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  • The Awakening and American Libraries:An Update
  • Charles Johanningsmeier (bio)

Books that distinctly commend what is wrong, that teach how to sin and tell how pleasant sin is, sometimes with and sometimes without the added sauce of impropriety, are increasingly popular, tempting the author to imitate them, the publishers to produce, the booksellers to exploit. Thank heaven they do not tempt the librarian. Here at last is a purveyor of books who has no interest in distributing what is not clean, honest, and true.

—Arthur Bostwick, President of the American Library Association, 1908 (Bostwick 264).

One of the most widely circulated examples of the poor reception of realist and naturalist works in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the story of the banning of Kate Chopin's The Awakening by St. Louis libraries after its publication in 1899; in some cases the story includes these libraries burning the withdrawn copies. To many, The Awakening's reception in St. Louis conforms to a pattern of other books encountering opposition: the Concord, Massachusetts, Public Library in 1885 ordering the removal of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, as well as numerous other incidents involving how Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Hamlin Garland, and Theodore Dreiser experienced substantial difficulties getting their works published and distributed. This pattern suggests that on one side were courageous, liberal, truth-telling literary artists who challenged societal norms and thereby moved American readers further along the path to the "correct" way of seeing things, and on the other were enforcers of those norms: the conservative editors, publishers, and librarians who actively tried to keep such threatening, boundary-pushing texts out of the hands of American readers [End Page 236] (many of whom, it is alleged, were just as censorious). It is a very neat black-and-white, David-and-Goliath picture, with seemingly obvious heroes and villains.

This paradigm, however, deserves closer scrutiny. In a few cases, works of realism and naturalism were indeed actively opposed by certain agents of the moral, religious, and political status quo. And some gatekeeping editors and publishers of mainstream book and magazine enterprises did impede the publication of works they regarded as potentially controversial, chiefly because they believed such works would offend the young female readers and members of the "family circle" whose patronage was so vital to their financial survival. As a result, those fictions which appeared to overstep the boundaries of propriety rarely appeared in mass-market periodicals or were brought out by major, mainstream book publishers, except under special circumstances. Instead, they were more likely to be published in lower-circulation periodicals and by smaller book publishing firms, making them relatively inaccessible to most American readers. Such was in fact the fate of a number of Kate Chopin's fictions. Nevertheless, before we condemn all American editors, publishers, librarians, and readers of this period as philistines, the actual circumstances governing the publication and circulation of these works need to be examined more carefully. It is in this spirit that I have been investigating how American public libraries, and specifically those who ran them, actually dealt with a wide variety of works by realist and naturalist authors between 1880 and 1914.

Often left out of consideration in studies based on Robert Darnton's "communications circuit," made famous in his landmark 1982 article entitled "What Is the History of Books?" are the means by which texts are transmitted from publishers and printers to actual readers. Little scholarly attention has been devoted to the roles played by such intermediaries as periodical and book distributors, book vendors (including book stores, department stores, and so forth), and libraries. During the years of Kate Chopin's career, the libraries in particular had a major impact on which fictions American readers had access to, and ultimately libraries affected how millions of those readers incorporated these fictions into their daily lives. By 1896, spread widely throughout the country were a total of 1,558 free public libraries holding over 1,000 volumes each (U.S. Bureau of Education 343); within the next few decades, thanks in large part to the philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie, hundreds more were established. These...


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pp. 236-248
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