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  • Popular History and the Literary Marketplace 1840–1920
  • Christine Bold
Gregory M. Pfitzer. Popular History and the Literary Marketplace 1840–1920. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008. xiv, 469 pp.

In the genre of popular history, as absorbingly explored by Gregory Pfitzer, narrative is paramount. So, first, the story. Around the mid-nineteenth century, a mass readership came into being in the United States: technological advances in papermaking and printing made economies of scale possible, rapidly expanding transportation networks facilitated countrywide distribution, and expanding literacy rates meant that a large segment of the population was ripe for print culture. Among the cultural gatekeepers who vied to harness this public to their purposes was the writer, editor, [End Page 203] and literary critic Evert A. Duyckinck. He gathered around him a tight circle of New York literati, a social and intellectual elite variously known as the Tetractys Club and the Young Americans. Aiming to shape a distinctive American literary identity, they worked at influencing the reading of the masses, especially America’s growing middle class. From 1845, Duyckinck produced compendia of cheap editions—the Library of Choice Reading and Library of American Books published by Wiley and Putnam and Home Library by I.S. Platt—at twelve and a half to fifty cents per paperbound volume. Explicitly paternalistic and nationalistic, Duyckinck’s group recognized American history as a primary resource for forging a unified identity. In their estimation, the best historians were the novelists and poets who could bring alive the spirit of the country. Duyckinck’s libraries made little distinction between history and romance, and he particularly promoted William Gilmore Simms and Washington Irving as storytellers whose freewheeling movement between fictional and historical materials created a compelling, moralistic vision of the nation.

Soon self-proclaimed “popular histories of the United States” emerged as a distinct genre within the literary marketplace, exploding in sales after the Civil War. Among the best sellers were Philadelphians George Lippard and John Frost—both popular novelists prior to their forays as historians. In 1849, Godey’s Lady’s Book dubbed Lippard “unquestionably the most popular writer of the day” (quoted 55), best known for his sensational exposés of social elites such as The Quaker City; or, Monks of Monk Hall of 1844. The combination of narrative ordering strategies and nationalistic imperatives produced distinct patterns in these histories: an emphasis on sensational events and mythological moments (such as Lippard’s story of the Liberty Bell tolling at the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776); clear distinctions between heroes and villains; adherence to a structuring principle, such as providence or liberty; and a nationwide scope which encouraged both a sense of ideological unity and cross-region sales. Popular as they were, these historians were not to Duyckinck’s liking; they were of the wrong class, wrong literary style, and wrong geographical location. In their advertising and sales techniques, Duyckinck and his publishers sought to distinguish between two versions of “the popular”: on the one hand, their inexpensively priced volumes “where the moral is superior to the mere story” and, on the other, “cheap and nasty” publications which were sensationalistic and vulgar (quoted 56)—between, in Pfitzer’s words, were “the high-minded populism of Irving and the base offerings of Lippard and Frost” (59). [End Page 204]

There was another contender in the contest to shape the American people’s history, one which did not care for Duyckinck’s fine distinctions but damned “popular history” tout court. This was the “new breed of professional historians” which coalesced after the Civil War (61). With notions of scholarly rigour shaped by realism, positivism, and Darwinism, the professionals demanded “that historical study conform to standardized rules of operation centered on objectivity and the scientific pursuit of factual knowledge” (61). Scholarly hostility to the blurring of fiction and history was voiced as early as 1846 when Harvard professor Cornelius Felton urged readers to reject Duyckinck’s Library of American Books in favour of trained minds “stored with facts and dates,—the more numerous the facts, and the more precise the dates, the better” (quoted 66). With these principles guiding the pursuit of “historical truth...


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