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  • Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States by Amy L. Blair
  • Martin Green
Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States. By Amy L. Blair. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. 250 pp. $28.95.

Although not focused on periodical studies, per se, Amy L. Blair's Reading Up has its jumping off point in the periodicals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and provides a valuable insight on the cultural stakes involved in the burgeoning field of mass magazines. "Reading up" is Blair's phrase to describe reading as a process of social mobility. Reading the "best books" becomes a means of acquiring social capital, like wearing the right dress or hat or owning the best automobile or furniture. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many self-appointed cultural mediators capitalized on the status anxieties of an aspiring, mostly female, audience, eager to acquire the accouterments of middle-class life and to engage with the artifacts of high culture. Blair's study focuses on the writings of Hamilton Wright Mabie (1846-1916), whose column of advice for aspiring readers ran for a decade in that bastion of upward mobility, the Ladies Home Journal, under the editorship of Edward Bok. This is an aspect of Bok's Journal that has not received much attention.

Mabie was the fourth proprietor of the Journal's book chat column, including Bok himself and Robert Bridges (moonlighting from Scribner's under the pen name "Droch"), but it was Mabie who had the longest tenure, turning out an even hundred columns from 1902-1912 and orienting the column toward purveying reading advice. As Blair outlines, Mabie's advice to readers of LHJ took many forms, recommending books under various rubrics: "Books for Young People," "Books of the Season," "Courses for Private Reading," "Living Novelists Best Worth Reading," and "Are Best Sellers Worth Reading?" are among the column titles. Mabie also responded to readers' inquiries (or, Blair speculates, framed questions he imagined readers of LHJ might have had). His tastes ran toward the conservative and genteel and romantic, as one might imagine, but he was also somewhat eclectic in scope and liberal in allowing readers to follow their own inclinations on what to read. His goal, Blair maintains, was to encourage his readers, who were already reading "recreationally," to refine their tastes and "read up." In this regard, he did not reject realism, but his engagement with the style associated with the revolt against gentility and [End Page 89] critical of middle-class standards involved reinterpretation (to put it kindly) or misreading (whether strategic or unconscious) of the work of writers such as James, Howells, and Wharton. After her initial chapters outlining Mabie's approach, Blair spends the bulk of the study examining how Mabie reads Howells, James, and Wharton and how these writers implicitly responded to his point of view and he to theirs.

All three were cultural brands, in Blair's phrase, and had to be reckoned with, although Mabie was not always in sympathy with their work. Mabie recommended The House of Mirth seven times over the course of his columns (for context, Vanity Fair with sixteen mentions is the leading title in Mabie's canon), but his recommendation of Wharton was, in Blair's view, somewhat backhanded, defining Wharton as someone one should read for her craftsmanship if not for her critique of high society, which he deflects and softens somewhat. Wharton gave as good as she got and implicitly critiqued Mabie's program of cultivating readers in an essay in the North American Review in 1903 that attacked "dutiful" and "mechanical" readers. (Mabie, in turn, implicitly responded in a 1905 column that advocated structured reading programs.) Likewise, although Mabie was highly critical of The Rise of Silas Lapham when it was first published, he mentioned the book more than any other novel other than Vanity Fair, and he turned Howells "into a line item on a checklist of cultural acquisition" (98). Mabie preferred the early James to the more psychological intricacies of the late phase of the...


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