INDUSTRY AND THE CREATIVE MIND: THE ECCENTRIC WRITER IN AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ENTERTAINMENT, 1790-1860 by Sandra Tomc, Reviewed by Nicholas J. Knopf
 

INDUSTRY AND THE CREATIVE MIND: THE ECCENTRIC WRITER IN AMERICAN LITERATURE AND ENTERTAINMENT, 1790-1860
By Sandra Tomc
(Michigan, June 2012) 328 pp.
Reviewed by Nicholas J. Knopf on 2013-03-10.

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Strangeness sells. Those words glibly but fittingly describe the conditions of American print culture experienced--and to some degree exploited--by the authors examined in this book. From this critical vantage point, Tomc's engaging study continues the effort to juxtapose the canonical figures of antebellum American literature with the leading writers of popular literature. Her efforts build upon studies of print culture in antebellum America such as Meredith McGill's Culture of Reprinting (2002), Ronald and Mary Saracino Zboray's Literary Dollars (2005), and Leon Jackson's Business of Letters, (2008). Like them, she highlights the influence of eighteenth-century literary practices--particularly local networks of authorship--on the antebellum print industry. She advances their work by showing how the print marketplace of the late eighteenth century engendered a burgeoning "entertainment culture" which featured writers who forged "eccentric" authorial personas (14). To entertain readers in popular magazines, writers such as Joseph Dennie, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Parker Willis, and Fanny Fern circulated verbal self-portraits that combined elements of the alienated Romantic author with "parodic" depictions of their professional struggles (61).

By presenting themselves as struggling laborers unfit for the competitive demands of antebellum capitalism, eccentric authors underwrote their devaluation within the market, which made them more affordable to employers. Their affordable labor proved especially well-adapted to the print marketplace they inherited, which was defined by its weak copyright laws. According to Tomc, the American copyright act of 1790 predetermined the useful role that eccentric authors played in the antebellum print marketplace (29). Adapting arguments that have been made by McGill and others, Tomc contends that early Republican American culture kept alive the eighteenth century notion of authorship as a form of useful public service (35). As in the eighteenth century, versatility offered a path to viability. Exemplifying this formula for popular success, Joseph Dennie wrote in the genres that sold, and he sold what he wrote, founding The Portfolio and using the journal to publish much of his work (63). Predominately through a series of amusing sketches -- "The Farrago," "The Lay Preacher," and "The American Lounger" -- Dennie posed as a leisurely man of letters (61, 79). This persona helped him gain wealth, fame, and esteem by his pen, ambitions he confessed in correspondence with his mother even before he became a full-time man of letters. But what should we make of his hobnobbing with prominent Federalists? Though Tomc recognizes what his political friends did for his career (20), she ignores the questions raised by his political affiliations. How would she reconcile them with her contention that America's eccentric authors were "apolitical" (96)? If the political includes only the "adversarial political and cultural role" that European Romantics are said to have espoused (60), the category of recognizably political behavior shrinks to the vanishing point: a point ill-suited to the early national period, when the boundaries between politics and literature of any kind had yet to be drawn.

While Dennie succeeded by hiding his aspirations behind his public persona, Poe made his private conduct inform his public image as his career progressed. While it is hardly news that Poe was a self-destructive genius, Tomc shows that his contemporaries included other examples of the type. As Poe bloomed in the shadow of Byron's legend, so did Nathaniel Parker Willis, Rufus Griswold, and Park Benjamin, each of whom mined their personal lives for the kind of sensationalism once deplored by cultured Americans. Willis stood out among Boston's writers as a libertine (124), Poe exemplified the vicious reviewer and unruly employee (147), and in the late 1830s, Benjamin led the charge against the reputation of James Fennimore Cooper (140). Benjamin's public demolition of Cooper helps to show--as Tomc argues-- that readers' appetite for eccentricity gradually dissolved the boundary between esteemed authors and combative eccentrics. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the Tomc's analysis lies in her demonstration of how the combativeness of eccentric authors ironically worked to enhance their public appeal by reinforcing their reputation for eccentricity.

