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For a fortnight I was confined to my room, and I surrounded myself with the books of the day (sixteen or seventeen years ago); I mean those volumes which treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours . . . I was in a state of mind bordering on intoxication or stupidity.

—Charles Baudelaire, “Let us Flay the Poor” (1865)1

A reader of Suze Orman or Tony Robbins might well have written this passage, but it actually expresses the frustrations of the proto-modernist poet Charles Baudelaire in 1865. Baudelaire’s eulogy for self-help as “the books of the day (sixteen or seventeen years ago)” was somewhat premature. At the same time, his prose poem indicates that the parameters of the self-help industry are more capacious than most would think. Self-help’s origins extend much further back than Dale Carnegie’s American handbook, and, contrary to what Baudelaire optimistically implies, its influence has only escalated.

Baudelaire’s fascination with “those volumes which treat of the art of making people happy, wise, and rich, in twenty-four hours” was hardly anomalous among his contemporaries. “On every bookstall, in every magazine, you may find works telling people how to succeed . . . they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books,” complained British essayist G. K. Chesterton in 1909.2 The annus mirabilis of modernism—1922—also marked the international tour of Emile Coué, the French pioneer of positive thinking, and the founding of guru George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau. Gurdjieff and Coué were causes célèbres of the day, boasting modernist disciples such as Jean Toomer, [End Page 117] Katherine Mansfield and Roger Fry, and detractors including John Dewey and Ezra Pound. References to Coué’s famous affirmation, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better,” made their way into novels by John Galsworthy (1924), Dorothy Sayers (1930), and Graham Greene (1945) (fig. 1).3 During modernism’s heyday, books by Lytton Strachey and H. G. Wells vied for space on the bestseller list beside Coué’s Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion (1922), Josephine Jackson’s Outwitting Our Nerves (1921), and Lulu Hunt Peters’s Diet and Health (1918).4 Modernism has long been defined by its rejection of Victorian moral imperatives. However, the concomitant rise of the self-help industry uniquely illuminates the stakes and objectives of modernism’s own genre of anti-advice. Despite their significant oppositions, modernism and self-help developed as overlapping discursive communities, united by a shared investment in the problem of how to live.

Though the modernist period witnessed the commercialization of counsel at an unprecedented pace, self-help has an ancient history. Some date it back to the ancient Egyptian genre of life-instruction called “Sebayt” (“teaching”), others to the spiritual insights of the Bhagavad Gita, the injunctions of the Hebrew Bible, or the aphorisms of the ancient Greeks.5 Every culture has its wisdom tradition, but the first glimmers of a textual industry in America premised on practical counsel can be traced to Protestant New England, where the Puritans’ anxiety over salvation created a market for guides to the devout life such as Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: Essays to Do Good (1710), which provided instructions on how to assure God’s grace through diligence, thrift, and industriousness. Benjamin Franklin adapted the religious manuals of Mather and others to fit his more secular program of social mobility in works such as Poor Richard’s Almanac (1732–1757), which sociologist Max Weber has influentially argued inaugurated a shift from the Protestant to the capitalist work ethic, and which later found a narrative counterpart in Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches morality tales.6

In Europe, a parallel tradition of practical advice had developed in the form of the conduct book, which began in Medieval courtesy literature, had its golden age in courtly Renaissance counsel, and remained popular well into the eighteenth century, when it shifted its focus from politics to etiquette and tackled subjects germane to the rise of the bourgeois middle class such as household management, children’s manners, women’s fashion, and courtship. In the nineteenth century, Victorian mutual improvement societies were the breeding grounds for an entire subgenre of self-help books written for the increasingly literate British working classes, which included titles such as William Robinson’s Self-Education (1845), G. J. Holyoake’s Self-Help by The People (1857), Timothy Claxton’s Hints to Mechanics on Self-Education and Mutual Instruction (1839), and many more.7 Though the term “self-help” was already in circulation in these guides, and, even before them, in Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834), it was the Scotsman Samuel Smiles’s tremendously successful Self-Help, published in 1859, which definitively established the term, and forever changed the landscape of mass-produced advice.8 Smiles’s handbook spawned a new breed of manual that thrived during the precise decades of modernism’s emergence, spurred by the rise of mass literacy resulting from the industrial print revolution. With the advent of cheaper [End Page 118]

Fig. 1. “The Personal E-Coué-tion.” The Bystander. April 19, 1922. Reprinted in Dean R. Rapp, “Better and Better—Couéism as Psychological Craze of the Twenties in England,” Studies in Popular Culture, 10, no. 2 (1987): 17–36.
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Fig. 1.

“The Personal E-Coué-tion.” The Bystander. April 19, 1922. Reprinted in Dean R. Rapp, “Better and Better—Couéism as Psychological Craze of the Twenties in England,” Studies in Popular Culture, 10, no. 2 (1987): 17–36.

[End Page 119]

printing and travel technologies in the early twentieth century, publishing outfits such as London’s New Age Press (an offshoot of Gurdjieff disciple A. R. Orage’s little magazine) and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius’s American Little Blue Books made manuals on the art of life accessible and affordable to all reading classes.

As this international history begins to suggest, self-help, contrary to the common misconception, is far from an exclusively American phenomenon (for a French example from the period, see fig. 2). The industry’s leading figures came from countries including France, Scotland, and Armenia, and their exoticism was often key to their popular appeal. Just as Anglo-American modernism is increasingly revealed to have been shaped by Eastern culture, with Pound’s famous “make it new” modernist motto having been traced to an inscription on the washing basin of the founder of the Shang dynasty, Tang (c. 1766–1753 BCE), the seemingly American vernacular of self-help also has strong roots in the spirituality of the East.9 For example, alongside the business-oriented ethic inspired by Franklin grew a softer, more spiritual self-help tradition, whose response to the pressures of industrialism and modernity eventually found expression in the late-nineteenth-century school of self-help known as “mind-cure” or “New Thought.”10 New Thought’s belief in the individual’s power to achieve well-being and prosperity through positive visualization was in part an adaption of Eastern belief systems, with Wallace Wattles’s 1910 bestseller, The Science of Getting Rich, for example, citing Hindu Monistic Theory as its source.11 This spiritual branch of self-help, with legacies today in the new-age fascination with astrology and the I Ching, was inspired by the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, which itself emerged through the authors’ serious study of Eastern religious texts.

Novelist critics of the burgeoning self-help industry were equally international; authors from Gustave Flaubert (1881) to V. S. Naipaul (1961) published narrative assessments of the self-improvement craze.12 These authors were provoked by self-help’s universalizing bromides to articulate their own literary counter-ethics. For instance, in 1923 D. H. Lawrence undertook a complete rewriting of Benjamin Franklin’s self-help maxims, confessing that they inspired him to develop his moral philosophy.13 His loathing for the “bitch-goddess success”—and her paperback minions—forms the backdrop to the sexual reform advocated in Lady Chatterley (1928).14 Modernism and self-help often occupied the same advertising space, as in the case of a 1932 promotion for Wyndham Lewis’s Vorticist play Enemy of the Stars printed next to an ad for a newsletter teaching “What Financial Confidence Means for You.”15 Such bibliographic adjacencies were reinforced by the incorporation of self-help discourse into the modernist lexicon in works such as Gertrude Stein’s How to Write (1931) and Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled (1926).16 And the influence went both ways: before he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), Dale Carnegie yearned to be a modernist, moving to Paris in the 1920s to pen his rejected opus, The Blizzard (later retitled All that I Have).17 Far from mutually exclusive discourses, “make it new” and “wake up and live!” coexisted in the same imaginary.18

There are many fascinating instances of mutual revision and critique between the traditions of modernism and self-help, but I will restrict my focus here to two particularly [End Page 120] striking cases: first, responses to the mind-cure movement among modernism’s advocates and detractors, with a particular focus on Edith Wharton, the Rope Group, and Henry James, and second, the corpus of bestselling self-help manuals by Arnold Bennett that, I argue, offer new insight into his notorious feud with Virginia Woolf over the future of the novel.19 Of course, Wharton, James, and Woolf are notorious for their elitist taste, but their critiques of the rising self-help industry express more than disdain for popular trends. Rather, as I demonstrate, self-help provoked these authors to distill their own aesthetic pedagogies. The modernists’ formal investments in difficulty,

Fig. 2. La culture physique de la Femme Elégante, c. 1924. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives.
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Fig. 2.

