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Popular History and the Literary Marketplace, 1840–1920

Gregory M. Pfitzer

Publication Year: 2008

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, most Americans “heard” rather than “read” national history. They absorbed lessons from the past more readily by attending Patriots' Day orations and anniversary commemorations than by reading expensive, multivolume works of patrician historians. By the 1840s, however, innovations in publishing led to the marketing of inexpensive, mass-produced “popular” histories that had a profound influence on historical literacy and learning in the United States. In this book, Gregory M. Pfitzer charts the rise and fall of this genre, demonstrating how and why it was born, flourished, and then became unpopular over time. Pfitzer begins by exploring how the emergence of a new literary marketplace in the mid-nineteenth century affected the study of history in America. Publishers of popular works hoped to benefit from economies of scale by selling large numbers of inexpensive books at small profit. They hired authors with substantial literary reputations to make the past accessible to middle-class readers. The ability to write effectively for wide audiences was the only qualification for those who dominated this field. Privileging narration and effusive literary style over dispassionate prose, these artists adapted their favorite fictional and poetic conventions with an ease that suggests the degree to which history was viewed as literary art in the nineteenth century. Beginning as a small cottage industry, popular histories sold in the hundreds of thousands by the 1890s. In an effort to illuminate the cultural conditions for this boom, Pfitzer focuses on the business of book making and book promotion. He analyzes the subscription sales techniques of book agents as well as the aggressive prepublication advertising campaigns of the publishers, including the pictorial embellishments they employed as marketing devices. He also examines the reactions of professional historians who rejected the fictionalizing and poetic tendencies of popular history, which they equated with loose and undisciplined scholarship. Pfitzer explains how and why these professionals succeeded in challenging the authority of popular histories, and what the subsequent “unpopularity of popular history” meant for book culture and the study of history in the twentieth century.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv


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p. v

Table of Contents

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p. vii

List of Illustrations

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p. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

The inspiration for this book came from a series of questions posed by the late Harvard professor of history John Clive to students in his rigorous course on the history of historical writing. As an advanced graduate student, I audited this course—twice, in fact—without completing it; the distractions of teaching and dissertation writing were simply too great to allow me to fulfill the obligations of the syllabus, although I learned a great deal from the sections ...

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Introduction: “Whatever Popularizes Vulgarizes” Defining Popular History

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pp. 1-17

In the summer of 1908, fifteen-year-old Huey Long went door-to-door in the parishes of central Louisiana selling books on consignment for a Texas book dealer. Long, who later bragged to his high school friends that he could “sell anything on earth to anybody,” made a decent living that summer peddling a stock of volumes ranging from “trashy books to the finest literary and scholarly works.” One can picture young Huey Long as an ambitious junior ...

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Chapter 1: When Popular History Was Popular Washington Irving, George Lippard, John Frost, and Book Culture in the Nineteenth Century

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pp. 18-72

In the early winter of 1845, the writer, editor, and literary critic Evert A. Duyckinck was involved in a protracted discussion about the proper direction of American literature with members of a literary circle that he had helped found. Born in Manhattan in 1816, Duyckinck was the son of a bookseller, publisher, and collector of the same name who had been immortalized in ...

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Chapter 2: The “Terrible Image Breaker” William Cullen Bryant, Sydney Gay, and Scribner’s Hybrid History

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pp. 73-122

When Charles Knight submitted his eight-volume Popular History of England to the British people in 1856, he dedicated the work to “His Royal Highness, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales.” The dedication was unusual given Knight’s assertion in the preface that “History, as it is generally written, deals too exclusively with . . . the acts of sovereigns and statesmen” and should rather embrace a “new point of view”—one that “put the People in ...

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Chapter 3: The Metahistorian as Popularizer John Clark Ridpath and the Universal Laws of Popular History

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pp. 123-178

Sydney Howard Gay’s disagreements with his publisher Charles Scribner and with his coauthor William Cullen Bryant often centered on the issue of authenticity in history and the responsibilities popular historians had to accuracy of historical presentation. Suspicious of rhetorical language and concerned with its potential to seduce readers, Gay preferred to depict the past from the “scientific point of view.”1 For their part, Bryant and Scribner chose ...

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Chapter 4: “The Past Everything” Edward Eggleston, Realism, and the Rise of the “New” History

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pp. 179-226

Challenges to universal laws by professionals raised some unsettling questions about the enterprise of history and the function of historians. In Ridpath’s Newtonian intellectual universe, historians were governed by what David Shi described as “immutable laws rather than divine commands, laws which the scientific method could ultimately uncover and manipulate.” This “deterministic, orderly cosmos, ticking away with the predictability of a great ...

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Chapter 5: “A Background of Real History” Edward S. Ellis and the Dime Novel as Popular History

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pp. 227-281

As the reaction to Edward Eggleston’s popular histories suggests, the late nineteenth century witnessed an intense debate over what constituted the proper subject matter of history and how that subject matter should be presented to the public. The breakdown of narrative coherence implicit in the New History program and the emergence of a modernist skepticism caused some to fear that history could not be relied on to guide Americans in clear ...

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Chapter 6: Writing Himself Out of Trouble Julian Hawthorne and the Commercialism of Popular History

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pp. 282-331

While the works of Eggleston and Ellis sold fairly well in the popular marketplace, their relativistic philosophies made it difficult for readers to find any absolute standards in them by which to navigate safely in a chaotic, ever-changing contemporary world. Eggleston’s desire to tell the “past everything” and his rejection of singular explanatory devices had the disconcerting effect of pluralizing authority with respect to the past. His use of topical, non- narrative ...

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Conclusion: The Unpopularity of Popular History

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pp. 332-348

Julian Hawthorne’s United States was the last of the multivolume popular histories by poets- and novelists-turned-historians that had an impact on the literary marketplace. With the possible exception of Carl Sandburg, no other prominent literary figure of the twentieth century attempted to write popular history as I have defined it in this book, and Sandburg published not comprehensive history but biography.1 Histories with titles like “Steinbeck’s ...


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pp. 349-432


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pp. 433-454


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pp. 455-469

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761502
E-ISBN-10: 1613761503
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558496248
Print-ISBN-10: 1558496246

Page Count: 464
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 794701582
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Popular History and the Literary Marketplace, 1840–1920

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Subject Headings

  • Historians -- United States -- Biography.
  • Historiography -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • United States -- Historiography.
  • Historiography -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Historiography -- Economic aspects -- United States -- History.
  • History publishing -- United States -- History.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
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