On “Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in Early Twentieth Century United States”

by vinnyhaddad

Amy Blair’s Reading Up offers a very insightful study of Hamilton Wright Mabie’s decade-long position as the literary advisor at the Ladies’ Home Journal. Given the wide reading audience (considerably larger than the Atlantic or Harper’s), Mabie wielded a lot of power as the arbiter of “good fiction,” but this position was also limited by some of the givens of the magazine’s constitutive interpretive community. This community is not united along gender or generational lines (based on the articles, subscription prices and surveys, Blair illustrates that many men and children also read the magazine), but instead simply along the unquestioned ideology that “reading is valuable.” This value is construed materially (in the form of cultural and economic prestige) and abstractly (as a means to “build character”). As I discussed in an earlier post, Stanley Fish’s concept of “interpretive communities” suggests that the interpretive strategies that a person has prior to reading (i.e. the text has one truth vs. the text has many potential meanings) affect the “text that is written” by the reader. This accounts for the possibility that one might encounter a reader that seemingly read an entirely different book than oneself. However, in the case of “reading up,” Blair traces how the ideology of literature’s value facilitates the misreading of texts, the emptying out of aesthetic categories in favor of identification, moral certitude, and social climbing. Blair defines “reading up” as, “reading the ‘right books,’ dutifully, but not necessarily in the ‘right way.’ For example, a reader might identify with characters not intended as the central figures of a text or might reject aspects of the text that do not reinforce the upward striving that brought the reader to the text in the first place” (16).  Blair traces the continuity of interpretive strategies and the resultant active reading processes that it makes possible and likely. Blair considers three of the more prominently recommended authors (Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton) in Ladies’ Home Journal and the canonizing complications that arise from their juxtapositions with other “literature of the day.” Despite sharp critique that each of these author’s offers up to a culture of taste, middle-class readers, through the sieve of Mabie, were able to maintain their utilitarian relationship with books:

When it comes to the goals of reading up, however, all that mattered was the cultural capital accorded to works variously aligned with realism. In other words, “realism” from the perspective of reading up is an empty signifier. It is a brand and, ultimately, a term that signals a moment in the rhetorical production of a culture of taste within the culture of success in the newly industrializing United States in the beginning of the twentieth century. This culture of taste created a set of incentives for everyone involved— middle-class readers, who desired economic and social success; cultural arbiters, who hoped to remain relevant in the world of the mass media; and authors and publishers, who hoped to retain elite literary status for their works but who also, frankly, hoped to sell books. Each of these claimants had an ideological and material investment both in perpetuating the tensions at the heart of realism and in maintaining the apparent contradictions between realism and mass culture (17).

I will offer some of the highlights of Blair’s section on Henry James (I was most interested in this section because of the complex and agitated relationship James had with his readers over his long career). According to Blair,

James clearly posed a problem for the reading advisor who like Mabie needed to steer his readership towards some sophisticated literature, but who found The Golden Bowl “a subtle study of American and Italian temperaments” saddled nonetheless with a “very disagreeable plot” (March 1905, 21). Mabie’s compromise, to praise the later James’s “technical skill” but to downplay the “interest” of James’s late works, allowed his readers to self-select; the highbrow benefits of James would accrue just as readily to the reader of Portrait as to the reader of The Ambassadors. One important step was to decouple James from a continental realist, or naturalist, lineage that might associate him with Émile Zola, who Mabie says “took in many cases the most revolting, gross and repulsive aspects of life and pictured them with very little shading” (September 1905, 18). Instead, Mabie associated James with a more genteel notion of literariness. (114).

Henry James had an established reputation that required his presence on a literature advice column, particularly when cultural capital was the end for this column. However, Mabie’s tenure at Ladies’ Home Journal (1902-1912) aligned precisely with James’s late-career stylistics, a “problem” many were eager to dismiss as for those interested in “the mind of Henry James” as he ventured into the “psychological.” During this time James released “New York Editions” of several of his earlier novels revised to his contemporaneous tastes (part of this re-publication was fine, expensive binding to solidify it as “important”). While James considered these revisions to be vast improvements that would clear up many of the “mistakes” readers had been making with his texts, the New York Editions were monumental failures in the market. Blair attributes this failure to critics like Hamilton Wright Mabie, whose fidelities were to a culture of “reading up.”

