- “Good Bad Stuff”: Editing, Advertising, and the Transformation of Genteel Literary Production in the 1890s
“It’s one thing in real life, but another in Harper’s.”—James L. Ford
In 2000, Lewis H. Lapham, with Ellen Rosenbush, edited a huge memorial volume dedicated to honoring the influence of Harper’s Magazine on U.S. literary and cultural history. Titled An American Album: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Harper’s Magazine, and accompanied by a short forward in which Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. makes the dramatic, accurate claim that the magazine had “helped to shape the American literary landscape for two thirds of the life of the republic,” this printed celebration anthologizes for posterity the Harper’s tradition of incisive and creative intellectual fare.1 Lapham announces in his introduction, “Hazards of New Fortune,” the magazine’s status as a national institution, concluding with the bold declaration that the magazine would continue to do “as the four brothers Harper long ago intended, [to increase] the common stores of energy and hope.”2 The whole fantastic project, with its striking material features and idealistic account of U.S. literary production, highlights the pivotal role of specific institutions in American literary and cultural history since the late nineteenth century.3
This role has been substantially historicized by American literary scholarship; what I want to consider in this paper is the manifest durability of the specific genteel form of literary history enshrined in 2000 by Lapham and the Franklin Square Press. Works like Eric Lott’s Love and Theft, Janice Radway’s A Feeling for Books, Shelley Streeby’s American Sensations, and June Howard’s Publishing the Family address the enduring influence of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ideologies of race, literary taste, war, and family on U.S. literature and culture, but the specific form of genteel literary history that remains alive and well at Harper’s requires a new approach.4 This is for two reasons: first, because the long life of this genteel self-historicizing has successfully [End Page 186] refused certain forms of transformation, and, second, because this refusal to change is often made to appear as a profound transformation itself.5
What is this specific genteel form? As quality magazines relied, increasingly, on advertising revenue throughout the latter decades of the nineteenth century, genteel literary production was forced to engage what appeared to be a contradiction between its ostensible purpose (to promote good literature and good taste) and its institutional purpose (to secure capital for literary institutions like Harper’s New Monthly Magazine). The appearance of contradiction has been maintained through the embrace of a powerful representation of literary history that lives today in such coffee table tomes as An American Album. This representation is ambivalent in that it includes, at one and the same time, the image of two distinct histories, of the magazine as living two separate lives: the first as the purveyor of good literature in the interests of enduring standards of good taste, and the second as the purveyor of bad literature in the interests of enduring standards of profit. Harper’s house histories emphasize, typically, the former life through references to Franklin Square publishing, while humorous insider histories, like James L. Ford’s 1894 The Literary Shop, emphasize the second through references to the “Franklin Square Prose and Verse Foundry.”6 Drawing on Terence Whalen’s concept of the “Capital Reader”—an editing figure who determined the selection of literary material at publishing houses—and on The Literary Shop—a contemporary, insider view of the magazine industry—I will argue that the magazine historian’s task, in the specific case of Harper’s, is not to find a single narrative of production beneath the representation of the “good life” of the magazine that promotes taste and the “bad life” that promotes capital. Put another way, the task is not to find a resolution to this ambivalent representation. Instead, I suggest this ambivalent representation is exactly the mechanism by which genteel literary history, which originally was a response to specific social and economic conditions of the late nineteenth-century United States, persists in our literary present.
In the 1890s, when the...