetoric of “pleasure” and “feeling” in the review, we can see that Mabie is mingling genres and readerly expectations in a particular way: he champions a realistic writing practice but validates romantic and sentimental responses to that realism. Such promotion of realist literature through an emphasis on its romantic and sentimental qualities becomes a hallmark of Mabie’s columns throughout his tenure at the Journal, and only intensifies in the later columns.
In Jewett’s case, with The Tory Lover, Mabie is confronted with a novel that departs radically from the author’s previous work. He also clearly does not think it a wholly successful book, but he takes the opportunity of its relatively recent publication to recommend her canon as a whole. Noting that the novel “carries her reader overseas, but . . . begins in one of the finest old homes near Portsmouth, and a good deal of New England is found in cabin and forecastle in the little bark in which Paul Jones sails to try his fortunes and win fame on the other side of the world,” Mabie strains to make Jewett’s romance consistent with her earlier works. “The story of adventure is new in Miss Jewett’s hands,” he explains, and he admits that “she is not as much at home with it as with the other tales of character in which she has long excelled,” but he can still see his way clear to recommending it because of something that goes beyond subject matter—the style of the writing, and the spirit behind it: “[I]t is not so successful as some of her earlier books, but it is written with characteristic refinement” (March 1902, 17). The Journal reader cannot go wrong by reading Jewett, because she is always refined, always able to evoke the “delicate sympathy” of her readers.
It is worth noting that Mabie is hardly a fan of “sentimentality” widely construed, and he displays his disdain for many of the works typically associated with that rubric in a particularly vituperative portion of his column “Are the Best-Sellers Worth Reading?” While he gives credit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by noting that there are “‘best-sellers’ not in the first rank of literary excellence which are not unworthy, by reason of intellectual integrity and seriousness of purpose, to find permanent place in the libraries,” he reassures people who lament the apparent “degeneracy” of contemporaneous fiction with a reminder that “[e]arly in the last century ‘Charlotte Temple’ was wept over by a host of people who did not see how pretentious and hollow was its pathos and how deadly dull its sentimentality.” If that were not consolation enough, he continues, “[s]till later, about the middle of the last century, tears fell in showers over ‘Queechy,’ ‘The Wide, Wide World,’ and ‘The Lamplighter.’” Though for the most part these novels were “all moral as far as sex relations were concerned,” as opposed to many of the current batch, they were still not as good or wholesome for “vitality, simplicity, and interest” as the “second class” of novels of the 1910s (November 1911, 30). Mabie’s explicit concern here with sexual morality is much shriller than in his earlier columns, even when discussing naturalists like Émile Zola—he typically reserves his caution about “morals” per se for columns directly addressing juvenile reading, while here he seems to concern himself implicitly, through reference to so much sentimental fiction, to woman readers.35 The problem seems to lie not in sentiment itself, however, but with a “maudlin,” or “inartistic,” evocation of tears. Weeping over Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work is acceptable and, as it turns out, “feeling” for any number of characters in “realist” novels is both acceptable and desirable. Mabie is determined to retain elements of each genre that he still finds useful, and he does some intricate work decoupling terms from their previous associations—and giving them new ones—throughout his Journal columns.
