For Your Reading Group

Yes, the fact of the matter is that I DO stop to read a lot of the books. People ask all the time. On the one hand, I am sort of grateful to see all the books that do not tempt me in the slightest. Then again, I often pick up a book I’ve read a hundred or so times just so I can reread the ending of chapter 19 again. These things balance out.

On occasion, though, I turn up a book I have never seen before which tempts me into a full reading. On rarer occasions, it turns out to have been worth it.

I haven’t quite finished this latest one yet, but I’ve seen enough to feel I should pass it along to you as something to look for come July. You will have to hunt some, because it is an entirely undistinguished-looking book, with a singularly undistinguished title.

It is called Selective Bibliography of American Literature, 1775-1900. It was put together by one M.B.Fullerton and published in 1936. I would not be writing about it had I not glanced inside to see whether it was a descriptive bibliography or just a list of books. I happened to open to the entry for Marietta Holley who, as “Josiah Allen’s Wife”, wrote a series of bestselling comic novels, including one set at the Columbian Exposition.

Fullerton covers her in one paragraph, concluding “Her work was extremely popular, but quite without distinction.”

Thus intrigued, I flipped through and landed in the entry for Eliza Leslie, a writer hitherto completely unknown to me, whom he calls “not very gifted but highly important”. It took only his note under poet Joel Barlow that “in common with most of his contemporaries, he lacked any marked poetic talent” and I was hooked.

Mr. Fullerton was apparently a book dealer with time on his hands, as well as, perhaps, a lot of books by forgotten American writers on his shelves. So he put together a book picking out authors who deserved notice, in his opinion, and also described the points of the first editions of their most important works. His choices seem fairly sound: the longest entries go to authors familiar to anybody who played Authors as a child: Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Washington Irving. He is fairly sound on Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and even Kate Chopin, though he does give twice as much space to one John Esten Cooke as he does to Emily Dickinson. He shows proper respect to the pioneers who led American Literature into the realist school that would blossom in the twentieth century. His is the only reference book I have ever seen with an entry on Emma Lazarus which does not mention the Statue of Liberty.

But that’s not what you want him for. You want Mr. Fullerton’s book for its coverage of early American humor, for his attempt to trace the beginnings of the Western in American fiction, and for his determination to tell you what not to read.

“The climax of pious didacticism…made all previous prigs seem reticent and recreant” (the Elsie Dinsmore series)

“a graceful but dull poet” (E.C. Stedman)

“It is, and perhaps should be, remembered with affection…but it is not literature” (Peck’s Bad Boy)

“an author of no distinction—unless it be that of furnishing best sellers to the railroad trains” (Opie Read)

“the author of second-rate lines and superficial phrases” (Nathaniel Parker Willis)

“a crude and blundering type of humor” (Marietta Holley again)

“dull and labored and lamentably subservient to English models, on which they did not improve” (the poems of Timothy Dwight)

Oh, sure: there are authors he LIKES, but reading about the ones he doesn’t increases the list of books I don’t have to read.

Comments

The scary part is that the Elsie Dinsmore books continue to be re-issued. I don't know if they have been cleansed of their racism and anti-Catholicism. On the bright side, they did result in a delightful parody, Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose by "Josie Turner" (Phyllis Crawford). Parts of it were first published in The New Yorker, and, if you are a subscriber, you can read them in their archives.

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