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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 8 May 2008 08:44:20 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Sharon


Wadsworth, Sarah. _In the Company of Books: Literature and Its "Classes" in
Nineteenth-Century America_. Amherst and Boston: University of
Massachusetts Press, 2006. Pp. 288, 15 illustrations. Softcover. $24.96.
ISBN 978-1555849-541-8.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <>.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Sharon McCoy
Independent Scholar and Instructor
University of Georgia, Piedmont College

Copyright (c) 2008 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

_In the Company of Books_ is, in many ways, about the inherent
contradictions of democracy and a market economy and about both their
promise and their perceived threat to the cultural status quo. During the
nineteenth century, literacy in the United States expanded greatly,
alongside the proliferation of cheap printed material, precipitating what
Sarah Wadsworth defines as a "culture war" (13). In a time when Americans
were seeking to identify just what it meant to be "American," people
believed in the power of literature to define and mold society, to solidify
a sense of national identity, and to recognize its unique diversity.
Writers such as Walt Whitman heralded the "democratization" of literature,
empowering readers to think for themselves and become "the intellectually
liberated, self-reliant citizens upon whom true democracy depends" (4).
Others were convinced that the taste of the newly literate masses was not
to be trusted and worried that the proliferation of cheap books would
cheapen literature itself. Writing for publication increasingly became
simultaneously an act of artistic or cultural production and a
fundamentally commercial endeavor. The relationship between quality and
popular success became an important new question, and Wadsworth argues that
as the country and its readership expanded, segmentation of the literary
marketplace was necessary for successful competition in the publishing
field: authors and publishers had to define a target audience, to define
for whom their books were intended.

Early American publishers were local and diverse, serving a variety of
needs for a relatively concentrated population. As transportation services
made it possible to distribute literature nationally, specialization
offered refuge from competition, and so publishers targeted particular
types of readers while serving a more diffuse population. Wadsworth argues
that "one of the most conspicuous developments in the nineteenth-century
publishing industry was its ability to target specific classes of readers
with individual titles, series, or clusters of books tailored, packaged,
and advertised to appeal to their particular interests" (5). Recognition of
the needs of different types of readers by authors and publishers gave
those readers voice and shaped them into communities with collective
identities that together "inescapably transformed the landscape of the
cultural field" and "foster[ed] new areas of literary production" as well
as "new configurations of audience and genre" (8-9). The purchasing power
of the targeted groups exerted influence over the types of books that were
created and published for them, in turn giving members of these groups a
new sense of collective identity in the market.

_In the Company of Books_ presents six case studies that illuminate
segmentations of target audiences, marked first by age and gender then by
intersections of gender with social class, focusing not only on the content
of the texts written for these audiences and the innovations of authors
such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, and Henry
James, but also on the physical qualities of the texts' publication and
marketing. The "case study" approach is both a strength and a weakness of
the book, allowing Wadsworth to focus on particular examples, while
impeding some of the connections she might otherwise make among them.
Further, consideration of the impact of immigration, race or ethnicity is
unfortunately limited to an attenuated discussion in the epilogue, in spite
of its centrality in nineteenth-century discussions of national identity.
In spite of these flaws, however, Wadsworth's research provides important
context for understanding the impact of publication practices and the
influence of particular readerships on the development of American
literature and its place in American culture. She explains that we can
begin to understand the "full cultural work of 'the book' in
nineteenth-century America" only if we examine the "competing productions
that informed their development as texts and influenced their consumption
as books" along with the "publishing economy that was responsible for
disseminating them" (12), and indeed, it is here that Wadsworth's book is
at its strongest.

In Part One, Wadsworth traces a segmentation of the literary market that
began by separating texts created for adults from those aimed specifically
at children, a growing phenomenon that she links to the "expansion of the
middle class, increasing literacy among young people," improvements in
formal education practices, increased leisure time and spending money, and
"not least, the popularization of a Romantic sensibility that fundamentally
reconceived of the nature and status of childhood as a uniquely privileged
stage of life" (17). Wadsworth uses Bernard Wishy's formulation of
mid-nineteenth century America's shift from a vision of "The Child
Redeemable"--an understanding of the plasticity of character that allows a
child to be molded through proper instruction--to "The Child
Redeemer"--innocent and pure, naturally superior to adults and able to save
them from their own failings (34)--in order to contextualize the aims and
innovations of authors who sought to write for children and the publishers
who sought to capitalize on this increasingly lucrative market. While this
trend toward the publication of books intended specifically for children
began in the eighteenth century, it was not until the social, economic and
cultural climate of the 1830-70s that the market for "juvenile" reading
material became a substantial force in America, attracting some of the
nation's best writers. In separate case studies, Wadsworth looks
specifically at the ways in which Hawthorne, Alcott, and Twain transformed
juvenile literature, responding to and resisting publishers' definitions of
what childhood should mean and what children should read.