Tellingly, Mabie paid no attention to the New York Edition, though he was writing his columns, and recommending James, concurrently with the Edition’s publication. In his November 1904 column, there is no question that the Portrait Mabie recommends is James’s 1881 edition, not the heavily revised New York Edition. But which Portrait was he commending in 1912, or in 1909, for that matter, when he recommends his readers study Portrait as part of a program of reading that contrasts “novels of character study” to “novels of incident”? James’s revisions of Portrait were, of course, extensive and, he hoped, would “have hugely improved the book—& I mean not only for myself, but for the public.” 7 But the adviser who reached one of the most extensive mass audiences of the time, Mabie, never mentioned James’s edition, though he mentions the publication of “editions de luxe,” of other authors, such as Edgar Allan Poe (January 1909, 30), and even suggests giving such editions as gifts (December 1902, 19). Though Charles Scribner’s Sons did not advertise the New York Edition widely, Mabie would surely have known about it from the substantial literary gossip surrounding the project; at the very least, he would have seen notices of its publication and early reviews. We may assume, therefore, that the radio silence on the substantial revisions of two of Mabie’s most favored James works, Portrait and Roderick Hudson, is intentional, signaling Mabie’s own attachment to the original pieces, and even more, his presumption that his audience would neither care about nor care for the changes. (103-104)

James became a name that needed to be checked off of a list on the way towards some personal fulfillment (this is actually eerily similar to a conversation I had with an advisor while constructing my Qualifying Exam reading list when he told me to read The Golden Bowl instead of Portrait of a Lady and in the back of my mind I begrudgingly thought, “but that book is hard, can’t I just put any James on my list?”). For this reason Mabie refused to engage with James his contemporary, and the concurrent prefaces to his New York Editions that laid out in detail a “proper” reader-response to his work, in favor of what could more easily align with the expectations of his interpretive community. This affected the way in which associations (and therefore interpretive strategies) were cultivated around James:

On numerous occasions, Mabie responds to reader requests for “a course of fiction reading” with lists that present early James (Portrait, Roderick Hudson) on a continuum with Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, Scott, and Austen (October 1908; October 1905; September 1909). In his March 1904 column, Mabie answers a question about the “three best American novels” by asserting that The Scarlet Letter is certainly one of them, but that the other two spaces could be filled by a number of novels: The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Marble Faun, The Portrait of a Lady, The Rise of Silas Lapham, The Choir Invisible, Pembroke, The Grandissimes, Deephaven, The Prophet of the Great Smoky Mountains, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While Howells, and certainly James, might have felt themselves outliers in this group (and Mark Twain certainly would have taken umbrage at his inclusion on a list with James Fenimore Cooper), the texts Mabie chooses are apparently easy to conceptualize in a continuum with transcendentalist romance, with regionalism, and with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mabie consistently overlooked the aesthetic and methodological distinctions made by James and Howells at their most critical, allowing his readers to blur the line between James and James Lane Allen. (101-102)

It is fair to point out that we are not at all far from this line of thinking. Websites like “Goodreads” and their “listopia” function, the popular project to read Modern Library’s “100 best novels,” or the ever-present desire to establish the “Great American Novel” (an unavoidably list-creating enterprise) all serve to divorce context, aesthetic and methodological distinctions from history, form, authors, and reader-responses. This is symptomatic of a cultural way-of-thinking. Blair closes her book with an interesting contemporary case-study of reader-responses to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on Oprah Winfrey’s Book-Club discussion boards. Amidst a host of complaints about the book, Blair states, “But there are no voices that question reading per se; reading’s value has been secured. Even if you do not like Freedom, you might like another book; turning away from literature altogether is simply not an option. This presumption of reading’s essential value— aesthetic, emotional, social, material— is the enduring legacy of Mabie, the internalization of reading up” (204).

I am very persuaded by Blair’s representation and critique of the culture of taste in Reading Up. In my own work, I am interested in how the “ideology” of literature, which I extend towards the positive inclination towards paper itself, is ruptured by the force of the aesthetic itself. I see instances where the “ideology of literature” encounters the force of other shared affective atmospheres in the body of the novel itself that are discontinuous from this ideology and transcend the constraints of the interpretive community that “values reading” for its own sake. To me, each of these events are in a state of co-mingling and becoming, indelibly co-dependent and in constant, agitating contact (towards this latter end of balancing subjectivity and the power of art itself, renee c. hoogland, has an exciting book coming out this fall on the force of aesthetics).

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