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Paradoxes of Prosperity

Wealth-Seeking Versus Christian Values in Pre-Civil War America

Lorman Ratner

Publication Year: 2009

In the midst of the United States' immense economic growth in the 1850s, Americans worried about whether the booming agricultural, industrial, and commercial expansion came at the price of cherished American values such as honesty, hard work, and dedication to the common good. This study examines how popular writers and widely read newspapers, magazines, and books expressed social tensions between prosperity and morality. The authors draw on that nationwide conversation through leading mass media, including newspapers such as the New York Herald and the New York Tribune; best-selling magazines aimed at middle-class tastes, Harper's Magazine and the Southern Literary Messenger; novels by women authors Susan Warner, Maria Cummins, and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and works by novelist George Lippard, historian George Bancroft, and travel writer Bayard Taylor.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

front cover

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. x

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pp. xi-xii

This book is the idea of Professor Lorman “Larry” A. Ratner, emeritus professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and, from 1999–2007, adjunct professor...

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pp. xiii

Kim Matherly, administrative assistant at the University of Illinois libraries, provided superb research and manuscript-vetting help. The authors are greatly in her debt. University of Tennessee Special Collections Librarians Elizabeth G. Dunham...

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pp. 1-8

Overshadowed by the Civil War—and the more than 50,000 books written about it—the cultural life of the United States in the 1850s often seems to be remembered only as a prelude to the great divide in American history. As that decade passed, the paradox...

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1. Communicatiing the Prosperity-Morality Paradox during the Mid-Nineteenth-Century Publishing Boom

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pp. 9-18

At mid-century, Americans confronted two compelling paradoxes: slavery in a land founded on the value of freedom, and an aggressive pursuit of wealth that enriched the republic...

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2. New York's Newspaper Giants during the Anxious 1850s

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pp. 19-33

In the 1850s, no part of America’s mass media was more pervasive than the newspaper, and no paper had more readers than either the New York Herald or the New York Tribune.1 In addition...

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3. Two Newspapers, South and West

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pp. 34-46

Although New York City was home to the nation’s most widely read newspapers, the number of papers and their readers grew dramatically in all parts of the country. In the places where they circulated, these newspapers both influenced and...

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4. Harper's Magazine and the Southern Literary Messenger: Self-Styled Guardians of the Republic

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pp. 47-62

In 1850, the Harper brothers, whose New York publishing business was flourishing, decided to launch a magazine. They planned to use it to publicize the books they published and to attract additional authors.1 Publishing the magazine turned out to be...

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5. Godey's Lady's Book: The Guide for Middle-Class Women

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pp. 63-71

By the 1850s, women were a substantial portion of America’s reading public. During the first half of the century, the literacy rate for women grew significantly. Historian Richard D. Brown has suggested that female literacy emerged as a...

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6. Merchant Magazines: The Businessman's Guide and Conscience

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pp. 72-84

Many of the critics of America’s booming economy and its entrepreneurs were not directly involved in the marketplace: women, clergy, and intellectuals, among others. But even those who worked in the marketplace and publishers of...

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7. Women Writers: Defending the Christian Republic

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pp. 85-96

Despite daunting odds and discouraging social pressures, the names of women often appeared among the mid-nineteenth century’s best-selling authors. What those women wrote profited them and gave them a voice in the ongoing...

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8. Male Writers: Wrestling with the Marketplace

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pp. 97-110

Because women were a large portion of the reading public, no writer who hoped to sell a lot of books could afford to write something women would be likely to reject.1 The women writers discussed in this study employed what literary critics...

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9. Past Times and Faraway Places

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pp. 111-124

While American readers of the 1850s had a taste for novels, authors of history and biography also found a large reading audience for stories of past glories and heroic figures. If about American glory or an American hero, such material sparked...

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pp. 125-128

Americans of the 1850s were troubled by the seeming contradictions between their marketplace lives and their Christian and republican values. They could not have known that the Civil War would come in 1861, any more than Americans...


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pp. 129-142


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pp. 143-147

back cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780252092220
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252034534

Page Count: 168
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Journalism -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • American newspapers -- History -- 19th century.
  • American periodicals -- History -- 19th century
  • Books and reading -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Publishers and publishing -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Wealth -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Ethics -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Social life and customs -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Intellectual life -- 1783-1865.
  • United States -- Moral conditions.
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