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  • Mary Johnston:Birmingham's First Best-Selling Author
  • Tynes Cowan (bio)

In the final years of the nineteenth century, cultural organizations in Birmingham, Alabama, particularly women's groups, worked to counter the impression that their city was culturally impoverished in the midst of its growing riches. So when news emerged in 1898 concerning a local woman whose manuscript had been accepted by one of the nation's leading publishers, the city's elites rushed to embrace Mary Johnston and her novel, Prisoners of Hope. While she lived in Birmingham, Johnston wrote two more bestsellers, including the country's top grossing book of 1900, To Have and To Hold. To her local fans, the fact that she wrote historical romances about colonial Virginia was especially fortuitous, as it seemed to establish an association between the New South city and the cavalier ideal of the Old Dominion.

Certainly, then, the people of Birmingham were disappointed to learn in the spring of 1902 that Johnston would be moving back to Virginia where she had spent the first fifteen years of her life. For Birmingham residents, her presence among them had served as proof of the burgeoning cultural life of the city and provided a claim to their southern cultural heritage; but for Johnston, the "Magic City" had always seemed alien. Indeed, a brief look at her life's trajectory would suggest that in 1902, with the fortune made from her first three books, she happily departed the quintessential New South city for the more genteel setting of Richmond. [End Page 104]

If Johnston was happy to leave Birmingham behind, her former neighbors did not quickly relinquish their ties to the author. When she visited the city ten years later, the Birmingham News declared, "Mary Johnston is a Birmingham woman. She has neared the top of the modern literary ladder. It was here that she began her career and developed those talents that have made her name known throughout civilization." Her much-publicized return in April of 1912, however, was not part of a book tour to promote her latest work, The Long Roll, a Civil War novel featuring General Stonewall Jackson; rather, her purpose was to advocate for a woman's right to vote. The pride of the city in its adopted daughter's literary success created an atmosphere in which even ardent anti-suffragists were willing to listen to Johnston's public lectures on the subject. Preceding one such address at the Birmingham Country Club, the nascent Birmingham Equal Suffrage Association (BESA) hosted a luncheon in Johnston's honor. Each of the approximately three dozen women in attendance received a place card inscribed with a quotation from The Long Roll. The guest of honor's card read: "What Stonewall Jackson always said was just this, 'Press Forward.'" The contrast between the event's "dainty appointments" and the militaristic theme, extolling the heroism of Stonewall Jackson, is striking. Although the scene may have resembled a United Daughters of the Confederacy fundraiser, the message was meant not to honor the Confederate dead so much as to deploy their rebel spirit for the cause of suffrage. For those present, no one but Mary Johnston, world-famous purveyor of southern romances, could have executed such a maneuver; she invoked the supposed militancy of the suffrage movement even as she ameliorated it with southern gentility. Moreover, Johnston was not merely a famous visitor; she was claimed as one of their own and "classed among the women of the Magic City who have brilliant public careers."1

The city to which the Johnston family moved in 1886 was a distinct creation of the New South, cut off from the region's antebellum roots by its postwar founding and fast-paced commercialism. As such, Birmingham's identity lacked the aura of southern gentility that [End Page 105] other bustling cities might boast, and it was the last place southerners expected to find culture. Mary Johnston would eventually publish three novels during her years in the Magic City: Prisoners of Hope (1898), To Have and To Hold (1900), and Audrey (1902). Although these works were praised for Johnston's descriptions of nature and attention to historical detail, early reviews...


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