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  • Me and My Bookmen
  • Trysh Travis (bio)

In the spring of 1888, James Russell Lowell—poet, essayist, and recently returned Minister to the Court of St. James’s—addressed the Reform Club of New York on “The Place of the Independent in Politics.” A general screed against the sclerotic party system of the Gilded Age, his talk opened with musings on the role of anti-intellectualism in the political gridlock that characterized the moment. “In the opinion of some of our leading politicians and many of our newspapers,” the poet noted, “men of scholarly minds are ipso facto debarred from forming any judgment on public affairs.” How should such judgments be pursued, if not through study and reason? “Immediate inspiration,” Lowell observed, was the perverse currency of the day. With mock chagrin, he confessed to his audience that “I come to you wholly unprovided with this precious commodity,” and admitted that “I am a book-man, that I am old-fashioned enough to have read many books, and that I hope to read many more” (233–35).

“The Place of the Independent in Politics” was approvingly noted the next day by the New York Times, which complimented Lowell’s “clear and philosophic examination of the essential conditions of our public life” (“Mr. Lowell’s Address”). Its most visible legacy, however, would be literary rather than political: a few years later, the phrase “I am a bookman” became the epigraph for a belles lettres monthly called The Bookman, published in New York by Dodd, Mead and Company. Advertising itself as “the busy man’s literary journal,” it mixed industry gossip with biography, fiction, poetry, and criticism, and offered book reviews, sales reports, and bibliographical information for librarians and collectors. Despite this precocious embrace of the Gawker format, the journal remained redoubtably conservative in its material presentation, its politics (it was edited in the late 1920s by self-proclaimed [End Page 103] fascist Seward Collins), and its aesthetics (it was associated through the 1920s with the New Humanist movement). Looking at the final number, from 1935, it is easy to believe that modernism was just a flash in the pan.

I became mildly obsessed with The Bookman during the late-1990s as I was finishing a dissertation on the changing culture of American trade publishing entitled “Reading Matters: Bookmen, Serious Readers, and the Rise of Mass Culture, 1930–1965”—a project I began before I knew about the Dodd, Mead and Company journal or about Lowell’s address. The term “bookman” had previously caught my eye as I scanned the ads for modernist classics in Publishers Weekly; even at mid-century it was still used as an approbation. Given mid-century publishers’ anxiety about the feminization of their trade by the culture industries, the gendered implications of the quaint sobriquet had interested me, but I had not tied it to any larger historical phenomenon. When I discovered The Bookman in the stacks, my project was too far advanced to incorporate any discussion of it. Nevertheless, I managed to waste considerable hours scanning its decorous Victorian fonts, hoping that articles like “Reminiscences of the Poet Whittier” (May 1895), “Some Anglo-American Memories” (September 1912), and “Bee-Keeping and Literature” (February 1933) would shed some light on what, precisely, “busy men” were saying about themselves when they said “I am a bookman.”

The clock ran out on my dissertation before I could draw any conclusions—and frankly, The Bookman’s content was sufficiently lugubrious that even finishing my dissertation came to seem more pleasurable than reading it. I left the Northeast and the land of bound volumes with every intention of engaging with it when I revised the dissertation, but I could never quite bring myself to face it on microfilm. This was one of the reasons (some were more substantive) that, after spinning a few chapters off into articles, I put my dissertation aside and wrote a new book, about print culture and self-help, in my run-up to tenure.

Why is any of this important? Because now, about 20 years after the fact, contemplating the dissertation as a second book project, I feel quite keenly that the intervening decades have given...