In his Journal pieces, Mabie is frustratingly vague about the distinction between “romance” and “realism.” I want to suggest that this vagueness was entirely intentional on Mabie’s part, as it afforded him an opportunity to claim the best of each category for whichever texts he chose to champion, allowing him to avoid positive assessments of any genre as a whole. His list of “novels of realism,” for example, is presented as a genre lesson, set beside a list of “romantic novels,” among which appear Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Marble Faun and Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward. Mabie’s explanatory heading barely touches on the possibility that there is a difference between “realism” and “romanticism,” but it is largely up to the reader to discern what that difference might be: “Realism and romanticism are terms constantly used in the discussion of fiction and extremely difficult of definition. The reader of novels who wishes to get a clear and definite impression of these two forms of writing, and the diverse attitude toward the material used and the characters which appear, will do well to study groups of novels which may be distributed under these two heads” (September 1909, 28). In other columns, though, Mabie begins to blur, or even obliterate, the line between fanciful fiction and realism, as in his 1912 pronouncement about Frank Norris: “Norris, a man of powerful imagination though of imperfect artistic development, saw the human relations of business; and wherever there is a human relation there is material for romance” (April 1912, 42). Granted, Norris himself in “A Plea for Romantic Fiction” was careful to separate the romance from “sentimentalism” and preserved a special place in the literary pantheon for romance properly executed. He also elevated romance above the “stultifying,” “harsh, loveless, colorless, blunt tool called realism,” claiming Zola as a writer of “romance” and, backhandedly, assuring realism’s critics that realism could be “respectable as a church and proper as a deacon—as, for instance, the novels of Mr. Howells.”36 But Mabie’s placement of Norris in the canon of romance seems tied less to a complicated relationship with Norris’s own critical gymnastics than to a move to render Norris palatable to the Journal audience. Mabie’s approach to Norris is always tentative—in the 1911 column “Are the American Novelists Deteriorating?” he gives his imprimatur to several fictions about the “Central West” without once mentioning Norris—but as early as May 1903 he opened the floor for discussion of Norris’s position in contemporary literature with a mixed review of The Pit. First, he calls Norris’s The Octopus a “very defective but powerful story,” because it “was too long; it was overweighted with detail, and its manner was too suggestive of Zola; but it was first-hand work; written, that is to say, by a man who had studied the life he described with the utmost care and conscientiousness.” Mabie finds in Norris a unique “insight” into the “dramatic possibilities” of industrial America, which tempers some of his realistic and naturalistic impulses (May 1903, 15). Norris seems in this sense a threshold artist, paving the way for others who do not have such affinities with Zola to enter the territory.
While literary taxonomies seem to have lost some of their critical traction in the Atlantic group, they do still seem to have some purchase for Mabie—even if applied haphazardly.37 This makes sense given his didactic project—literary syllabi need separations, after all, and the classification of works renders something about them “learnable.” Despite the attention he pays to works aligned in the early twentieth century with “realism,” Mabie’s readerly sympathies, and, it seems, the assumed preferences of his audience, clearly lie with the idealism of romance. In his advice regarding children’s literature, he recommends the romantics, particularly American romantics, to the near exclusion of everyone else. His September 1904 column “Mr. Mabie on Sunday-School Books” lists a number of specific works that would pertain to religious learning and morals, but he also generally advises that “[i]t is a religious duty to give young readers a taste for the best literature by placing in their hands the best books. [ . . . ] American children . . . ought to read Irving, Cooper, Hawthorne, Emerson” (September 1904, 18). He insists that children of both genders should read Scott. He answers without qualm a request for “ten romances, stirring, full of adventure and wholesome, for a girl of fifteen” (May 1905, 18). Interestingly enough, Mabie here adopts the means of Howells as he supports choices Howells explicitly condemned; as Nancy Glazener notes, Howells thought Scott inappropriate reading for young Americans because of its attention to “Old World political systems.” As Glazener puts it, “[S]uch literature would not produce democratic citizens, according to the very crude model of internalization and imitation that was sometimes generated by realism’s supporters.”38 Mabie clearly had affinities with this “crude” model of reception; while he does not generally differentiate the types of books that should be read by men as opposed to women, he does work diligently to classify books by the maturity of the reader, and recommends different books for boys and girls. Primary among books that one should take care to keep away from younger readers are, of course, “books of disease . . . which make one feel as if one had been in a hospital or madhouse” (November 1907, 28). Even adults should not overload on such books, which in the descriptions Mabie offers sound like works we now consider “naturalist” and which he generally designates, as in the Norris review cited above, with a general reference to “Zola.”