While most readers today know Nathaniel Hawthorne primarily through his
writings for adults, Wadsworth offers us a fresh perspective, demonstrating
how Hawthorne's success in the adult market enabled him to return to
writing children's literature, the site of some of his earliest
"scribbling," how it empowered him to react against and revolutionize the
juvenile market. The early expansion of children's literature was
accomplished predominantly through the classroom: historical sketches and
textbooks aimed specifically at particular age groups of boys and girls.
One of the most successful authors and editors of such books was Samuel
Griswold Goodrich, who created the phenomenally popular Peter Parley series
of instructional books, which sold over seven million volumes by
mid-century. Goodrich hired "freelance writers to produce new volumes" that
he planned, and while Nathaniel Hawthorne and his sister Elizabeth received
only $100 for ghostwriting _Peter Parley's Universal History on the Basis
of Geography_ in 1836 (28), the volume sold over one million copies--which
must have convinced Hawthorne of the lucrative possibilities of the
children's book market (28). After he had achieved stature in the field of
adult fiction, Hawthorne turned back to children's literature, causing a
revolutionary shift toward fiction and fantasy--a shift that went directly
counter to contemporary notions of what was "good" for children to read,
deliberately attacking and undermining the Peter Parley ideal of children
as objects to mold (34), using his own experience as a parent to understand
what children _wanted_ to read (37-39). With the publication of _A Wonder
Book_ and the _Tanglewood Tales_, Hawthorne offered to children an
"'intermixing' of fairy tales, myth and 'stories of real life'" (34),
written in a style that "portrays childish whimsy and naughtiness as
natural and even preferable to a more mannered and artificial state" (36).
Children, in short, met themselves in Hawthorne's pages, in direct contrast
to the "artificial" and unimaginative view of childhood they were used to
seeing in didactic nonfiction and fiction. Further, Hawthorne refused to
indulge in the contemporary tendency to "write downward, in order to meet
the comprehension of children" but rather, "suffered the theme to soar"
(40), engaging their imaginations and acknowledging their intelligence.

Though Wadsworth argues throughout her text that readers gained a sense of
identity from the "books that collectively addressed them" (10-11), she
actually demonstrates conclusively that the revolutionary changes made in
this and each of her other case studies arose from a writer's or
publisher's personal experience with and understanding of a particular
market audience. Such experience enabled the author or publisher to move
beyond a limited conception of what the target audience _ought_ to read
toward a more complete fulfillment of its actual needs, desires and
identity. Wadsworth continues her discussion of the juvenile market by
following its segmentation into separate markets for boys and girls books
around mid-century, discussing two authors who resisted traditional, ideal
gender models and shaped "new kind[s] of fiction" by focusing on
"realistic" protagonists: Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain. Her discussion
of Alcott is particularly strong, arguing cogently that along with
resisting and revising "traditional models of femininity," Alcott was "both
responding to and writing against" an enormously successful writer of the
Oliver Optic series for boys (45), William Taylor Adams, "whose most
popular books sold at a rate of more than 100,000 a year" (50). The success
of these books prompted publisher Thomas Niles to pressure Alcott to write
a similar series for girls. Though Alcott initially resisted, Niles's
persistence led to the writing of _Little Women_ and the sequels that
followed (49), and while one could wish that Wadsworth included specific
sales figures for Alcott as well as for Adams, her analysis of the new kind
of relationship between editor, writer and their jointly identified target
audience is intriguing.

Unfortunately, the case study of Mark Twain's role in creating the "boy
book" is less satisfactory because it is less contextualized and it simply
recapitulates ground well trodden by others. Though Wadsworth cites Twain's
own references to the popular publications of the day, she never engages
his revision of them as she does in her other case studies. Further, while
she discusses the subscription market Twain chose as a distribution
vehicle, she does not fully integrate her analysis of its impact with the
other publishing markets or distribution networks that she discusses more
thoroughly. And indeed, Twain is an odd absence at the center of her
argument, even though she uses a scene from _The Gilded Age_ as a segue
into Part Two, "Masses and Classes." While the central chapter in this
section focuses on travel writing and has a title that is a clear allusion
to Twain, "Innocence Abroad," her argument makes no reference to him nor
does it offer even a brief discussion of how his own _The Innocents Abroad_
affected the context or expectations of the readership in this market. Even
if one argues that Wadsworth's focus is on _female_ travel writing and
novels based on the character of the American ingénue abroad, and therefore
a discussion of Twain's very male protagonist would be tangential, her own
title for the chapter belies this. But while these flaws might be damning,
particularly to members of this Forum, let me say again that Wadsworth has
written an important book, establishing a fascinating and fruitful context
even if she does not dot the i's and cross the t's in regard to Twain.
"Innocence Abroad" is a fascinating chapter, setting Henry James's _Daisy
Miller_ squarely in the context of the female novel for the masses as he
works to reclaim and re-envision the female story and body for the
upper-class, Euro-American male gaze. Clearly, Wadsworth's underlying focus
in this section is not so much on gender and class as it is on women and

The opening chapter to Part Two, "Seaside and Fireside," takes as its
beginning a scene in William Dean Howells's _The Rise of Silas Lapham_, in
which the upstart millionaire's young daughter Irene is confounded to
discover that George Eliot's _Middlemarch_ is not a new novel, though it
has just appeared in "the Seaside Library" (107). While we as readers get
the point that Irene is accidentally getting "culture" from what is
obviously a mass-market reprint, Wadsworth uses this chapter to help us to
understand the broad impact of such publications and their targeting of
women as their primary audience, helping to restore the allusion's context
for its contemporary readers and thereby enriching our understanding. Her
discussion of the enormously popular Seaside Library and other "libraries"
that were printed in newspaper format for cheap distribution and mass
consumption clarifies the ways in which the publishing field became more
"commercialized and modernized," falling under the control of "large,
impersonal corporations" (133) even as Wadsworth makes the personalities of
the men behind these libraries come alive. She helps us to see how books
became associated with a "brand" and how this fit into the "development of
a nationwide audience" (133), and while we could wish that she developed
further our understanding of how Twain fit into this movement (beyond an
off-hand reference to the books from "cheap series" that he kept in his own
library [132]), her discussion overall is thought-provoking and
enlightening. Wadsworth is at her finest in discussing the ground-swelling
popular texts and their distribution systems, in helping us to see the
readers' hunger for books that reflected a target group's identity and
aspirations. These discussions restore the context out of which more
familiar texts arose, helping us to understand topical historical allusions
that we might otherwise skim over, and bringing into our line of vision the
"crucial subtext" (107) that we might otherwise miss.