La culture physique de la Femme Elégante, c. 1924. Image courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology-SUNY, FIT Library Special Collections and College Archives.

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uncertainty, and autonomy developed in conversation with self-help’s valorization of agency, possibility, and utility.

Mad About Mind Cure

All historical periods are imbued with some version of the therapeutic, but the turmoil of the early twentieth century, as T. J. Jackson Lears has elucidated, led to the unprecedented cultural diffusion of therapeutic ideals.20 The acceleration of technological change, the dislocation wrought by urbanization and the capitalist economy, the waning of religious convictions and gemeinschaft moral communities, all conspired to produce both modernist alienation and the therapeutic movement of mind-cure, also known as New Thought. The movement combined strains of mesmerism, theosophy, and transcendentalism to argue for the almost supernatural capacity of thought. Its philosophy of the mind’s power to shape material circumstance stands in stark opposition to the Marxist position that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness.”21 New Thought contained the seeds of Christian Science (whose converts included Mina Loy and Mabel Dodge), as well as the contemporary positive thinking movement popularized by Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, and Rhonda Byrne.22

Neither modernism nor New Thought would have developed in the same way without Sigmund Freud, who served as an influential adversary for both trends. As their shared roots in mesmerism suggest, self-help and psychoanalysis both stem from a new interest in the power of the invisible dimension of thought to shape one’s present and future actions, but the two industries articulated fundamentally divergent accounts of the individual’s ability to harness and control this thought-power. While psychoanalysis could only reach the select few who had the means to procure expert treatment—leaving the rest of society the tragic victims of their pathological determinism—New Thought appeared to liberate readers from dependence on scientific authorities, while also reassuring them that their unconscious desires could be funneled toward productive, even lucrative, ends. In light of the philosophies’ seemingly opposed tenets, it is all the more ironic that so many of psychoanalysis’s key concepts—for instance, the discourses of childhood trauma, self-destructive behavior, and wishful thinking—were absorbed and appropriated as clichés of self-help culture.23

In presenting an alternative to psychoanalysis’s account of the mind’s social effects, self-help is an important, overlooked third term in understanding modernism’s representation of unconscious desires and their consequences. Modernism’s interest in the telepathic capacities of the imaginary—Joyce, Woolf, and Proust each present inexplicable instances of the same thought or line punctuating the minds of different characters—can veer closer to self-help’s mystical perspective than to the determinism of the psychoanalytic tradition.24 At the same time, modernist figures held widely varying views of the transcendent power of thought, and their perspectives on the self-improvement ethic cannot be easily generalized. Jean Toomer and Katherine Mansfield were believers, for example, while Flaubert and Pound were more skeptical. Though [End Page 122] the rarified version of modernist aestheticism we have inherited seems diametrically opposed to self-help’s instrumental materialism, both ideologies sprang from similar efforts to cope with the competition and overstimulation of urban experience. Moreover, each movement was responding to the other’s version of textual counsel, so that it is impossible to fully understand the pedagogic impetus of either modernism or self-help without reference to the competing movement’s didactic and philosophic practice.

In 1927, for example, Wharton wrote an entire novel called Twilight Sleep lampooning the pseudo-spirituality of the age.25 Wharton stood “apart from modernism,” as the title of Robin Peel’s monograph about her indicates, and her joint aversion to the fads of self-help and modernism brings out the movements’ shared ambitions: to harness the processes of free association, liberate readers from the automatism of habit, and urge individuals to use their time well.26 Twilight centers around the oblivion of matriarch Pauline Manford, who is so busy fawning over the latest trendy self-improvement gurus—whether the mystic Mahatma, with his “School of Oriental Thought,” or, later, the “Inspirational Healer” Alvah Loft, author of Spiritual Vacuum Cleaning and Beyond God—that she fails to notice her husband falling in love with her daughter-in-law Lita under her own roof (119). Her packed regimen is reminiscent of Jay Gatsby’s, another self-improvement fanatic. As Mrs. Manford’s secretary has transcribed, “7.30 Mental uplift. 7.45 Breakfast. 8. Psycho-analysis. 8.15 See Cook. 8.30 Silent Meditation. 8.45 Facial Massage. 9. Man with Persian miniatures. 9.15 Correspondence. 9.30 Manicure. 9.45 Eurythmic exercises. 10. Hair waved. 10.15 Sit for bust. 10.30 Receive Mother’s Day deputation,” and so on (9–10). The ongoing joke of the narrative is that Mrs. Manford needs a stress reliever to unwind from her numerous relaxation therapies; she is “one agitated by the incessant effort to be calm” (45).

Mrs. Manford’s alienation of her husband as a result of her devoted patronage of the gurus of the day eventually leads, through a clumsy series of events, to her daughter Nona being shot when she discovers her father and sister-in-law together in bed. Some critics have speculated that the real-life inspiration for one of the self-help gurus in the novel, the character of the Mahatma, was the Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff (1872–1949).27 Purportedly trained as both a priest and physician, Gurdjieff founded a highly influential new-age institute in 1922, which taught pupils how to transcend the situation of what he called “waking sleep” (thus, Wharton’s “twilight sleep”) in which most people live. Only through undertaking the “Fourth Way” of his spiritual exercises could individuals hope to break free of this automatism and realize their full potential. When, in Wharton’s novel, news of a scandal erupts regarding Mrs. Manford’s daughter-in-law’s sojourn at the Mahatma’s School, including a newspaper picture of her participation in the School’s nudist tribal dances, the novel replicates contemporaneous headlines regarding Gurdjieff’s institute’s sacred “gymnasium,” described by Sinclair Lewis as “a cross between a cabaret and a harem” and by Vivienne Eliot—T. S.’s first wife—as “where [Lady Rothmere] does religious naked dances with Katherine Mansfield.”28

Gurdjieff had a transformative influence upon a group of queer expatriate women authors in France including Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, the founders of the [End Page 123] Little Review. Introduced through Djuna Barnes to Kathryn Hulme, Solita Solano, and Georgette Leblanc, they created “The Rope Group” devoted to expounding his teachings.29 Anderson and Heap were inspired by their time with Gurdjieff to terminate the Little Review; his philosophy had convinced them of modernism’s irrelevance. But his writings have more in common with those published in the Little Review’s pages than they were willing to recognize. Editing his opaque sentences, unpacking his neologisms, and promoting his genius, just as they had with Joyce, Eliot, and others, their work with Gurdjieff was not so different from their modernist endeavors. The same wish to shed automatism, or what Gurdjieff calls man’s “hypnotic state,” and to resurrect the “inner life,” attracted Anderson and Heap to both the misunderstood mystic and to the relatively unknown and unpublished Joyce.30 Conversely, the same “exploration of the subliminal” that Wharton resisted in Woolf’s stream of consciousness, and that she disdained in Joyce’s “turgid welter” of “uninformed and unimportant” “sensation,” made her suspicious of figures like Gurdjieff.31