But even when it comes to naturalism, Mabie equivocates. In 1905, in response to a reader’s query about why Zola would be considered a “radical realist,” Mabie offers the following meditation:
Zola was a realist in method because he attempted to portray, and in many places did portray, the facts of life with uncompromising accuracy. He was essentially, however, a romanticist because he selected his facts instead of taking them as they are presented in life. The realists have always charged the romanticists with presenting a false picture of human experience by the method of taking what was attractive, poetic and happy in that experience and excluding what was unpoetic, undramatic, and commonplace. Zola reversed the practice of the romanticists; he took in many cases the most revolting, gross, and repulsive aspects of life and pictured them with very little shading; so that his view of life is as untrue in one way as the view of George Sand is untrue in another. Both present a great deal of truth; neither tells the whole truth. Realism as practiced by some of its more ardent advocates is as untrue as the most radical romanticism. (September 1905, 18)
If Mabie was evasive in his introduction to “Courses of Novel-Reading,” he here utterly undermines the notion that there is any substance to realism’s claims of “truth” or romance’s claims of ideality outside of the experience of the reader. He is explicit about separating method and intent from result—Zola is as much a “romanticist” as any other writer is, he just selects the unsavory aspects of life to portray. Indeed, Mabie contends that realists’ attention to “method” is nothing more than an assessment of subject matter; because of their reflexive rejection of a supposed “idealism” in romanticism, they are susceptible to overcompensation by exclusive attention to the negative. In the next month’s column, Mabie revisits these terms to clarify them, after asserting that “the really good novel must be interesting, but it must also be sound, sane, well constructed and well written. To say that a novel must be sane does not mean that it must deal with the normal phases of life only; it means that its point of view and its treatment must be healthful and sound.” The “sane” story is “both sincere and true to life,” and the “truthfulness” of the story inheres not just in “truth to the best in the writer,” but also “truthfulness to the fact of observation, of experience, of divination of character.” What is the representative text for this kind of truthfulness? The Rise of Silas Lapham—though Mabie is quick to add that “this emphasis on truthfulness does not mean that a novel must belong to the class called realistic” (October 1905, 20). This stance is a far cry from Mabie’s 1885 review, which finds Lapham symptomatic of realism’s tendency to thrust dull and degenerate characters into the hands of the gentle reader. I discuss Mabie’s engagement with Howells and Lapham at greater length in chapter 2, as an entrée into Mabie and the Journal’s vexed relationship with Howellsian realism.
Confronted with the question, “What do you consider three tests of a good novel?” Mabie answers with a number of examples that span genres, with language plucked directly from Henry James’s “The Art of Fiction” (1884), but in ways that adapt these texts to tastes James would be reluctant to validate:
1. That it shall be interesting. No matter how able it may be, a dull novel is a dreary failure. 2. That it shall either tell a story so well as to compel the attention as in “The Masquerader,” or describe a character with such insight and feeling as to create genuine dramatic interest, as in “The Conquest of Canaan,” “The Debtor,” “The Divine Fire,” “The House of Mirth.” 3. That it shall be, in point of style, clear, strong, picturesque, or stirring. (March 1906, 20)
When James contends that “the only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting,” he does so in the service of validating his own authorial practice, and ultimately to the end of claiming primacy for authorial intention as against critical assessment (at least, negative critical assessment of his own works).39 Mabie invokes this famous Jamesian dictum in this case to argue against the “dull novel,” where “dullness” clearly is in the eyes of the beholder, not the author. In his second contention, he gives primacy of place to the “story” that “compel[s] attention,” and he references a historical romance he has already termed “a fairy-story in contemporary dress” (September 1905, 18). When he addresses characterization, specifying that the character description must have both “insight and feeling,” he uses a buzzword of both romance and sentimental literature, and offers as examples works by Booth Tarkington, Mary E. Wilkins [Freeman], May Sinclair, and Edith Wharton—novelists traditionally considered marginally realist, regionalist, proto-modernist, and realist or naturalist, respectively. When it comes to style, Mabie again uses terminology that resonates with realism alongside those tell-tale keywords from romance and sentimentality, “picturesque” and “stirring.” By mixing his references, Mabie is in some ways flattening the hierarchy between romance and realism, but he is also eliding the differences between the genres and, therefore, making a romantic reading of a realist text possible, even likely, from his readers. This lays the groundwork for misidentifications with characters who might have been romantic heroes or heroines but who, in realist texts, are supposed to be atavistic holdovers, often insupportably romantic and frequently doomed to failure in the realist world. Mabie’s ecumenicalism blurs the boundaries between the genres, even renders them arbitrary, and releases readers from the responsibility for reading any text according to a set of generic rules.
