Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States

By Amy L. Blair. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2012. 264 pp. $28.95 (paper) ISBN 978-1-4399-0668-2.

In this stimulating work, Amy L. Blair examines the complex interactions between authors, critics, and the reading public in the early twentieth century. Although mutually dependent, the relationships could be strained as each group pursued their own agendas. Those looking to “read up” sought fiction out of self-interest rather than recreation. Critics attempted to steer public opinion toward more highly regarded books, while authors lamented misappropriations of their masterpieces by the masses.

Hamilton Wright Mabie, a prolific essayist, provides the literary critic perspective. The bulk of this book is a careful analysis of the advice columns Mabie penned over ten years (1902-1912) for the Ladies Home Journal. Reaching an audience of over a million readers, the Journal promoted social respectability and upward mobility. Essays on proper etiquette and fashion, and columns on hosting lavish parties encouraged the middle classes to dress, act, and read, like elites. In this context books became another commodity to be used for social uplift.

Blair chronicles the challenge Mabie and other literary gatekeepers faced. To maintain their credibility, they were expected to recommend the most significant works. Mabie’s socially aspirational readers expected certain authors to appear in best books list. These authors were brand names to be checked off on the road to cultural legitimacy. But how to make “bleak” realist fiction palatable to a broader reading class that preferred more sentimental romantic fare? Blair’s in-depth analysis of Mabie’s writings shows how he offered advice that was simultaneously prescriptive and permissive. He encouraged readers to seek out books they personally enjoyed and warned against reading only what they thought they should. Popular works were acceptable diversions as long as they were not morally harmful. In culinary terms, he advocated a balanced reading diet, including both literary vegetables and desserts.

While Mabie validated his reader’s tastes, he gently guided them to more challenging fare. Mabie’s treatment of three realist authors; William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton reveal how he delicately balanced his project of validating while elevating. Mabie skillfully guided readers to the most accessible of the realist fiction. Mabie largely ignored Henry James’ newer experimental books, while continuing to recommend his older, more conventional works. In reviewing Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, Mabie uses terms suggesting his readers could expect a period costume drama rather than a critique of wealth and privilege. Subtle signals could be employed, such as praising a work as highly technical, allowing Mabie to brandish his literary credentials while alerting Journal readers that they may not want to peruse that particular work.

As literacy and readership expanded, authors like Wharton worried about the misreading of their work. Mabie believed that anyone regardless of education or income could be taught to read properly for both moral and material benefit. Spurred by literary experts such as Mabie more people were reading the right books, but some authors believed they were getting it all wrong. Henry James revised Portrait of a Lady after reader’s sympathized with the pragmatic supporting character, rather than the tragic herione. Blair strives to incorporate the reader into this conversation. Using letters, commentaries, and inferences from the historical context, Blair suggests how readers could willfully misread a book. In spite of incomplete documentation, it is clear that readers were not passive consumers who blindly followed the advice of literary experts. Readers pursued their own goals and their own interpretations. When it suited their purposes they could ignore social critiques in realist fiction, finding the lessons they needed regardless of the author’s intent.

Well-written, creative, and persuasive, Blair uncovers the often implicit negotiations between reviewers, authors, and readers. Her work significantly enriches our understanding of socially ambitious reading in the decades before middlebrow culture. My only real complaint is that the book is too short. Although Mabie reached a large audience, he was not unique. I would have liked to know more about Mabie’s contemporaries who produced the many literary self-help manuals of the day. As a library historian, it would have been fascinating to see a comparison of similar efforts in libraries to steer readers towards the best books. Mabie and his contemporaries set the stage for cultural capital as big business; a market that only became lucrative when reading the best books was widely accepted as essential to achieving social respectability. Mabie helped cement the idea of reading as an essential value, a notion that persists even in today’s Twitter and Facebook centric world.

Eric Novotny, Pennsylvania State University