One of Twilight Sleep’s most ardent admirers was Aldous Huxley, who applauded its “ruthless” depiction of “the contemporary tendency for superstition to be magical, rather than religious.” He continues,

With her customary acuteness, Edith Wharton has laid her finger on the essential fact about modern superstitions. They give results here and now; and if they don’t give results, they fail. People turn to the supernatural for some particular and immediate benefit—such as slender hips, freedom from worry, short cuts to success, improved digestions, money. They want, not truth, but power.32

Theorists of modernity have suggested, along the same lines, that modern culture replaces meaning with information, value with technique.33 However, the reconsideration of modernist secularism undertaken by Pericles Lewis and others brings into relief self-help’s status as an extension of, rather than substitute for, religious thinking.34 Early New Thought pamphlets read like sermons and abound with references to God, the Universal Mind, and Creation, which is why William James counted the movement among the twentieth-century’s new “varieties of religious experience.”35 Even today, self-help is not a rejection of religion tout court but something like secularism with benefits. Mrs. Manford’s self-improvement rituals resemble a form of meditation or prayer, while seemingly vacuous self-improvement clichés such as Coué’s famous sentence with repetition adopt the meaningless sonority of a Buddhist mantra, or of an incantation from an ancient religious rite.

While Twilight pokes fun at the period’s spiritual salves, “The Jolly Corner” (1908), by Wharton’s friend Henry James, offers a more somber assessment. Henry’s engagement with the industry is inextricable from his brother William’s endorsement of it at a time when few intellectuals would deign to give self-help serious consideration. William James’s discussions of the power of habit and will inspired countless early self-help handbooks, such as Frank Channing Haddock’s The Power of Will (1907), Annie Payson’s Call’s Nerves and Common Sense (1925), and Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, to name a few.36 In light of this significant influence on [End Page 124] the self-help literature to come, William’s explicit and implicit debates with his brother over the genre’s merits have a great deal of contemporary consequence. Self-help to-day increasingly mediates between William’s motivational account of human potential and Henry’s skeptical perspective on the interminable process of self-betterment. For example, the recent emergence of a new niche of anti-handbook, with titles such as The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) and The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self-Help Guide (2010), suggests that, after reaching an affirmative apex, the self-help tide may be turning toward Henry’s position.37

Scholars have long suggested that Henry may have provided the model for the “sick soul” described by his brother William James as the “nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.”38 But little work has been undertaken on the reciprocal question of how William’s promotion of the early self-help philosophy of mind-cure inspired Henry’s critique of popular strategies of self-realization. When William lamented the “mustiness” of The Golden Bowl in a letter on October 22, 1905, it provoked Henry’s irked response, in what can only be a reference to William’s endorsement of self-help across America during these years: “let me say, dear William, that I shall be greatly humiliated if you do like it, & thereby lump it, in your affection, with things, of the current age, that I have heard you express admiration for & that I would sooner descend to a dishonoured grave than have written.”39 As Henry wrote in a letter to Grace Norton, which applies to William’s prescriptions as well, “don’t, I beseech you, generalize too much . . . remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another’s, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own.”40

New Thought had erupted at the time of James’s composition of “The Jolly Corner,” with over 100 magazines and newspapers dedicated to the phenomenon.41 The story describes Spencer Brydon’s trip from Europe back to America to inherit his childhood home. Seeing his old house inspires in Brydon a taste for remodeling, which starts him thinking about what would have happened if he had stayed in America to be a businessman or an architect, and if he had married his childhood sweetheart Alice Staverton rather than emigrating to Europe to pursue his “selfish frivolous scandalous life” in the arts. James writes, “He found all things come back to the question of what he personally might have been, how he might have led his life and ‘turned out,’ if he had not so, at the outset, given it up.”42

This theme of lost potentiality was preoccupying William during this same period, when he was advocating the benefits of mind-cure at universities across the country. In his popular treatise, The Energies of Men (1907), William describes how he was inspired by the everyday phenomenon of the “second wind” to examine the individual’s overlooked energy reserves.43 He observes, “Compared with what we ought to be, we are only half awake. Our fires are damped, our drafts are checked. We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” And he exhorts, “the human individual thus lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use” (Energies of Men, 14–15). Carnegie quotes this line from James some thirty years later in his Introduction to How to Win Friends and [End Page 125] Influence People, which exclaims, “Those powers which you ‘habitually fail to use’! The sole purpose of this book is to help you discover, develop, and profit by those dormant and unused assets” (17). The most successful self-help book ever written, then, is but a gloss on William James; and the controversy over modernism’s ontological authority continues, via the legacy of William’s refutation of Henry’s representational strategies, to obliquely inform self-help’s trajectory.

Decontextualized, William’s quotation reads like a motivational speech, but his observation about human potential originally occurs in a chapter with the downbeat title “Failure to Do All that We Can.” In its original setting, the passage quickly shifts from a tone of inspiration to one of rebuke. Unlike the “hysteric,” James says, who at least has an excuse for his narrow and “contracted” vision of his own potential, the rest of us have no one to blame for our failures but ourselves (Energies of Men, 15). In his 1914 preface to The Energies of Men, William had to exasperatedly defend the work from charges that its “gospel of overstrain” encourages individuals “to drive themselves at all times beyond the limits of ordinary endurance” and to “use . . . alcohol and opium as stimulants” (5).

Though his work often overlapped with the self-help discourse he analyzed, William was well aware of the movement’s limitations. He lamented how “The mind-cure principles are beginning so to pervade the air that one catches their spirit at second-hand. One hears of the ‘Gospel of Relaxation,’ of the ‘Don’t Worry Movement,’ of people who repeat to themselves, ‘Youth, health, vigor!’ when dressing in the morning, as their motto for the day” (Varieties, 92). But unlike other philosophers, from Theodor Adorno to Michel Foucault, whose contempt for cliché distracts them from self-help’s potential political or palliative social function, William argued that its reductionism should not dissuade us from taking the benefits of mind-power seriously.44 Rather, he argued that, in part because of its “crudity,” New Thought might be destined “to play a part almost as great in the evolution of the popular religion of the future as did those earlier [religious] movements in their day” (Varieties, 104–05).

Casting a backward glance at the discoveries of the New Thought method in 1917, Orison Swett Marden, one of the movement’s most prolific authors, explained, “The finding of the larger possibilities of man, the unused part, the undiscovered part, is the function of the New Philosophy.” He urged his readers to shake out the “possible man” inside: “It is the man you are capable of making, not the man you have become, that is most important to you. . . . Try to bring out that possible man. . . . Why don’t you use him . . . why don’t you call him out, why don’t you stir him up?”45 “The Jolly Corner” tells us why. While the New Thought literature was lamenting the individual’s quotidian estrangement from his innermost potential, James’s story intimates that such estrangement might be preferable. Spencer Brydon is tormented by the specter of surplus potentiality that self-help dangles before its readers. As Brydon puts it, “it’s only a question of what fantastic, yet perfectly possible, development of my own nature I mayn’t have missed” (“Jolly Corner,” 474). And this dormant possibility is manifest in Brydon’s imagination in the form of his billionaire alter ego who stayed in New York to accumulate capital, rather than moving to Europe to pursue a life in the arts. Brydon’s [End Page 126] equation of money with potential reflects the trends of his time; as McGee notes, the first definition of success as wealth occurred in the 1891 New Century Dictionary (Self-Help, Inc., 34). Throughout James’s story rings Brydon’s refrain, “What would it have made of me, what would it have made of me? I keep for ever wondering, all idiotically; as if I could possibly know!” (473). This pounding anaphora of the counterfactual motif is conspicuous:

If he had but stayed at home he would have anticipated the inventor of the sky-scraper. If he had but stayed at home he would have discovered his genius in time really to start some new variety of awful architectural hare and run it till it burrowed in a goldmine.