Self-Culture, Profits, and Pleasure
It would be fair to say that Mabie can play fast and loose with literary critical terminology because in the pages of the Journal he is not writing for the literati. The presumption that his readers come from a position of relative ignorance but harbor a driving self-culture agenda is explicitly referenced throughout Mabie’s ten years of columns in the Journal. As I mention above, he periodically devotes entire columns to readers’ letters, and at least one letter in each such column asks some variation of the question, “[H]ow can I get self-culture?” Though the connection of “self-education” with “self-making,” with the latter’s pecuniary implications, is the raison d’être for Mabie’s columns, at the beginning of his tenure at the Journal he took pains to distinguish the two, as in one (possibly fictitious) exchange published in November 1904 under the encouraging heading “Self-Culture Is Possible through Books”:
By distinguishing the “self-educated” man from the “self-made” man, Mabie is drawing a distinction between success culture and self-culture, defining the latter in the tradition of William Ellery Channing. Channing “rejected any idea that [self-culture] would contribute to material advancement” and emphasized the process of self-education over the end result.40 Even so, Mabie is hardly a stern taskmaster. He cannot be, and keep his audience. His closing contention that one must be “self-denying” is slightly ameliorated by his previous statement that one needs only a spare half hour per day (he will shorten this time span periodically during his Journal tenure). Only two years later, in encouraging readers to educate themselves so that they will achieve some form of personal advancement, Mabie is less coy, assuring his readers that “if we know how to educate ourselves so as to be and enjoy and achieve, on the largest possible scale, we should solve the problem of living, so far as it can be solved in this present stage of existence” (November 1906, 22). The separation between cultural and economic capital was impossible to sustain in the pages of the Journal; his audience was, after all, reading his columns because of the underlying assumption that in fact reading literature could somehow “pay.”
Connecting cultural and economic capital was the key to enshrining “quality” literature and to making it popular, best-selling literature—literally making it “pay” for him and for the authors who wrote it. This instrumentality lies at the heart of Mabie’s columns, driving both his writing and the queries of his readers. Mabie’s suggestions for what his readers are supposed to “get out of” these novels range from the oblique to the explicit. He embraces the need for his readers to “depend on the current novel for mental rest and diversion” (July 1906, 18), at the same time that he insists that “[n]o one ought to be content with reading only the books that attract at the moment, or doing only the things that one enjoys doing; strength, training and growth come largely from reading books and doing work which at the time are [sic] hard and often repellant” (November 1907, 28). Mabie is pulled in both directions during his time at the Journal, but he cannot decouple the languages of profits and aesthetics even when he seems to be most strongly resisting their interdependence; while he insists that “no man is so shockingly cheated as he who barters inward wealth for outward riches” (January 1908, 28), he had noted four years earlier that “the home in which good books are read cannot be vulgar, for vulgar people do not care for good things” (December 1904, 19), connecting the outward appearance of a home with the mental furniture of its inhabitants. While Mabie’s statement relies on the logic of correlation rather than causality, his whole column relies on a logic of causality. One might therefore expect that readers of Mabie’s column, who are after all finding in the rest of the magazine advice about what kinds of “good things” they might accumulate for their home, could read this passage as an implicit promise that people who read good things will thereby be able to own good things—will thereby have the ability to pay for good things.
The conflation of “good books” and “good things” appears at the end of a lengthy meditation titled “The Relation of Books and Wealth” that opened Mabie’s annual holiday books column in December 1904. Lamenting that “many of the most depressing conditions of the time are created by the ignorant rich,” Mabie explains that “there is nothing which needs greater intelligence than the spending of money, and the wealth that comes suddenly to some people throws their unfitness to possess and use it into high light.” He then tells of one of these nouveaux riches, in a story, presumably “true,” that sounds like nothing so much as the story of Silas Lapham’s house-building adventures. This wealthy man, building a monstrous home that “promises to be a lasting source of grief to his neighbors and the whole community,” forgets to include a library in the well-appointed excrescence until an acquaintance asks about it, at which point he blithely decides to “ask the architect to put one in.” Mabie goes no further in explaining the grotesqueness of this moment (it is up to the reader to understand, presumably, that the problem is either the wealthy man’s lack of concern about the books that should go there or his apparent lack of book ownership), but he does expound at some length on the moral of this vignette:
The country is full of people who are self-educated socially as well as intellectually, and who are a credit to American society and among its best products; but there are many who become rich without suspecting the relationship between wealth and education, and who furnish material for the comic journals and bring grief to their more intelligent countrymen. No disgrace attaches to ignorance if it is unavoidable, but to flaunt ignorance against a background of wealth is to invite and justify the severest criticism. (December 1904, 19)
In this formulation, it is difficult to tell whether “education” is necessary for wealth or a by-product of it. Mabie wants to have it both ways here—presumably to sell reading both to the person who has already “made it” and wants to have a chance to be legitimate and to the person who wants to “make it” but does not have any options aside from reading. Both readers will ultimately do the right thing by reading books, as long as they do not think too much about whether Mabie’s logics are consistent or try to determine the connection between “education” and “intelligence.” It is very clear, regardless, that “ignorance” is to be avoided at all costs, and no reader of Mabie’s columns, having been shown the folly of a lack of education, can continue on this course, lest he or she becomes a “flaunter” of ignorance. Mabie turns directly from this parable and lesson to deal with some novels that address striving for success thematically, such as Robert Herrick’s The Common Lot, thereby reinforcing the interconnection of culture and wealth.
