- Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers from Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code ed. by Sarah Churchwell and Thomas Ruys Smith
Churchwell and Smith’s Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers from Charlotte Temple to The Da Vinci Code comprises fourteen essays that intend to redress both the lack of critical attention and academic denigration suffered by the American bestseller. Ranging from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first century, the various essays and their authors convincingly demonstrate the cultural significance of the bestseller, collectively revealing a complexity and significance often belied by their popularity, as well as how such texts respond to American cultural values and, quite often, fantasies.
Combined, the editors’ “Introduction” and Sarah Garland’s initial chapter surveying the vagaries of the very term “bestseller” clearly demonstrate the impetus for the collection, as well as its few limitations. Churchwell and Smith highlight a number of issues to redress: the generality of previous surveys of the genre, the narrow focus of earlier analyses of specific best-selling works, and, perhaps most crucially, the lack of a comprehensive survey of the bestseller for over fifty years (Churchwell and Smith 1-2). A collection of essays—placed “within a comparative and developmental context” (Churchwell and Smith 2)—seems a wise choice for this recuperative effort, as it accomplishes both breadth and specificity as opposed to only one or the other. Similarly, Garland’s essay demonstrates the partial and fragmentary nature of the category/genre of the “bestseller”; from the different sources of data (or lack thereof) and regional emphases in specific bestseller lists, to the fact that most equate the term “bestseller” with fiction (thus ignoring how other genres such as children’s literature and nonfiction often eclipse fiction sales), Garland crystallizes how the best one can do to survey the field is something like this book, which collects specifically-focused essays within a broader context.
That being said, the collection does run afoul of some of the very issues these chapters raise. For one, though it includes a nonfiction bestseller (Emily Post’s Etiquette) in a chapter by Grace Lees-Maffei, the collection, on the whole, exhibits the same predilection towards the fiction bestseller. Furthermore, children’s literature is completely absent from the discussion, an odd omission given the preponderance of recent young adult and teen fiction (e.g., the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series), and the reference to such texts and their best-selling status in the editors’ “Introduction” and elsewhere.
Like the editors, several essay contributors engage in varying recuperative efforts within their individual chapters. Many chapters strive to rescue their texts from limited and/or simplistic ways they have been previously read or viewed. Rachel Ihara, for example, seeks to broaden our understanding of E.D.E.N. Southworth beyond her most famous work, The Hidden Hand. Ihara highlights Southworth’s repetition of plots, characters, and settings, not as a flaw in her work, but as creating a recognizable consistency that allowed her to maintain and engage her audience for over forty years of serial publication. Similarly, William Gleason explicates the narrative style in Timothy Shay Arthur’s Ten Nights in a Bar-Room for how it reflected the visual rhetoric of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century temperance movement and, like Southworth, established a kind of brand identity for Arthur. Hsuan L. Hsu’s contribution complicates our understanding of Edward Everett Hale’s short story “The Man Without a Country,” using its various publications in the second half of the nineteenth century to position the simply “patriotic” story at a more complicated nexus of contradictions inherent within US imperialism. [End Page 303]
Other recuperative attempts reveal heretofore neglected aspects of specific bestselling texts, genres, and authors. Ardis Cameron’s discussion of Peyton Place, for instance, places its attention on author Grace Metalious. Obscured by the notoriety of her novel and recovered via her own letters and anecdotal evidence, Metalious’s idiosyncratic gender performance, which paralleled the rise of her best...