"A great book coming!"
"A work of extraordinary power and ability, one which will rank among the very best productions of American or Foreign Genius"
"40,000 copies in eight weeks!" -J.P. Jewett
One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's more, shall we say, "persnickety" remarks has been repeatedly quoted (and analyzed) since he wrote it in a letter to his publisher, William D. Ticknor, in January 1855:
"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the 'Lamplighter," and other books neither better nor worse?–worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000."
Hawthorne's lament could have been uttered yesterday about the inevitable trashy excesses of popular culture in a country where money seems to construct just about every yardstick for success. Yet his remark also has sparked some serious study of just who those "scribbling women" were, what they produced, and the contexts in which they wrote. Such study has turned up some interesting works by hitherto unappreciated female authors, and highlighted aspects of contemporary American culture which dictated the ways in which their works were promoted and consumed.
So it seems fitting that our column takes a look at the women who so irritated Hawthorne, to see why, and what, they wrote.
A logical place to start is with the author of "The Lamplighter," a book written by the grumbling Hawthorne's fellow (female) Salemite. We are indebted here, especially, to the work of scholars Susan S. Williams and Heidi L.M. Jacobs for biographical and contextual information on Maria Susanna Cummins, born April 9, 1827 to The Honorable (Judge) David and Maria Franklin Kittredge Cummins. The family was well-to-do, and enjoyed high social standing. After a childhood spent mostly in Salem, the family moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, and bought a home on Meeting House Hill.
Maria was sent to the prestigious Mrs. Charles Sedgwick's Young Ladies School in Lenox, Mass., a progressive school which also provided the young woman probable access to, and influence from, Sedgwick's famous sister-in-law, novelist Catherine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867).
Returning to Dorchester after her schooling, she began to write, and by the age of 27 began "The Lamplighter" "for one of her nieces during a period of illness." It was published anonymously, as nearly 80 percent of fictional works before 1840 had been. This was still a common practice when "The Lamplighter" was published by John P. Jewett's company in 1854.
It is interesting to note that Jewett's company, publisher of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a rival to Ticknor's company, Hawthorne's publisher. (We'll return to this later.)
Fiction was profitable, and Jewett had become a stellar promoter of his authorial products. In her discussion of the publication details for Cummins' book, Williams commented:
"The contract with Cummins stipulated not only that he 'would keep the market constantly supplied' with her book but also that he would use 'all reasonable efforts to promote an extensive sale.' As one of his contemporaries is said to have exclaimed, 'Why, he is advertising books just as he would advertise dry goods or groceries!' This commodification of literature was a new phenomenon in the 1850s, one that Jewett worked in large measure to engineer."
"The Lamplighter" was issued in several versions including as a picture book, specially edited for children; in elaborately and "sumptuously" illustrated editions, and inexpensive "travel" editions. The packaging of a book was an important part of its appeal, and "The Lamplighter" enjoyed truly excellent packaging. It soon became one of the best-selling novels of the 1850s and was adapted for the stage by Boston's National Theater.
Though the stage version was no work of art, the book itself received almost universal praise as "one of the best and purest of its class that has emanated from an American mind." This assessment by "Godey's Lady's Book" was echoed and enlarged by "The Knickerbocker"'s review: "You will read it all–every word of it, and you will rise from its perusal with a purer and more elevated idea of human nature. 'Run like a lamp-lighter' to … purchase the work. You will never regret it."
Curiosity about the author of the book rose to fever pitch. Jacobs quotes Marion Harland's statement "No other woman writer was so prominently before the reading public. "The Lamplighter" was in every home, and gossip of the personality of the author was seized upon greedily by press and readers," and Williams reports that Cummins' friend Asabel Huntington, commenting from Salem, wrote "the great question in the literary circles of the city" has become "who is the author of 'The Lamplighter'?
Next week: More scribbles from the mob
Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society. Author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010), she is working on her second book of Salem history for 2012. She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are also co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new recordings of 19th-century music. Reach her at singingstring.org. For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to salemhistorysociety.org.