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America the Middlebrow

Women's Novels, Progressivism, and the Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars

Jaime Harker

Publication Year: 2007

Between the two world wars, American publishing entered a "golden age" characterized by an explosion of new publishers, authors, audiences, distribution strategies, and marketing techniques. The period was distinguished by a diverse literary culture, ranging from modern cultural rebels to working-class laborers, political radicals, and progressive housewives. In America the Middlebrow, Jaime Harker focuses on one neglected mode of authorship in the interwar period—women's middlebrow authorship and its intersection with progressive politics. With the rise of middlebrow institutions and readers came the need for the creation of the new category of authorship. Harker contends that these new writers appropriated and adapted a larger tradition of women's activism and literary activity to their own needs and practices. Like sentimental women writers and readers of the 1850s, these authors saw fiction as a means of reforming and transforming society. Like their Progressive Era forebears, they replaced religious icons with nationalistic images of progress and pragmatic ideology. In the interwar period, this mode of authorship was informed by Deweyan pragmatist aesthetics, which insisted that art provided vicarious experience that could help create humane, democratic societies. Drawing on letters from publishers, editors, agents, and authors, America the Middlebrow traces four key moments in this distinctive culture of letters through the careers of Dorothy Canfield, Jessie Fauset, Pearl Buck, and Josephine Herbst. Both an exploration of a virtually invisible culture of letters and a challenge to monolithic paradigms of modernism, the book offers fresh insight into the ongoing tradition of political domestic fiction that flourished between the wars.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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pp. i-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-iii

Copyright Page

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pp. iv-iv

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

For nurturing this project in its early stages, I am grateful to Miles Orvell, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Carolyn Karcher, Robert Caserio, and Laura Levitt. Miles Orvell has been an ideal mentor, giving me a model of scholarship. Many institutions have helped support the development of this manuscript. A 1997 seminar on the history of the book at the American ...

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Introduction: A Genealogy of Political Domestic Fiction

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pp. 1-22

In 1942, Sinclair Lewis wrote approving prefatory remarks to Paxton Hibben’s debunking biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the antebellum abolitionist preacher who, Lewis believed, bore a striking resemblance to his own Elmer Gantry. In an aside, Lewis sums up Beecher’s more famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, pithily: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first ...

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Chapter One: Progressive Middlebrow: Dorothy Canfield, Reform, and Women’s Magazines

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pp. 23-52

In 1902, before each became a best- selling novelist, Dorothy Canfield and Willa Cather suffered a catastrophic break in their friendship. Cather, preparing her first collection of short stories, The Troll Garden, included one called “The Profile,” based on Evelyn Osbourne, with whom Canfield and Cather had traveled in Europe. When Canfield read the story, she ...

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Chapter Two: Miscegenating Middlebrow: Jessie Fauset and the “Authentic” Black Middle Class

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pp. 53-86

In 1933, after reading Alain Locke’s review of her fourth and last novel, Comedy: American Style, Jessie Fauset fired off a scathing letter, capping at least a decade of resentment and competitive hostility, which said in part:I have always disliked your attitude toward my work dating from the time years ago when you went out of your way to tell my brother that ...

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Chapter Three: Multicultural Middlebrow: P earl Buck and the Liberal Iconography of The Good Earth

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pp. 87-114

On 3 August 1932, two hundred people, the cream of New York’s literary world, gathered at the new Waldorf- Astoria to honor the elusive author of an unexpected best seller—The Good Earth. The novel, by a relatively unknown missionary living in China, had leapt into the national consciousness (and put its publisher, John Day, into sudden solvency) when ...

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Chapter Four. Proletarian Middlebrow: Josephine Herbst, Radicalism, and Bourgeois Redemption

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pp. 115-146

In the 1960s, in response to a query from a professor, Josephine Herbst articulated her vision of reading and writing communities in terms that would have shocked literary critics of the thirties, who had found her If you are teaching work of the thirties I believe it would be important to engage the students and a group and to teach the literature ...

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Afterword: Consequences and Transformations

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pp. 147-158

The interwar convergence of women’s novels, middlebrow authorship, and progressivism reached the peak of its influence during the period of the Popular Front. Much has been written about this larger cultural shift to the left in the late 1930s, notably Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, a massive study of cartoons, musicals, photography, theater, poetry, and ...


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pp. 159-166

Works Cited

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pp. 167-176


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pp. 177-182

Back Cover

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pp. 183-183

E-ISBN-13: 9781613761069
E-ISBN-10: 1613761066
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558495968
Print-ISBN-10: 1558495967

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 794701552
MUSE Marc Record: Download for America the Middlebrow

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Progressivism in literature.
  • Sentimentalism in literature.
  • Fisher, Dorothy Canfield, 1879-1958 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Women and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Fauset, Jessie Redmon -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Buck, Pearl S. (Pearl Sydenstricker), 1892-1973 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Herbst, Josephine, 1892-1969 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • American fiction -- Women authors -- History and criticism.
  • Popular literature -- United States -- History and criticism.
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