America the Middlebrow

America the Middlebrow: Women's Novels, Progressivism, and the Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars

Jaime Harker
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 192
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    America the Middlebrow
    Book Description:

    Between the two world wars, American publishing entered a "golden age" characterized by an explosion of new publishers, authors, audiences, distribution strategies, and marketing techniques. The period was distinguished by a diverse literary culture, ranging from modern cultural rebels to workingclass laborers, political radicals, and progressive housewives. In America the Middlebrow, Jaime Harker focuses on one neglected mode of authorship in the interwar period—women's middlebrow authorship and its intersection with progressive politics. With the rise of middlebrow institutions and readers came the need for the creation of the new category of authorship. Harker contends that these new writers appropriated and adapted a larger tradition of women's activism and literary activity to their own needs and practices. Like sentimental women writers and readers of the 1850s, these authors saw fiction as a means of reforming and transforming society. Like their Progressive Era forebears, they replaced religious icons with nationalistic images of progress and pragmatic ideology. In the interwar period, this mode of authorship was informed by Deweyan pragmatist aesthetics, which insisted that art provided vicarious experience that could help create humane, democratic societies. Drawing on letters from publishers, editors, agents, and authors, America the Middlebrow traces four key moments in this distinctive culture of letters through the careers of Dorothy Canfield, Jessie Fauset, Pearl Buck, and Josephine Herbst. Both an exploration of a virtually invisible culture of letters and a challenge to monolithic paradigms of modernism, the book offers fresh insight into the ongoing tradition of political domestic fiction that flourished between the wars.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-106-9
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: A Genealogy of Political Domestic Fiction
    (pp. 1-22)

    In 1942, Sinclair Lewis wrote approving prefatory remarks to Paxton Hibben’s debunking biography of Henry Ward Beecher, the antebellum abolitionist preacher who, Lewis believed, bore a striking resemblance to his own Elmer Gantry. In an aside, Lewis sums up Beecher’s more famous sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, pithily: “Uncle Tom’s Cabinwas the first evidence to America that no hurricane can be so disastrous to a country as a ruthlessly humanitarian woman” (Lewis, Foreword x).

    “Ruthlessly humanitarian.” The phrase humorously juxtaposes callousness and benevolence, equating firm conviction and literary activism with a natural disaster. It is a blithe dismissal of a...

  5. ONE Progressive Middlebrow: Dorothy Canfield, Reform, and Women’s Magazines
    (pp. 23-52)

    In 1902, before each became a best-selling novelist, Dorothy Canfield and Willa Cather suffered a catastrophic break in their friendship. Cather, preparing her first collection of short stories,The Troll Garden, included one called “The Profile,” based on Evelyn Osbourne, with whom Canfield and Cather had traveled in Europe. When Canfield read the story, she was concerned that publication would upset Evelyn, and wrote Cather an emotional plea:

    I have read the story and just as you thought I do ask that you do not publish it—not for my own sake but so that you will not have done...

  6. TWO Miscegenating Middlebrow: Jessie Fauset and the “Authentic” Black Middle Class
    (pp. 53-86)

    In 1933, after reading Alain Locke’s review of her fourth and last novel,Comedy: American Style, Jessie Fauset fired off a scathing letter, capping at least a decade of resentment and competitive hostility, which said in part:

    I have always disliked your attitude toward my work dating from the time years ago when you went out of your way to tell my brother that the dinner given at the Civic Club for “There Is Confusion” wasn’t for me. Incidentally I may tell you now that the idea originated with Regina Anderson and Gwendolyn Bennett, both members of a little literary...

  7. THREE Multicultural Middlebrow: Pearl Buck and the Liberal Iconography of The Good Earth
    (pp. 87-114)

    On 3 August 1932, two hundred people, the cream of New York’s literary world, gathered at the new Waldorf-Astoria to honor the elusive author of an unexpected best seller—The Good Earth. The novel, by a relatively unknown missionary living in China, had leapt into the national consciousness (and put its publisher, John Day, into sudden solvency) when the Book-of-the-Month Club selected it in March 1931. Dorothy Canfield, who read the novel on the train back to Vermont from a monthly BOMC meeting, persuaded her fellow judges through her spirited advocacy (Conn 123). From there, the novel kept selling, captivating...

  8. FOUR Proletarian Middlebrow: Josephine Herbst, Radicalism, and Bourgeois Redemption
    (pp. 115-146)

    In the 1960s, in response to a query from a professor, Josephine Herbst articulated her vision of reading and writing communities in terms that would have shocked literary critics of the thirties, who had found her writing dispassionate:

    If you are teaching work of the thirties I believe it would be important to engage the students and a group and to teach the literature of the period as an involvement with life. For the thirties, and the purposes of literature, the involvement was too heavy to make perfect literature, but it broke ground for exciting vistas. Often too documentary, sometimes...

  9. Afterword: Consequences and Transformations
    (pp. 147-158)

    The interwar convergence of women’s novels, middlebrow authorship, and progressivism reached the peak of its influence during the period of the Popular Front. Much has been written about this larger cultural shift to the left in the late 1930s, notably Michael Denning’sThe Cultural Front, a massive study of cartoons, musicals, photography, theater, poetry, and fiction. The Popular Front was marked by a commitment to social justice, opposition to fascism, and “discovery” of a left-leaning American history. Fascist or imperialist advances in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain led radicals to seek allies in the fight against authoritarianism.

    Middlebrow authors were...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 159-166)
  11. Works Cited
    (pp. 167-176)
  12. Index
    (pp. 177-182)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 183-183)