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Popular Appeal

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 5, July/August 2013
pp. 15-30 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0079

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Must Read both surveys the history of the bestseller in America and offers close, literary analyses of selected bestsellers in their cultural contexts. The first two essays, Sarah Churchwell’s and Thomas Ruys Smith’s “Introduction” and Sarah Garland’s “Missing numbers: The partial history of the bestseller” lay the historical and theoretical groundwork for the collection. The remaining thirteen essays are analyses of popular—but understudied—books, arranged in chronological order. It’s a solid and compelling collection of essays, taking up a wide variety of texts from Charlotte Temple (1791), E.D.E.N. Southworth and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1854) to Tarzan of the Apes (1914), Emily Post, The Godfather (1969), The Kite Runner (2003), and Nicholas Sparks. The authors analyze these texts from a variety of theoretical positions and with many methodological approaches. For example, Ardis Cameron illuminates what Peyton Place (1956) meant to women readers in the 1950s based on interviews with readers and analyses of fan letters they wrote to its author, Grace Metalious. Evan Brier is concerned with the business of publishing, and he reads Mario Puzo’s The Godfather as a commentary on the conditions of literary production and the construction of cultural hierarchies in the 1960s and ’70s. Rachel Ihara argues that the serial form in which E.D.E.N. Southworth’s fiction appeared profoundly shaped her aesthetic. William Gleason looks closely at the temperance classic, Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, vis-à-vis its evolving illustrations, arguing that the visual qualities of its different editions shaped how it was read. The essays are variously informed by feminism; queer theory; religion; postcolonial theories about race, empire, and nation-building; and cultural studies of social class and literary hierarchy. Together, they survey the field of American bestsellers and the variety of approaches scholars have taken towards these texts in an accessible and engaging way.

Churchwell’s and Smith’s “Introduction” is masterful, and it, alone, makes the volume worth reading. They not only offer a thorough, engaging historical overview of bestsellers in America, but also map the scholarly field of American popular literature for their audience. They trace the history of condescension toward and dismissal of popular literature by modernists and New Critics, and explain why so many of its terms are so contentious (“popular culture,” “mass culture,” “folk culture”). From the beginning, scholarship on bestsellers was marked by concern about its aesthetic failings and anxieties about its inauthentic or reactionary politics. Starting with the “classic” books on the topic—Frank Luther Mott’s Golden Multitudes (1947) and James Hart’s The Popular Book (1950)—Churchwell and Smith explain the evolution of the field. Mott and Hart surveyed bestseller lists for large patterns, seeking to draw conclusions about Americans based on popular texts, although neither did close, literary analysis of specific texts. Much of the next generation—Cathy Davidson on the novel in the early Republic or Jane Tompkins on antebellum popular women’s sentimental fiction—did look closely at specific texts and genres, but were narrowly focused on a single era. Other scholars focused on major blockbusters—Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or Gone with the Wind (1936)—often in historical isolation from other popular books. Cultural studies took contemporary popular books seriously, taking a Marxist approach to cultural value. Churchwell and Smith want to keep the larger historical scope of early studies, but do the kind of close, literary analyses characteristic of the later generation of scholars. The books they select for analysis were widely read, but suffered scholarly neglect.

Their history of American popular literature is concerned not only with texts (almanacs, chapbooks, broadsides, captivity narratives, Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) but with the larger field of print culture and its theoretical concerns. How were the imagined communities called into being by reading publics related to regional and national identities? Who were the readers of these popular texts, and what kinds of literacy/education were available to them? What was publishing as a business enterprise like, and how did this shape who could imagine him/herself as an author, and in what ways? What were copyright laws? How much did authors...

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