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Publishing the Family
June Howard. Publishing the Family. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. xiv + 336 pp.
In 1906, William Dean Howells approached the staff of Harper's Bazar with an idea for a serial story about the effect a young woman's engagement produces on her family. Each chapter would advance the story from the perspective of a different family member, and would be written by a leading literary luminary. Eventually, the idea became The Whole Family, which ran in twelve installments, and in whose service Henry James, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Alice Brown, Howells himself, as well as numerous other now-forgotten writers, took up the pen. The novel (rereleased in 2001 from Duke UP) was not the first collaborative novel, but as June Howard skillfully argues, when it is examined within the historical conditions of its production, a singular story reveals itself. Her analysis of The Whole Family brings together a number of concerns conventionally studied in isolation. In her hands, the relationship between art and commerce, authorship and artifact, readership and genre, literary reputation and historical agency, gender and genre, sentiment and critical evaluation converge in unexpected and mutually illuminating ways.
In its broadest sense, Publishing the Family positions itself at the intersection of histories of the book and the critical recovery of "lost" novels. But Publishing the Family is not simply an analysis of a little-known text, nor does it limit itself to an examination of the terms of its disappearance and recovery. By reconstructing the cultural conditions that made the The Whole Family possible, Howard makes two crucial innovations. [End Page 753] The first is methodological. While acknowledging the debt literary scholars owe to new historicism and post-structuralism, she argues that in their names, literary critics have often used texts to allegorize larger historical forces. She takes the opposite tack, using a single artifact to unpack and connect surprisingly disparate cultural forms and concerns.
Perhaps the most exciting element of her "microhistorical" method is that it actively models interdisciplinary work. The book is, in this regard, dazzling, because it tells us that above all, interdisciplinary work is as messy as it is painstaking. Interdisciplinary work cannot proceed in a linear way; indeed, Howard is most compelling when her work bears out her contention that attitudes from what we now call different eras coexisted with startling frequency. By way of exemplifying this insight, the book's chapters take up what seem to be only tangentially related topics, ranging from the history of the Harper Brother's firm to the necessity of rethinking the idea of sentiment. The chapters, as Howard warns us in the introduction, sometimes seem to spiral away from "The Whole Family," but they return to it at the end of the day bearing a store of information that does not merely contextualize that text, but proves to be fundamental to its creation.
The second major innovation of Howard's book lies precisely in the seemingly-discrete ideas and facts she turns up. Just as some knowledge of the immense cultural authority of the Harper brothers in the world of nineteenth-century publishing helps us to understand The Whole Story, the recovery of the roles that individual social actors played in that institution (as well as in the making of the novel) helps to deepen our understanding of the turn-of-the-century cultural scene. Let me take one brief example. Most Americanists who study this period are familiar with Mary Wilkins Freeman, yet most know her only as an esteemed writer of regional fiction. Howard shows us a new Freeman, revealing that she was at the heart of great controversy among the novel's other writers, and that her daring portrayal of a sexualized spinster aunt virtually dictated the shape of many of the subsequent chapters. The literary world of regional writing, although relatively unimportant to this book, is nonetheless suddenly more complicated and contradictory. There are many moments like this in the text, many more elements that blaze up and reveal unsuspected intellectual connections. [End...