The literary past: A world of old words




Dear Sirs:

I have by chance met with a number of The Bookman containing [a] portion of an article on the scenes of the Wessex novels, & should feel obliged if you could send me the whole.

Yours truly,

Thomas Hardy


Mary Davies

The author of Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Urbervilles would have been 59 years old when he wrote this note. It is one of several dozen letters collected by my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, in 1898 and 1899, when she worked as secretary to Frank Crowninshield, publisher of Dodd, Mead and Company’s literary magazine, The Bookman.

When I was 16, I spent a chunk of time in libraries, looking up the names of the letter writers in encyclopedias and anthologies and making a chart of their credentials. Now, 40 years later, as I write a book about my ancestors, I am researching the same writers on the Internet. Sometimes I get the spooky feeling Mary saved these letters for me.


I am entranced by the lives of mostly forgotten authors who have nevertheless left traces, thanks to their published writings — as I perhaps will do. I am also enjoying a window into the literary world of fin-de-siècle New York.

The Bookman was launched in 1895, four years after copyright laws were passed to forbid the re-publication of British novels in the U.S. without payment of royalties to authors. This law gave a boost to American writers and led to the firm acknowledgment that there was, in fact, American literature. Dodd, Mead chose to capitalize on this recognition, starting a magazine that took advantage of the cheaper publishing technology of the Industrial Age and the leisure time available to the growing middle class.

Mary was responsible for soliciting endorsements of The Bookman from writers, many of whose names graced its pages of book reviews, industry news, essays, poetry, and the world’s first bestseller list, which quoted sales figures from cities around the U.S. She kept letters she received in reply, as well as other bits of correspondence from authors.

Thomas Hardy is the most famous of the signers of these letters. He apparently refers to an essay by travel writer Clive Holland serialized in three 1899 issues of The Bookman. The segments appeared in June, July, and August, neatly positioned, perhaps, for readers to peruse on the train to the Catskills.

Another letter features an endorsement by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the black poet and novelist whose dialect poetry became controversial in the mid-1900s.

Some readers will recognize the names of Charles Dudley Warner, co-author, with Mark Twain, of The Gilded Age, and Kate Douglas Wiggin, who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But few people today recall Austin Dobson, Bliss Carman, Louise Chandler Moulton, Lilian Bell, Hall Caine, and many others who were the Jonathan Franzens, Danielle Steeles, and Billy Collinses of their day.

A New York Times article from 1983 discusses the history of Onteora Park, an upscale vacation community near Tannersville, where Mark Twain spent a summer. The article lists seven other prominent writers and artists who visited Onteora Park in the late 1800s; three of those names are among Mary’s autographs: Hamlin Garland won a Pulitzer for one of his Midwestern novels, later settling in Hollywood and devoting himself to “psychical research”; R. W. Gilder was the editor of The Century, another New York magazine; Brander Matthews, the country’s first professor of dramatic literature, taught at Columbia and wrote an early, glowing review of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the Saturday Review.

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