A Ghost of Bestsellers Past
One of my favorite nephews was helping me shuffle boxes of stuff from one place to the other recently. With that mix of patience and impatience native to the under-20 crowd, he did not express the slightest flicker of curiosity.
Still, his doubtful expression as he slid the carton (Marked "A-16") into the back of the Honda made me want to explain a little.
"I haven't unpacked that box since before your Uncle Jeff and I got married," I ventured. Which would make it the equivalent to the Jazz Age to him.
"Toss it!" he said, then, reluctantly, "Why?"
"Because there was space?" I said. "Because I never got around to it?"
"Huh," he said. "Welp, that's the last of the pile. Anything else?"
There wasn't, except my continuing impulse to explain. And of course my own curiosity.
I hadn't unpacked the box -- or possibly even peeked into it –– for a very long time.
Under a layer of yellowed St. Petersburg Times packing paper, an old acquaintance gazed back at me.
Wide Wide World was the first real bestseller in the U.S. Published in 1850, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And then, for a couple of solid reasons, it disappeared from most people's memories.
Why was it forgotten? Here's the short list:
1) It's a "woman's" book, which critics and scholars later tended to dismiss. What's a "woman's book"? Well, the short form is that, like Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford novels, The Wide Wide World is focused on a heroine within the limited sphere of house and hold.
2) Like Little Dorritt or The Shack, the book offers a lot of weeping. Sentimentality is all well and good, but like unhappy families, I think every generation needs its own sentimental novel. Bridges of Madison County, anyone? Jonathan Livingston Seagull?
It's almost as if the reading public wrings the emotion out of a popular book, leaving a dry husk for the next wave of readers. Or not. It's just a theory.
So it's not a book that is going to have a revival, like Beryl Markham's West with the Night*. It's not a book I'm going to read again, ever. But I don't want to forget it. And so it has waited in a cardboard box lo these many years.
Wide Wide World essentially fired up the country's book publishing industry. The novel was huge. It outsold David Copperfield in England.
But Susan Warner did NOT make a fortune from it. She and her sister started writing after their father lost all the family money in the panic of 1837. The girls were poor and writing was their best option to keep body and soul together. They managed, but they did not enjoy the life of bestselling authors. Susan went on to publish a book a year until her death at age 66. The Warner sisters have been mostly forgotten.
Mostly: they did manage to pass along their family property, Constitution Island, to the US Military Academy at West Point. The island is part of the campus, although their house (Warner House, natch) is presently in a state of disrepair.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
*A quick essay about West with the Night.
What Katy Read: Feminst re-readings of "classic" stories for girls, by Shirley Foster and Judy Simons, University of Iowa Press, 1995.
Child brides in present-day US
Goodreads page for Wide Wide World
"Loving The Wide Wide World: a novel, its fans, and their fictions" essay by Jennifer L. Brady, Harvard.
Margaret Atwood on "Women's Novels."
Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt, Susanne Lebsock. University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels: Interpretative Strategies by Susan K. Harris, Cambridge University Press, 1990
"Panics, Gifts, and Faith in Susan Warner's Wide Wide World" in From Gift to Commodity: Capitalism and Sacrifice in Nineteenth-century American Fiction, by Hildegard Hoeller, University of New Hampshire Press, 2012.
Susan Warner and "The Wide Wide World" by Mabel F. Sltstetter, The Elementary English Review, Vol 14, No 5 (MAY 1937), pp115-167.
5/30/2017 07:04:10 pm
And nobody wants to read that? Foshizzle?
5/31/2017 04:37:19 pm
5/31/2017 09:51:05 pm
You are deft of touch in your writing. Delicious piece.
6/1/2017 09:41:54 pm
Thank you Cath!
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