For all the persuasive power of Tomc's argument, however, it is not clear just how far the authors' reputation for eccentricity shaped their lives. Did the marginalized personalities they wrought in their writing lead them, as Tomc suggests, to be grouped with disabled and poor citizens, among other social outcasts (114, 118)? In arguing that these disparate categories of abnormality were "media generated" (106), Tomc largely ignores the fact that during the nineteenth century, the discourses of disability were gradually formalized. As Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Susan Schweik, and other scholars have demonstrated, emerging social science, popular performance venues, and changes in the nation's legal system also helped to construe and codify marginality during the period.

The study of maligned malcontents featured in chapters three and four persuasively shows how writers who sought to make a living in the cutthroat marketplace fed it a steady supply of inexpensive eccentricity. But eccentricity took various forms. While Poe flaunted his self-destructiveness, Willis mapped a fantasy of upward social mobility. With numerous accounts of his travels and tips on elite decorum, Willis's model of upward mobility countered the Jacksonian model of industriousness. It also masked the conditions of Willis's professional life. Though the steady supply of unregulated international writings reprinted in American magazines meant that Willis had to work hard to make ends meet, the image he created in his popular essays belied his assiduity. In describing his difficulties and his desultory work habits, Willis appealed to an ageless American faith: the Protestant belief that failure and the earthly adversity it brought could motivate personal initiative and laborious self-improvement. To readers familiar with the Protestant narrative, Willis's troubles seemed like the first step in a journey of moral progress, not the last resort of a desperate professional. His public persona hid his true identity so well that the former became a model for his peers, who used it to fuel their own success.

Tomc's concluding chapter explains how successful women writers embodied new types of eccentric authorship in response to changes in the ideology of domesticity. Tomc finds evidence for the change in a genre she calls "home literature" (217). Swerving from traditional domestic ideology, this genre treated the home as an aesthetic space dedicated to consumption rather than duty (217). But unlike some other critics, Tomc does not believe that this idealization of the home as a realm of "art" made domestic life ideally suited to women writers. On the contrary, she argues, the new genre created new forms of eccentricity, for both women and men who wrote popular fiction. Women writers faced two points of resistance. First, the Romantic conviction that only men could achieve true artistic genius meant that women could not achieve true works of Art. Second, turning the home into an aesthetic space meant that women writers could not sustain the ideal of angelic domesticity and ease while depicting their domestic labors--including the literary work they did within the home (227-8).

Ultimately, Tomc concludes, women authors answered the demand for novel figures of exile among readers of popular literature (238). While picturing the public life of men as the true haven of pleasurable consumption promised to domestic women, they unabashedly portrayed their own domestic labor (205-6). But they did not thereby make their writing simply female. Challenging the argument that literary lives in the nineteenth century preserved the gender divisions of daily life, Tomc argues that male and female roles dissolved as an "undifferentiated landscape" of writing emerged (242). By entering the print marketplace, women writers could pursue the consumer comforts ostensibly promised by the domestic sphere. With women gaining success in the popular literary marketplace, male authors also endured a new form of exile. As Nathaniel Hawthorne famously lamented, women writers' appeal to popular taste pushed male writers to the margins of the popular literary market (223-4).

For all her attention to the writing of women, however, Tomc slights what they did as editors of popular literature. In analyzing, for instance, a story that Caroline Kirkland published as editor of Sartain's Union Magazine (217), Tomc does not consider Kirkland's editorial role. Yet since she elsewhere considers the practices of male editors, she misses an opportunity to compare them with their female counterparts. When male editors published "domestic literature," how did their motives differ from those of women editors? How did the choices made by male and female editors of popular magazines affect the public perception of women's writing or women writers? While keenly aware of how illustrations enhanced the depiction of the aesthetic home in "home literature," Tomc might have done more to explain the editorial context surrounding the publication of women's writing.

Nevertheless, this book raises fruitful questions for specialists in nineteenth century literature. One line of inquiry, as Tomc points out, is to see how eccentricity shaped authorship in mid- nineteenth- century Britain (16), and how the careers of popular eccentrics may have anticipated those of such familiar figures as Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. Also, since Tomc finds a link between eccentric authors and other abnormal Americans, she prompts disability theorists to interrogate the relationship between abnormality and popular appeal.

Nicholas J. Knopf is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Rochester, where his interests include Mark Twain, theory of the novel, the eighteenth-century English novel, medical and scientific prose, and travel.


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