Brydon’s thought patterns demonstrate the consequences of internalizing the ideology of unlimited potentiality. As Bruce MacLelland’s 1907 Prosperity Through Thought Force declared, “you make your own misery; you make your own unhappiness,” and further, “anyone can make of himself whatever he chooses.”46 “You are the architect of your own career,” similarly urges Haddock in The Power of Will, also published in 1907, which makes copious use of William James’s Habit, and purports to teach both “Supreme Personal Well-Being and Actual Financial Betterment” through self-direction. Haddock advises, “You can so develop your [power of] will that it will command the luxuries, the accomplishments, the marked successes, which potentially lie dormant in every human being” (Power of Will, xiii).

With its screeds against wasted potential, mind-cure’s “gospel of relaxation” transforms leisure into a new kind of work, and invites a fresh reading of modernist interiority as representing the immaterial labor of compulsory self-betterment. The visualization techniques advocated by mind-cure guru Henry Wood exemplify the after-hours commitment New Thought demanded of its practitioners. Henry James encountered Wood’s handbook through his 1902 reading of his brother’s Varieties, which quotes Wood at length.47 His protagonist Brydon’s practice of “project[ing] himself all day, in thoughts . . . into the other, the real, the waiting life” strikingly evokes the visualization techniques Wood advocated, to the extent that Wood’s leading mind-cure handbook, Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography, A Restorative System for Home and Private Use (1893), almost furnishes a blueprint for Henry’s fictional text.

Wood recommends that his reader retire each night alone to a corner of his house to stare at select suggestions printed in block letters at the end of his book:


Instructions for the use of the Suggested Ideals [contained in the following pages]:

  • FIRST. —Retire each day to a quiet apartment, and be alone IN THE SILENCE.

  • SECOND. —Assume the most restful position possible, in an easy-chair, or otherwise . . . .

  • THIRD. —Bar the door of thought against the external world . . . .

  • FOURTH. —Rivet the mind upon the “meditation” . . . and by careful and repeated reading absorb its truth . . . . Do not merely look upon it, but wholly GIVE YOURSELF UP TO IT . . . .

Ideals will be actualized in due season.48 [End Page 127]

As Steven Starker comments, “The after-images produced by all that staring must have been startling, even convincing to some” (Oracle at the Supermarket, 29). Such “after-images” go a long way toward explaining the climax of “The Jolly Corner,” which takes place when, after a great deal of meditation and repetition, Brydon’s “ideal” is finally “actualized,” and he comes face-to-face with the apparition of the person he could have been if he had never left America. Brydon’s conjuring of the “black stranger”—that “mental photograph” of himself, to use Wood’s term—is the result of nights of concentrated practice: “He had known fifty times the start of perception that had afterwards dropped; he had fifty times gasped to himself ‘There!’ under some fond brief hallucination” (486). Finally, one night, Brydon feels the “central vagueness diminish,” and he conjures his wretched “other self,” the personification of the “triumphant life” (493). But instead of mind-cure’s “possible man,” brimming with dormant potential, Brydon’s deformed, greedy alter ego bears a closer resemblance to Freud’s unsightly id. “Thoughts are things,” noted New Thought proponent Prentice Mulford in 1899; Brydon’s hallucination is a mind-cure meditation gone awry.49

Although premised on the dramatic opposition between aesthetic and entrepreneurial ambition, “The Jolly Corner” also draws attention to the wishful thinking that unites both types of endeavor. As Freud argues, all creative writing springs from unsatisfied wishes, including that class of “ambitious wishes, serving to exalt the person creating them.”50 According to him, aesthetic form is essentially an alibi for the author’s enactment of the conflicting desires of “His Majesty the Ego” (Character and Culture, 43). Put differently, narrative may be merely the author’s circuitous, devious form of self-help.51 But if “The Jolly Corner” is James’s form of oblique personal self-help, as, for example, the persuasive queer readings of the story by Eve Sedgwick and Eric Savoy indirectly suggest, this is not self-help in the form of New Thought’s consolatory mantras but about using the alternate reality of fiction as a forum for confronting uncomfortable personal questions.52 In this way, reading James’s story for its self-help subtext is not incompatible with the interpretations influentially advanced by these queer theorists. After all, part of James’s resistance to self-help is his aversion to its normalizing, domesticating discourse, whether in terms of aesthetics, sexuality, or politics. In contrast to what he saw as his brother’s procrustean typologies, (Henry) Jamesian self-help does not reduce or simplify difficult truths but is closer to Philip Weinstein’s view of modernist knowledge as a practice of “unknowing,” or as an unraveling of the Enlightenment conceit of a coherent subject and stable world.53

“The Jolly Corner” culminates in a loss of agency, rather than glorious self-realization, and in so doing undermines not only mind-cure’s promise of self-control but also the broader American myth of self-fashioning. Though New Thought had important international allies and affiliates such as Coué, Charles F. Haanal, Annie Besant, and Thomas Troward (the inspiration for Australian author Ronda Byrne’s The Secret), it found an ideal habitat on American soil, due in part to the foundation-laying works of Phineas Quimby, a clockmaker whose early witnessing of French mesmerism in his hometown in southern Maine inspired him to found New Thought.54 Henry’s engagement with the philosophy likely reflects the impact of his 1904 visit to the United States, which [End Page 128] inspired many of the works belonging to this late phase of his career. He said that he returned to his native land in order “to make myself a notion of how, and where, and even what, I was.”55 But if James did “make himself” during his voyage to America, the self he made is defined by its rejection of American improvement discourse. James tellingly relates his retort to American industry and urbanization, “the great monotonous rumble of which seems forever to say to you: ‘See what I’m making of all this—see what I’m making, what I’m making!’” To which he responds, “I see what you are not making, oh, what you are ever so vividly not; and how can I help it if I am subject to that lucidity?—which appears never so welcome to you, for its measure of truth, as it ought to be!”56 With their digressive indirection and complexity, James’s works strive to articulate precisely what is left out of American improvement rhetoric.

As for Spencer Brydon, James’s reader is left with the suspicion that no amount of feminine caress will permanently quash his beleaguered refrain: “Do you believe then—too dreadfully!—that I am as good as I ever might have been?” (“Jolly Corner,” 475). The modernist inheritance of this burden of self-determinism can be seen in Leopold Bloom’s endless reveries about alternate professions (farmer! mayor! Zionist!), in the indecision of Beckett’s characters, in the subjunctive musings of Woolf’s married pairs. In this way, mind-cure and modernism represent two different methods of coping with the frustrating, tantalizing proximity of success and fulfillment in middle-class modern life. As they both show, to different ends, self-help ideology is lived as misplaced guilt for failing to inhabit life’s seemingly infinite possibilities.

Modernist Life-Management

The literary conversations surrounding mind-cure suggest that modernism’s elusive style develops in part as an attempt to articulate a better alternative to self-help’s reductive advice. Perhaps the most striking instance of this dynamic concerns a famous literary debate of the modernist period: the feud between Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Though it is considered a crucial moment of modernism’s self-formation, ongoing assessments of this dispute have largely failed to address the subtext of Bennett’s work with self-help, and the role of self-help in shaping both his and Woolf’s aesthetic strategies.