In fact, Mabie might be, albeit perhaps somewhat unwittingly, one of the earlier adapters, if not the coiner, of the phrase “intellectual capital.” He first uses the phrase to describe the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson—“This generation does not remember much of what Emerson wrote, but Emerson’s thought has become part of the intellectual capital of the country” (September 1903, 15)—and he clearly enjoys the phrase, using it again on several occasions. He discusses the “unused educational capital in the possession of men and women of culture and some leisure,” which needs to be tapped by intrepid organizers of local reading clubs (September 1909, 28). These terms give his readers license to think of literature in economic terms, while simultaneously feeding off the fact that his readers are already thinking this way. Mabie is a books columnist who understands, and even embraces, this elision and who acknowledges that his column’s existence is predicated on an instrumental attitude towards reading and literature. Taste must work within the economic systems that support it; Mabie cannot insist that his readers stop feeling sympathy for characters, any more than he can allow them to read only “classic” works of literary romanticism. Both approaches would be untenable, as Robert Bridges’s “Droch” columns prove. Mabie’s tacit agreement with the attitudes of his readers, both in validating their readerly desires and in pressing them to read the things they knew were “good for them,” is what made him such a successful contributor to the Journal where his predecessors failed.
There is throughout the columns a sense that the Mabie reader is profoundly concerned with the connection between financial and social success and the acquisition of cultural capital. The opening of one of Mabie’s columns acknowledges the ongoing conundrum of the would-be reader who is also striving for financial wealth: “If making a living were the whole of life there would be good ground for the question which many people are asking: ‘Why should I spend my time reading books when there are so many real things I can do for myself and for others?’” (March 1909, 42). Coming as it does in the later part of Mabie’s tenure at the Journal, this apparently perennial question shows that the course he had sporadically pursued, that of emphasizing the inner rewards of a course of good reading, was not satisfying many of his readers. Mabie follows the above with the remark that “[f]ortunately those who are eager for books far outnumber those who are skeptical to their uses,” but when he attempts to circumvent the skeptics’ desires for material benefits from reading, he slips into the language of materialism: “[True readers] not only escape from themselves, but they also come into possession of themselves.” In an era of possessive individualism, the claim for self-possession would certainly resonate at the very least as a claim for social advancement with an upwardly mobile reader of the Journal. This is another way of framing the idea of cultural capital, and of finding it even in “escapist” literary practice, and it is predicated on a rhetoric that understands the American self as, at base, something to be possessed.
Indeed, Mabie is a consummate modern rhetorician, adopting the language of Taylorism in his frequent discussions of the time his reader should devote to the “reading habit.” One column, titled “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day,” connects economic and cultural capital even more explicitly by positing that the time outside of the working day, in which his readers could be reading the best literature has to offer, “furnishes the by-products out of which fortunes may be made” (November 1910, 36). There is a compelling push-and-pull in this column between the language of wealth, thrift, fortunes, and profits and Mabie’s occasional insistence that “[a] man’s inward wealth is his real fortune”; this tension is best exemplified in his attempts to liken the unread mind to the untilled soil of the American West:
In individual as in National life there has been an enormous waste of energy and material; as there have been wide tracts of country which have produced nothing because they have lacked water and soil, so there have been many lives which have been largely unproductive because they have not had intelligent direction. A vast force remains unused in society because a host of men and women do not study their resources as the resources of the Nation are now being studied. There was a great section of the Far West which was once described in the old atlases as “The Great American Desert,” and regarded as so much useless land. This arid country now bears many kinds of grain because irrigation has supplied the one thing it needed. And what is called intensive farming has multiplied many-fold the bearing capacity of fields that were formerly almost sterile. The capacity of the earth to make men rich is only beginning to be understood, and we are yet far from the mastery of its forces which will make it a magical servant of men in days to come. There are hosts of men and women who are not putting half their power at work, and are failing to get out of life half the interest and happiness that are within their reach.
