RSS panel, American Literature Association, May 23-26, 2013
Letters to the Editor: Readers' Responses in the Public Sphere
Organized by the Reception Study Society
Chair: Ellen Gruber Garvey, New Jersey City University
1. "Write-in Votes for Ben-Hur in the 1880s and 90s," Barbara Ryan, National University of Singapore
2. "Uncivil Discourse, Philistine Readers, and The House of Mirth," Amy L. Blair, Marquette University
3. “Reader's Letters and Generic Norms: Nella Larsen's Plagiarized Story in the Forum
OR: Fear and Theft,” Barbara Hochman, Ben-Gurion University (Israel)
University Scholars Programme
National University of Singapore
"Write-in Votes for Ben-Hur in the 1880s and 90s"
Reading historians have long accepted Burton J. Bledstein’s assertion, in The Culture of Professionalism (1978) that Gilded Age story-lovers, tossed and turned by a flood of new print, sought guidance `desperately’. Revealed though by databases of U.S. newspapers of that period are letters that suggest otherwise. My paper probes letters that took strong stands on Ben-Hur which were published between 1880 and 1894 in the Indianapolis Journal, Chicago Inter-Ocean, Raleigh News & Observer, Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel and Farm Journal and Morning Oregonian. I explicate these letters – four of which were ‘pro’ and one ‘anti’ – as write-in votes. Drawing on Leslie Butler’s Critical Americans (2007), I study this outbreak as a response to arts tutelage offered in `higher’ journals. Influential too though, I contend, was a titled Briton’s compilation in 1886 of the 100 ‘worthiest books’ since his neglect of U.S. authors roused patriotic retorts across the Pond. I then sketch how these retorts alerted newspapers’ business managers to the profit-potential of book sections – meaning, profits for newspapers, not book-sellers – that gave story lovers a print platform. I conclude with a few thoughts on how this fun form of write-in vote helped normalize the displays of partisanship we know, now, as fandom.
This project is part of a book-length inquiry into the first 40 years of U.S. reception of Ben-Hur in which I develop an electoral model of reception that paved the way toward print support (in, e.g., film magazines) for fandom.
Amy L. Blair
"Uncivil Discourse, Philistine Readers, and The House of Mirth"
Before Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth was a novel, it was a serial novel, appearing in Scribner’s from January through November 1905. Likewise, the editorial commentary and reader letters about The House of Mirth began in the pages of the New York Times Book Review long before the novel’s publication in full. Readers and Times editors alike weighed in on the story in progress, speculating and passing judgment on Lily, on Wharton, and on each other long before Wharton herself had figured out the complete arc of the plot. Lily was read as a loose woman on the basis of speculation that she would actually take Gus up on his quid pro quo of sexual favors for investment services rendered. Selden was a “flabby sentimentalist” and Wharton a writer whose early promise of attachment to craft over sensation had clearly been traded for tawdry commercial motivations.
The metanarratives about readership and class that began in these early Times letters pages formed the framework for a contentious and frequently uncivil discourse that continued in the paper for over a year after the novel was completed. Overdetermined by the pre-completion speculation, arguments over the class representations in The House of Mirth referred less to the novel itself than to the metacritical debate that was already codified in the fan forum of the letters page. We can see in this early performance of public reception (and in the attempts of some letter-writers to police the boundaries of “worthy” criticism) the generic roots of 21st-century “Web 2.0” fansite interactions, and the early work of editors who want simultaneously to drum up and incubate contentious fan debates and to firmly establish their positions as cultural gatekeepers.
Ben-Gurion University, Israel
Reader's Letters and Generic Norms: Nella Larsen's Plagiarized Story in the Forum
OR: Fear and Theft
Diverse readers have commented on the "striking resemblance" between Nella Larsen's last published story, "Sanctuary," and "Mrs.Adis." a story by the British writer Sheila Kaye Smith. When "Sanctuary" appeared in the Forum in 1930 the journal received several letters remarking on the similarity between the two texts. The Forum printed one such letter, accompanied by an "editor's note" declaring Larsen innocent. The note was followed by Larsen's response. She insisted she had not read "Mrs Adis, and claimed a different source for her tale. Scholars continue to comment on this troubling episode in Larsen's career; interpretive conventions of the late 20th and early 21st century enable many academics to praise Larsen's transformation of "Mrs. Adis," turning it from a story about class to a story about race.
The Forum's stake in the controversy over "Sanctuary" was different from that of recent scholars on the one hand, Larsen's initial readers, fellow writers, and peers on the other. Restoring "Sanctuary" to its initial publication context, I will suggest that attention to ongoing conversations about literature, culture, and race within the pages of the Forum between 1925 and 1930 helps clarify what was at stake in Larsen's use of Kaye-Smith's tale—both for Larsen and the magazine in which it appeared. This paper will clarify to what extent and in what form matters of race could be explored in a widely circulating publication designed for educated general readers of the 1920s.
American Literature Association
24th Annual Conference