Today Bennett is mainly known for his realist novels set in his home district of the Potteries, an industrial area which was a center for English ceramics production in the eighteenth century. But as Robert Squillace observes, “No writer of any period even a fraction so highly regarded as Bennett wrote a single self-help book, let alone the six or eight Bennett produced” (157).57 Bennett published several tremendously popular self-help guides or “pocket philosophies,” as he described them: How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day (1908), Literary Taste: How to Form It (1909), Mental Efficiency (1911), The Human Machine (1900), Self and Self-Management (1918), and How to Make the Best of Life (1923).58 His texts advance less scientific versions of the argument for mental discipline espoused by William James, and it is surprising that the two contemporaries had so little to say about each other’s work. Both writers [End Page 129] advised readers to cultivate good habits, to minimize time-wastage, and to forge their ideal character through minor acts of will. Bennett’s writings were “at once a reproof and an inspiration,” as the Bristol Daily Mercury noted, a descriptor that, as we have seen, applies to William’s works as well.59

The similarities between the two authors may be partly attributable to the fact that they were both influenced by the same timeworn classical wisdom on the art of life.60 Bennett described his pocket guides in a letter as “nothing but Marcus Aurelius & Christ assimilated & excreted by me in suitable form.”61 However, his account of his Philosophy of Living series was not always so flippant:

When I proposed to republish them in book form I was most strongly urged not to do so, and terrible prophecies were made to me of the sinister consequences to my reputation if I did. I republished them. “How to live on twenty-four hours a day” sold very well from the start; it still has a steady sale, and it has brought me more letters of appreciation than all my other books put together. I followed it up with a dozen or more books in a similar vein. And I do not suppose that my reputation would have been any less dreadful than it is if I had never published a line for plain people about the management of daily existence.62

His self-help guides achieved such monumental success that Henry Ford is reputed to have passed out 500 copies of How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day to his employees (Hepburn, Arnold Bennett, 43). Even before the recent resurgence of his literary reputation, e-readers have been repackaging and popularizing Bennett’s organizational tips for overtaxed contemporary readers.

Bennett explains the book’s premise:

Newspapers are full of articles explaining how to live on such-and-such a sum . . . I have seen an essay, “How to live on eight shillings a week.” But I have never seen an essay, “How to live on twenty-four hours a day.” Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain money—usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room attendant at the Carleton hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.

(How to Live, 16)

For Bennett, social inequalities are neutralized by temporality’s inherent democracy (rather than exacerbated by workday discrepancies). His handbook boasts that it can help readers save seven extra hours per week by convincing them that time is more of a commodity than money. However, Bennett’s egalitarian premise is belied by his first order of business; he provides detailed instructions on how to set up one’s tea and biscuits each night so that one can rise two hours before the servants: “These details may seem trivial to the foolish, but to the thoughtful they will not seem trivial.” He continues, “The proper, wise balancing of one’s whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea at an unusual hour” (14).

While Bennett promised to make his reader a “millionaire of minutes,” William James similarly invoked the economic terminology of “energy-budgets” and “efficiency-equilibriums” to advance his potentiality doctrine (Energies, 8, 9).63 These practical [End Page 130] treatises fully internalize the Protestant-ethic equation of good living with good budget-balancing. In turn, their modernist critics respond by dramatizing what Weber described as the “iron cage” of individual responsibility that this capitalist ideology engenders (The Protestant Ethic, 181). The Protestant ethic of industrious asceticism was all the more troubling to novelists because it entailed intolerance for fiction. Just as William had little patience for Henry’s narrative digressions, Bennett’s time-management philosophy bled into annoyance at the profligacy of modernist prose. It “beat me. I could not finish it,” he admitted of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and remarked that Joyce turned novel reading into form of “penal servitude.”64 Bennett’s essays on the art of living mount a challenge against modernism’s disdain for the crude utilitarianism of public taste. Deriding aesthetic contemplation without action, he observed, “The man who pores over a manual of carpentry and does naught else is a fool. But every book is a manual of carpentry, and every man who pores over any book whatever and does naught else with it is deserving of an abusive epithet.”65 Imagine how Flaubert—the grandfather of high-modernist aestheticism—would have received such a pronouncement! “[D]on’t you admire the unfeathered biped’s eternal preoccupation with finding some use for every single thing?” he once sarcastically inquired.66

Bennett’s ostracized status among the modernists was of course cemented by Woolf’s 1923 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” a text that lays bare self-help’s role in modernism’s ethnogenesis. Woolf’s denunciation of Bennett’s materialism coincides with her proclamation of modernism’s arrival; novelists need new representational strategies because “on or about December, 1910, human character changed.”67 Tellingly, the definition of novelistic character that Woolf advances in this essay is explicitly formulated against the “skill of character reading” demanded by the “practical business of life.” “Character” was of course a loaded term in the self-help lexicon of the time. Samuel Smiles published an entire volume on the subject, while both James and Bennett discuss character as a product of habit, and therefore malleable to change (Bennett, The Human Machine, 34).68 The strategic approach to character advanced by their advice manuals is for Woolf the very antithesis of the aesthetic: “Novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes,” she writes. In short, it is precisely that attention which exceeds instrumentalism, surpassing the needs of “happiness, comfort, or income” (precisely the province of self-help) that, for Woolf, defines the novelistic gaze (“Mr. Bennett,” 195).

The context of self-help calls for a reappraisal of Woolf’s style as defined, in part, by its inspired rebuttal of Bennett’s practical philosophies. Though she renounces his moralizing impulse, Bennett’s writings bring into relief the contours of a Woolfian counter-pedagogy premised upon enactment rather than prescription, “steeping” rather than “sidling,” to use her own terms. (199, 203).69 Essays such as A Room of One’s Own (1929) and “On Not Knowing Greek” (1925) position Woolf as a precursor of the feminist, pre-political strain of self-help that seeks to imagine alternatives to the patriarchal status quo.70 Woolf’s essays to the Common Reader (1925), written during the same period as the notorious feud, can hardly be considered apart from Bennett’s [End Page 131] directives for the “Plain Man and His Wife” (1913). Essays like her “How Should One Read A Book?” (1925) operate as concerted rewritings of Bennett’s instructional texts such as Literary Taste: How to Form It. Woolf opens her essay, “In this first place, I want to emphasize the note of interrogation at the end of my title. Even if I could answer the question for myself, the answer would apply only to me and not to you. The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”71 The difference between Bennett and Woolf is the distinction between the declarative and the interrogative; it is the difference that question mark makes.72

Woolf converts the “how-to” into a question, an approach that also motivates her fiction. What unforeseen events, asks Mrs. Dalloway (which famously occurs within the span of twenty-four hours) might interfere with Bennett’s fantasy of mastering a single day? After all, Clarissa is just as intent on stanching the intractable flow of time with her party as Bennett is with his tea biscuits. Modernists were just as attuned to the power of habit as their more practical, “middlebrow” counterparts; Woolf bemoans the amount of one’s day devoted to the monotonous routines of “non-being.”73 However, to transcend habit for her requires a surrendering of the self to the sway of the moment (as when Septimus Smith senses the “exquisite beauty” of “leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body”), rather than the desperate reassertion of time-mastery that Bennett and James recommend.74

A character like Septimus throws a wrench into Bennett’s account of the power and reach of mental discipline. While Spencer Brydon’s counterfactual alter ego is a billionaire skyscraper mogul, Septimus could have been a Bennett acolyte if certain contingencies, such as the First World War, had not intervened:

To look at, he might have been a clerk, but of the better sort…might end with a house at Purley and a motor car, or continue renting apartments in back streets all his life; one of those half-educated, self-educated men whose education is all learnt from books borrowed from public libraries, read in the evening after the day’s work, on the advice of well-known authors consulted by letter.

(Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, 84)

Septimus could have led a perfectly deferential, semi-educated life if not for the unforeseen influence of battle and illness, those bothersome impediments to even the most rational of life-plans. The First World War ushered in the term “bibliotherapy,” which acquired cultural currency through the hospital libraries in which novels stood “row upon row like phials in a pharmacy.”75 The conveyers of moral insights in Mrs. Dalloway are either villains, like Dr. Bradshaw, or suffering from PTSD like Septimus, who fancies himself the appointed bearer of “supreme secret” signals and messages (“that trees are alive,” “there is no crime,” “There is a God,” “Change the world,” “No one kills from hatred”), and is convinced he knows “the meaning of the world,” (not entirely unlike the way thinkers such as William James advertised that they knew the “meaning of truth”) (67, 24, 66).76 Such moments corroborate Lionel Trilling’s lament that modernism aligns madness with authenticity, while also pointing to the fundamental irrationality and megalomania of the practice of dispensing advice.77 (Adorno [End Page 132] develops a similar idea in The Stars Down to Earth, his assessment of the totalitarianism underwriting the Los Angeles Times advice column.) Mrs. Dalloway enacts Woolf’s disillusionment with the moral authority of the text in its oft-discussed skywriting scene, where, in the place of the exigent or profound dispatch they expect, pedestrians piece together the spelling out of an ad for toffee.

Woolf lays out her resistance to philosophical dogmatism in a comment on D. H. Lawrence, which also applies here:

its [sic] so barren; so easy; giving advice on a system. The moral is, if you want to help, never systematise—not till you’re 70: & have been supple & sympathetic & creative & tried out all your nerves & scopes. . . . Art is being rid of all preaching: things in themselves: the sentence in itself beautiful.78

Woolf’s exhortation that “Art is being rid of all preaching” is of course a performative contradiction. Like James with his insistence on the universal singularity of every life’s “terrible algebra,” the only piece of counsel Woolf will permit herself is the injunction to disregard universalizing advice. Yet for someone recommending inconclusiveness, Woolf sounds like she has art’s proper role very settled. Echoing the Flaubertian stance, she elsewhere laments, “we pin [words] down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination.”79 The obsession with use drains language of its lifeblood. In the wake of Pierre Bourdieu, it is impossible to ignore the class prejudice underwriting such modernist celebrations of disinterestedness, and it is usually either through the lens of class or gender that this famous debate is discussed, with the critics focusing on the former tending to favor Bennett’s position, and those invested in the latter defending Woolf’s stance.80 Bourdieu reminds us that only someone who has all of their necessities met can afford to champion art’s uselessness. Likewise, Bennett’s patronizing assessments of women’s writing no doubt informed his critiques of Woolf’s work, and inspired her reciprocal aversion. Beyond confirming their already well-established oppositions, though, the subject of self-help makes visible the authors’ shared concern with how to capture and communicate life’s intensity.

Today, critics do not have much to say about literature’s stance on “life,” at least, not without scare quotes, but it is around the nebulous question of literature’s “life-impulsion” (as F. R. Leavis termed it)—or “spirit,” “zest,” “vigor”—that the Woolf/Bennett debate pivots.81 As Edwin J. Kenney effectively posits, the debate centered on that difficult issue of “what is real in human life and how the novelist is to represent it.”82 Even more than “character,” “life” is what Bennett believes Woolf’s writing is missing, from as early as that incendiary review of Jacob’s Room (1922): “there is an absence of vital inspiration. Some novelists appear to have no zest; they loll through their work as though they were taking a stroll in the Park.”83 In her turn, Woolf finds the same “vitality” absent from Bennett’s works, “Life escapes. . . . Whether we call it life or spirit, truth or reality, this, the essential thing, has moved off,” she writes.84

This debate—and its self-help subtext—underscores the inextricable relation between the representational problem of how to describe life and the philosophical [End Page 133] problem of how to live it. The authors’ reciprocal appraisals reflect what Lears describes as the pervasive “dread of unreality” and yearning to “experience intense ‘real life’ in all its dimensions” that gives rise to both the therapeutic ethos and also to modernist practice (Culture of Consumption, 10). Bennett returns to the problem of “zest” in his handbooks and his novels, and even published a volume of essays called The Savour of Life (1928), but his fiction is less confident that zest-acquisition is teachable.85 Although he repeatedly advises his self-help readers to sharpen their minds by reading a “little chapter of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus” a day, Bennett’s protagonist Edwin in Clayhanger (1910) undermines this counsel:

He had diligently studied both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus; he was enthusiastic, to others, about the merit of the two expert daily philosophers; but what had they done for him? Assuredly they had not enabled him to keep the one treasure of this world—zest.86

It seems that even the classics cannot solve the troublesome problem of zest-retention. The same year Mrs. Dalloway appeared, 1925, physician Abraham Myerson published a self-help book on this subject called When Life Loses Its Zest.87 Myerson helped to popularize the term “anhedonia,” which he learned from William James’s discussion of the healthy-mindedness doctrine in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) (When Life Loses, xiv).88 Citing James as a key influence, Myerson was also, in 1935, one of the first to advocate antidepressants; he was a pioneering prescriber of the amphetamine Benzedrine for the treatment of depression, anhedonia, and simple discouragement.89 The vicious circle of self-improvement, exacerbated by the pharmacological turn, which at once causes feelings of insufficiency and claims to cure them, has already reached a crisis in the character of Spencer Brydon, in a way that evinces the continued relevance of modernism’s self-help revisionism to contemporary therapeutic culture. Although, in his 1914 preface, William denied he was advocating the use of stimulants for exploiting the latent “energies of men” that his manual so persuasively outlined, the pharmacological turn in therapeutic culture is one interpretation of his ideas about self-betterment. Already sensing this cultural consequence, both James and Woolf document how easily the healthy impulse of self-improvement can morph into pathology.

Cash Register Modernism

Though modernism’s trailblazers are long deceased, its joint history with self-help continues today in works such as How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf (2007), Ulysses and Us (2009), Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (2009), and What W. H. Auden Can Do For You (2013).90 To be sure, modernism is neither the sole nor the most privileged object of self-help’s attentions. But while self-help readings of Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Austen abound, the turn to modernism for advice is unique in that it undermines the authors’ own vociferously anti-utilitarian agendas.91 Such applications signal a paradigm shift in what can be considered self-helpful, and so are revealing of our cultural needs and predilections today. [End Page 134]

More than the kitschy cash register guides they may appear, these self-help applications unwittingly disclose a history of generic reciprocity that literary criticism has largely overlooked. The joint history of modernism and self-help puts pressure on ossified temporal and geographic accounts of both fields. It offers a new entry point into old debates about modernism’s engagement with mass cultural forms and reading practices, and facilitates a more nuanced understanding of the nature and stakes of twentieth-century authors’ seeming circumvention of practical concerns. As this rich history of reciprocal engagement and critique indicates, a consideration of the context of self-help is crucial to any serious inquiry into modernism’s vexed engagement with the problem of literature’s social use.

Beth Blum

Beth Blum is an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University. Her research examines the joint history of modern literature and the self-help industry, from the late nineteenth century to the present day.


1. Charles Baudelaire, “Let us Flay the Poor” (“Assomons les Pauvres!”), in Baudelaire: His Prose and Poetry, ed. T. R. Smith (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919), 102–04.

2. G. K. Chesterton, “The Fallacy of Success,” in All Things Considered (New York: John Lane, 1909), 21.

3. John Galsworthy, The White Monkey (New York: Scribners, 1941), 232; Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace, The Documents in the Case (London: New English Library, 1978), 31; Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (New York: Penguin, 1978), 64.

4. Emile Coué, Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, trans. Archibald Stark Van Orden (New York: American Library Service, 1922); Josephine Jackson, Outwitting Our Nerves (New York: Century, 1921); Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health (Chicago: Reilly and Lee, 1913).