Putting aside for a moment the hindsight that reminds us of the agricultural disaster intensive farming proved to be in the American West, we can see that Mabie has evoked one of the more potent get-rich schemes of his time in his drive to promote reading as a profitable enterprise. And, though he mutes the materialism that might be implied by “the interest” one could get out of life through reading, he connects reading so closely to “the capacity of the earth to make men rich” that it is difficult to disentangle the material undertones from “interest.” Indeed, Mabie’s language of “productivity” implies a workplace benefit to the study of literature, and he ambiguously hopes that his words will “open the eyes of any young man or woman, or any old person, to the possible wealth that lies in turning the by-products of life to account”: life should be regulated like a business, and more wealth is accumulated when nothing is wasted.
Mabie’s compulsive use of the language of business, wealth, profit, and accumulation, along with his repeated acknowledgment that his readers clamor to be convinced of concrete benefits from reading, and the results-oriented language of his columns, is a marked departure from earlier self-culture advocates like Chandler, for whom character work was an unquestioned, and sole, goal for reading the right type of literature. We can see that in his letter to Mrs. E. D. North, which I cited above, Mabie indeed felt the pressure to maintain this focus on character. Mindful of his audience in the Journal, though, Mabie always validates the book which will give pleasure; he cautions that “it is a mistake to make reading a task, because much of the benefit which flows from coming in contact with another’s thought or writing is received only when the whole mind can be surrendered to another” (January 1904, 17). Such support of a reader’s thrall to the text comes in marked contrast to the earlier reading manuals, where, particularly in the case of female readers, the idea that the text could enthrall one, or take one out of oneself, or offer an attractive alternative to one’s reality, was a primary danger of reading.41 Warnings against the dangers of the wrong type of novel reading were still common at the time that Mabie was advising his readers to give in to such pleasures, especially in the pages of the more elite magazines. In 1898, in the pages of Arena, George Clarke (whose Ph.D. is prominently displayed in his byline) warns that “the power which we have of sympathizing with others in their ambitions, joys, and sorrows—that gift of the imagination by which we are enabled to contemplate the careers of others with a personal interest by identifying ourselves for the moment with them—supplies us with a means of obtaining a sort of happiness by proxy, while our own attitude is entirely passive.”42 Recall though that Mabie also asserted that through reading “[true readers] not only escape from themselves, but they also come into possession of themselves.” Apparently, “the whole mind surrendered to another” meant not a loss of the self but a potential profit to the self—a paradox that answers his audience’s simultaneous clamoring for profit and escapism and marks the influence of mass desires on the reading adviser. Rather than attempt to swim against the current of his readers’ desires, Mabie embraced the idea of sympathetic surrender and worked to redirect it towards a different type of book. While William Dean Howells, the “Dean of American Letters,” in 1899 condemned “[b]y far the greatest number of people in the world, even the civilized world,” as “people of weak and childish imagination, pleased with gross fables, fond of prodigies, heroes, heroines, portents and impracticalities, without self-knowledge, and without the wish for it,”43 Mabie would applaud the reading public in 1904 for having begun to select better books, noting that “[t]he novels which have attained to very wide popularity, and the sales of which have been sensationally advertised during the last few years, have been for the most part well worth reading” (March 1904, 16). There was a lot at stake for Mabie in congratulating and accommodating his large upwardly mobile audience, because this group paid for his cultural labor and, ultimately, kept the literary world relevant and solvent. A portion of a 1905 column, appearing under the repeatedly used generic catchall title “Mr. Mabie Tells about the Books,” places the several motivations driving Mabie and his readers in close communication:
Every one who becomes a true reader of books becomes a buyer of books as well, for it is impossible to love books without desiring to possess them. . . . There is a truer romance, however, than that of collecting books because they are rare or have personal associations: the romance of collecting books because they are loved, and collecting them as a result of rigid economy and self-denial. . . . The family which is slowly accumulating a little library is always a rising family. (January 1905, 20)
The “true” reader, also a romantic, falls under an utterly valid if not-yet-nuanced consumerist longing. With enlightenment, this possessiveness becomes anticonsumerist self-denial, and all of this works in the service of ineffable upward mobility. Is it any surprise that the members of a “rising family,” or a family that wants to be such, should read this passage and others like it as road maps for mobility, drawn in by identification with the discussion of “romance” that preceded it? Or then that the library, while it may consist of realist works purchased under Mabie’s tutelage, would be read regardless of authorial intent as an extension of the romantic project? We must consider this as a distinct possibility, since much of the impetus to read such books—even if they were not to be “read for realism”44—came from popularizers like Mabie who cannily adapted a new reading list to their audience’s older, and persistent, reading practices.