5. See, for example, Jessica Lamb Shapiro, “A Short History of Self-Help, the World’s Bestselling Genre,” Publishing Perspectives, November 29, 2013,

6. See Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (London: Routledge, 2004).

7. Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 68.

8. Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh (London: Chapman and Hall, 1831), 79; Samuel Smiles, Self-Help: With Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1859). For more on Smiles’s global twentieth-century influence, see Beth Blum, “The Self-Help Hermeneutic: Its Global History and Literary Future,” PMLA (forthcoming).

9. For Anglo-American modernism’s Chinese influences see Eric Hayot, “Chinese Modernism, Mimetic Desire, and European Time,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 149–70.

10. Sociologist Micki McGee argues that Weber’s account neglects the “expressive” and “emotional” softer side of the Protestant tradition, and that his choice of Franklin as representative is a “sampling error” (Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], 28).

11. Mercè Mur Effing, “US Self-Help Literature and the Call of the East” (PhD diss., Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, 2011), 51.

12. Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pécuchet, trans. Mark Polizzotti (McClean, IL: Dalkey Archive, Press, 2005); V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

13. D. H. Lawrence transcribed Franklin’s list of virtues and then inserted his own definitions underneath as rebuttals in “Benjamin Franklin” (in Studies in Classic American Literature [London: Penguin Books, 1990], 23).

14. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928; rpt., New York: Bantam Books, 2007), 20. The phrase “bitch-goddess success” comes from William James who wrote, in a 1906 letter to H. G. [End Page 135] Wells, “the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success . . . is our national disease” (The Letters of William James [New York: Cosimo Publications, 2008], 260).

15. Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 90.

16. Gertrude Stein, How to Write (Paris: Plain Edition, 1931); Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (London: Chatto and Windus, 1926). For a smart and valuable analysis of how self-help vernacular influenced twentieth-century American poetry, including Stein’s, see Matthew Sandler’s doctoral dissertation, “A Poetics of Self-Help in America” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2009).

17. “Dale Carnegie ‘A Man of Influence’ An A&E Biography,” YouTube video, 46:10, from an episode of A&E Television Networks’s Biography, posted by Dale Carnegie Training, November 10, 2014,; “All That I Have,” unpublished manuscript, Dale Carnegie Archives.

18. Wake Up and Live! is the title of a 1936 self-help book by Dorothea Brande (New York: Penguin) that Ezra Pound is reputed to have quoted every morning upon waking. See Michael Dirda, introduction to Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (New York: New Directions, 2010), 4.

19. This article is excerpted from my larger manuscript on the joint history of modern literature and self-help.

20. T. J. Jackson Lears, “From Salvation to Self-Realization: Advertising and the Therapeutic Roots of Consumer Culture, 1880–1930,” in The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History, ed. Richard Wightman Fox and T. J. Jackson Lears (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 1–20.

21. Karl Marx, Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy, trans. T. B. Bottomore (London: McGraw Hill, 1964), 51.

22. On modernism and Christian Science, see Suzanne Hobson, “Religion and Spirituality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Culture, ed. Celia Marshik (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 17–32, 26.

23. For more on this, see Eva Illouz’s useful discussion of the oppositions and affinities between Samuel Smiles’s self-help and Freudian psychoanalysis in Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 153–55.

24. As Alex Zwerdling notes, “There is an uncanny quality in Woolf’s characters that enables them to communicate telepathically” (Virginia Woolf and the Real World [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986], 279). In Ulysses, Stephen and Bloom have uncanny mental exchanges. See John S. Rickard, Joyce’s Book of Memory: The Mnemotechnic of Ulysses (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 22–23; Norpois and Marcel share an unspoken intuitive understanding in Marcel Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, trans. James Grieve (London: Penguin, 2002), 51.

25. Edith Wharton, Twilight Sleep (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

26. Robin Peel, Apart from Modernism: Edith Wharton, Politics, Fiction (New Jersey: Rosemont, 2005).

27. For example, see Janet Beer and Avril Horner, “Wharton the ‘Renovator’: Twilight Sleep as Gothic Satire,” The Yearbook of English Studies 37, no.1 (2007): 177–92.

28. Quoted in Rebecca Rauve, “An Intersection of Interests: Gurdjieff’s Rope Group as a Site of Literary Production,” in “American Writers and France,” special issue, Twentieth Century Literature 49, no. 1 (2003): 46–81, 59.

29. The name “Rope Group” referred to Gurdjieff’s allegory that a work group must be “like climbing a high mountain. For safety, each must be roped together, each one thinking of the others, all helping one another ‘as hand washes hand’” (William Patrick Patterson, Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Women’s Group [Berkeley: Arete Communications, 1999], 96).

30. Margaret Anderson, The Unknowable Gurdjieff (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1962), 53.

31. Wharton, on Woolfian stream of consciousness, is quoted in Dale M. Bauer, Edith Wharton’s Brave New Politics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994), 44; Wharton on Joyce in a letter to Bernard Berenson, January 6, 1923, in The Letters of Edith Wharton, ed. R. W. B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis (New York: Scribners, 1989), 461.

32. Aldous Huxley, “Hocus Pocus,” in Aldous Huxley’s Hearst Essays, ed. James Sexton (New York: Garland, 1994), 268, 78. [End Page 136]

33. For example, this is Walter Benjamin’s contention in “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 83–110.

34. Pericles Lewis, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

35. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings 1902–1910 (New York: Library of America, 1987), 1–478.

36. Frank Channing Haddock, The Power of Will (Auburndale: The Power-Book Library, 1909); Annie Payson Call, Nerves and Common Sense (Boston: Little, Brown, 1925). Robert D. Richardson relates, “[Annie Payson Call’s] popular self-help books would be based on James’s views about the power of habit. James, in turn, learned much about the importance of relaxation—muscular relaxation—from Call’s work” (William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism [New York: First Mariner Books, 2007], 283); Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1936).

37. Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012); Neel Burton, The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self-Help Guide (Kent, UK: Acheron Press, 2010).

38. William James, Principles of Psychology (New York: Henry Holt, 1918), 125. Speaking of this passage, Ross Posnock notes, “It is difficult not to detect in this description a caricature of Henry” (The Trial of Curiosity: Henry, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity [New York: Oxford University Press, 1991], 64).

39. William James to Henry James, October 22, 1905, in William and Henry James Selected Letters, ed. Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 467.

40. Henry James to Grace Norton, July 28, 1883, in Henry James Letters, ed. Leon Edel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 2:424.

41. Steven Starker, Oracle at the Supermarket: The American Preoccupation with Self-Help Books (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1989), 34.

42. Henry James, “The Jolly Corner,” in The New York Stories of Henry James, 463–500 (New York: New York Review Books, 2006), 473.

43. William James, The Energies of Men (New York: Moffat, Yard, 1914), 8. Energies was originally delivered as a Presidential Address at Columbia University in 1906 and was first published in 1907 under the title “The Powers of Men.”

44. Michel Foucault, “How We Behave: Sex, Food, and Other Ethical Matters,” interview by Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Vanity Fair 46, no. 9 (1983): 61–69; Theodor Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth (London: Routledge, 1994).

45. Orison Swett Marden, How to Get What You Want (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1917), 10–11.

46. Bruce MacLelland, Prosperity Through Thought Force (New York: Cosimo, 2007), 31, 25.

47. According to F. O. Mattheissen, Henry James read Varieties in 1902, six years before “The Jolly Corner” was published (The James Family [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947], 338).

48. Henry Wood, Ideal Suggestion Through Mental Photography: A Restorative System for Home and Private Use (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1893), 108–09.

49. Prentice Mulford, Thought is a Thing (Radford: Wilder Publications, 2008). Another important precedent for this scene within the context of self-help’s pre-history is the philosophy of Swedenborgism to which Henry James Senior subscribed. See R. W. B. Lewis’s introduction to The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction (New York: Bantam Books, 2008), xx.

50. Sigmund Freud, “The Relation of the Poet to Day Dreaming” (1908), in Character and Culture (Crowell-Collier, 1963), 37.

51. In a suggestive essay, Paula Marantz Cohen describes “talk” in late James as a form of “performative self-help” (“Henry James and Self-Help,” in Henry James and the Poetics of Duplicity (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013], 145–52, 149).

52. Eve Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 188; Eric Savoy, “The Queer Subject of ‘The Jolly Corner,’” Henry James Review 20, no. 1 (1999): [End Page 137] 1–21, 1, 3. An alternate approach to the self-help capacities of James’s writing is found in Joseph Carroll’s “evolutionary criticism,” which argues that James inherits the Arnoldian view of the literary as “a heroic pursuit leading ultimately to ‘perfection’” (Evolution and Literary Theory [Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995], 196).

53. Philip Weinstein, Unknowing: The Work of Modernist Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).

54. The New Thought Alliance was established in London in 1914. See Horatio W. Dresser, A History of the New Thought Movement (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1919), 263; and Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (Luxembourg: Atria Books, 2006).

55. Quoted in Matthew Peters, “Henry James, American Social Change, and Literary Revision,” The Cambridge Quarterly 34, no. 4 (2005), 323–31, 323.

56. Henry James, The American Scene, in Collected Travel Writings: Great Britain and America (New York: Library of America, 1993), 734.

57. Squillace offers a fascinating assessment of Bennett’s self-help and its often conflicted relation to his fiction in “Arnold Bennett’s Other Selves,” Marketing the Author: Authorial Personae, Narrative Selves and Self-Fashioning, 1880–1930 (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 156–183.

58. Arnold Bennett, How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day (New York: Bookman, 1910); Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It (New York: George H. Doran, 1909); Arnold Bennett, Mental Efficiency (New York: George H. Doran, 1911); Arnold Bennett, The Human Machine (London: New Age Press, 1908); Arnold Bennett, Self and Self-Management (New York: W. M. H. Wise, 1918); Arnold Bennett, How to Make the Best of Life (New York: George H. Doran, 1923).

59. Promotional blurb for How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, The Bristol Daily Mercury, rpt. in Arnold Bennett, The Human Machine (London: The New Age Press, 1908), endpapers.

60. Richardson describes William James’ readings of stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius (William James, 53).

61. Arnold Bennett, quoted in James Hepburn, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage (1971; rpt., London: Routledge, 1997), 43.

62. Arnold Bennett, The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett, ed. Samuel Hynes (Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1968), 264.

63. W. Whitten, promotional blurb for How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, The Tattler, rpt. in Bennett, The Human Machine, endpapers.

64. Arnold Bennett, “Young Authors,” in The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett, ed. Samuel Hynes (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968), 218–20, 219; Arnold Bennett, “James Joyce’s Ulysses” in The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett, 211–217, 215. In general, though they made liberal use of literary quotations, most self-help authors of the period were wary of novels and preferred to recommend history or biography.

65. Arnold Bennett, “Translating Literature into Life,” Things That Have Interested Me (London: Chatto and Windus, 1921), 42–45, 42.

66. Gustave Flaubert, Oeuvres Complètes de Gustave Flaubert, vol. 10, Par les champs et par les grèves; Voyages et carnets de voyages (Paris: Club de l’honnête homme, 1973), 99, translation mine.

67. Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Virginia Woolf Reader, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (Orlando: Harcourt, 1984), 192–212, 194.

68. Samuel Smiles, Character (New York: Harper, 1876); William James, Habit (New York: Henry Holt, 1890), 61.

69. According to Melba Cuddy-Keane, “Modeling discourse is, for Woolf, intervention in the public sphere” (“Virginia Woolf and the Public Sphere,” in Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, ed. Susan Sellers, 2nd ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010], 231–49, 238).

70. The term “pre-political” to describe self-help is used in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 193.

71. Virginia Woolf, “How Should One Read a Book?,” in The Second Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie (Sand Diego: Harvest Books, 1986), 258–70, 258. [End Page 138]

72. Randi Saloman’s useful account of the dialogic possibilities afforded for Woolf by the essay form, in contrast to the novel, are even more marked when considering the opposition between the essay and self-help tract (Virginia Woolf’s Essayism [Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012]).

73. Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past,” in Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1985), 61–160, 77.

74. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Orlando: Harvest Books, 1981), 21–22.

75. E. F. Garasché, quoted in William K. Beatty, “A Historical Review of Bibliotherapy,” Library Trends 11, no. 2 (1962): 106–117, 107.

76. William James, The Meaning of Truth: A Sequel to Pragmatism (New York: Longmans, Green, 1909). Similarly, in Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 2006), the sole moral voice is the schizophrenic doctor Matthew O’Connor, who sputters out his insights like a record on a loop (35).

77. Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 170.

78. Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Olivier Bell (London: Hogarth, 1977), 4:126.

79. Virginia Woolf, “Craftsmanship,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (Florida: Harcourt, 1970), 206.

80. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984). Bennett is the working-class “hero” of John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), while Samuel Hynes notes the “class-conscious disapproval” implicit in Woolf’s critique of him (“The Whole Contention Between Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 1, no. 1 [1967]: 34–44, 37). For an example of a feminist reading, see Beth Rigel Daugherty, “The Whole Contention between Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Woolf, Revisited,” Virginia Woolf: Centennial Essays, ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg and Laura Moss Gottlieb (Troy: Whitson, 1983), 269–94.

81. F. R. Leavis notoriously relied upon the rather elusive notion of an author’s “life-impulsion” in his literary criticism. See, for example, F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (New York: Knopf, 1956), 298.

82. Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., “The Moment, 1910: Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, and Turn of the Century Consciousness,” Colby Library Quarterly 13, no. 1 (1977): 42.

83. Bennett, “Another Criticism of the New School,” in Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, “Books and Persons” 1921–1931, ed. Andrew Mylett (London: Chatto and Windus, 1974), 4–6, 5.

84. Virginia Woolf, “Modern Fiction,” in The Virginia Woolf Reader, 283–92, 286–87.

85. Arnold Bennett: The Savour of Life: Essays in Gusto (London: Cassell, 1928). As the Times Literary Supplement commented in a review on September 15, 1910, “Towards the end of ‘Clayhanger’ a phrase occurs that seems to reveal as with a flashlight the whole impulse and motive of Mr. Arnold Bennett’s prodigious novel—‘a terrific zest for life’” (quoted in Hepburn, Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage, 244).

86. Arnold Bennett, Clayhanger (London: Eyre Methuen, 1910), 530.

87. Abraham Myerson, When Life Loses its Zest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1925).

88. Myerson quotes and cites William James approvingly throughout his book.

89. Myerson recommended Benzedrine for anhedonic depressives as well as “normal people with morning hangovers and low moods” (Nicolas Rasmussen, “Making the First Anti-Depressant: Amphetamine in American Medicine, 1929–1950,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 61, no. 3 [2006]: 288–323, 309).

90. Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life (London: Picador, 1998); Ilana Simons, A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf (New York: Penguin, 2007); Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece (New York: Norton, 2009); Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence (New York: North Point Press, 2009); and Alexander McCall Smith, What W. H. Auden Can Do For You (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

91. Laurie Maguire, Where There’s a Will There’s a Way, Or, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Shakespeare (New York: Penguin, 2006); Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (London: Chatto and Windus, 2010); and Lori Smith, The Jane Austen Guide to Life: Thoughtful Lessons for the Modern Woman (Guilford: Pequot Press, 2012). [End Page 139]

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