The Wide, Wide World
THE WIDE, WIDE WORLD
In December 1850, just in time to seduce the eyes and pocketbooks of holiday shoppers, New York publisher George Palmer Putnam (1814–1872) brought out a handsome red-edged, two-volume edition of a novel titled The Wide, Wide World: the first from an author, Susan Warner (1819–1885), who veiled herself, for a while, behind the pen name Elizabeth Wetherell. Despite his own doubts, on the firm advice of his mother Catherine—who reportedly declared, after vetting the submission for him, "If you never publish another book, publish this" (Anna Warner, p. 283)—Putnam had accepted a very long manuscript from Henry Warner, father of the author, about a young girl's arduous journey to Christian womanhood. No other publishing house in New York wanted it: before approaching Putnam, the father, a once-prosperous attorney ruined by the financial panic of 1837 and his own ill-judged speculations, had carried a dispiriting handful of dismissals back to his semi-impoverished family on a Hudson River island near West Point.
Catherine Putnam's instinct, however, proved right: within three years, demand for the book carried it into 22 editions (a number that now tops 130), and the concept of the "best-seller," according to many scholars, thus entered the lexicon of America's commercial life. This giddy story of unlooked-for success is not unlike many in the modern literary marketplace, and in fact The Wide, Wide World quickly won enough cultural currency to invite exploitation by advertisers in familiar ways familiar—"In the 'Wide, Wide World' cannot be found better undergarments and hosiery than at James E. Ray's, 108 Bowery" (Anna Warner, p. 345)—but at the time such success was virtually unprecedented.
Catherine Putnam (1792–1869), a maternal figure possessed of private influence; Henry Warner (1787–1875), a father with public presence and apparent enterprise; and Susan Warner, a daughter who courts invisibility despite her central role as author: these leading characters in the drama of the novel's publication stand in strong and complicated kinship with the novel's leading characters. Family relations and home scenes not only occupy center stage in The Wide, Wide World, rather curiously for a novel so titled, but also have much to do with the extraordinary power over readers that gave it wide national (and eventually international) reach in Susan Warner's day.
THE WORLD OF HOME
The Wide, Wide World begins and ends in the privacy of domestic space. As the story opens, Ellen Montgomery, a ten-year-old protagonist with a passionate nature, hovers close to her frail mother in the firelight of a genteel New York parlor. In the conclusion Warner originally wrote, a grown, newly married, and seemingly chastened Ellen is handed by her masterful older husband into his fine house, then upstairs into a room of her own—one richly furnished at his direction and accessible only through his private study. And the conclusion Putnam published (omitting Warner's final chapter) likewise turns to home: a brief paragraph projects, teasingly, the now-adolescent Ellen's future entry into marriage and her duty to act as "the light of the eyes" to her husband's family (p. 569). Between these points of domestic departure and arrival, Warner unfolds a tale of orphanhood and female maturation—a variant of bildungsroman (broadly, a novel of character development) that Nina Baym, one of several scholars responsible for bringing this novel to the attention of late-twentieth-century readers, describes as typical of the "overplot" common to the nineteenth-century genre she names "woman's fiction." Like such sister novels as Maria Susanna Cummins's (1827–1866) The Lamplighter (1854), Marion Harland's (1830–1922) Alone (1854), and E. D. E. N. Southworth's (1819–1899) The Hidden Hand (1859), it chronicles the fortunes of a young woman deprived of parents and left, in large part, to find her own difficult path to adulthood and the reward of marriage.
Early on, in Warner's rendering of this plot, the protagonist loses both home and beloved mother, thanks to Mr. Montgomery (a fictional stand-in for Henry Warner), who fails as businessman, provider, and father to Ellen. Thereafter, the abandoned and eventually orphaned child finds herself shifted from household to household—from the remote farm of a brusque, un-motherly aunt; to the country parsonage, more happily, of Alice Humphreys and her brother John, who call Ellen sister but treat her as a daughter and protégée in piety; then, unwillingly, to the aristocratic homes of relations in Scotland, who wall her round with affectionate but (Ellen feels) ungodly dominion. When at plot's end the "brotherly" minister John Humphreys offers rescue (offers, that is, himself as lifetime spiritual guide and husband), he comes into his own as earthly representative of the divine Father—who overarches all the novel's complex figurations of family. To John and his patriarchal counterpart in heaven, Warner overtly insists, the heroine owes her all.
The lifespan of woman's fiction—a literary type also termed "exploratory," or "sentimental" and "domestic" (often with a critical shrug of disdain)—stretched across much of the nineteenth century, first taking distinct shape in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's (1789–1867) novels of the 1820s and 1830s and extending in varied form through Augusta Evans's (1835–1909) St. Elmo (1866). But it held particular sway in the American literary marketplace (to the private dismay of more self-consciously cultured and less commercially successful writers like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne) during the 1850s and 1860s, and The Wide, Wide World commonly wins pride of place, in modern critical assessments, as its peak expression. What Warner's novel and others like it tendered for public view were, paradoxically, the inward dramas of heart and home, centered on the virtues of domesticity, submission, sympathetic community, moral purity and—potently, in Warner's strain of woman's fiction—evangelical piety. This was the proper territory of "true womanhood." At least, so said the gendered ideology of "separate spheres" then promoted by such white, middle-class cultural authorities as New England religious leaders; Godey's Lady's Book, among other women's periodicals; and Catharine Beecher (1800–1878), sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), in her popular manuals on household science (A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1841, to name one important example).
In Warner's original conclusion to The Wide, Wide World, John Humphreys shows Ellen, his new bride, over the private room he has prepared for her.
Up a low staircase and along a wide, pleasant hall John led her into his study, and through it into the room he called hers.
There was a strong contrast here to all the other parts of the house. They indeed bespoke easy circumstances and refined habits, but also an utter carelessness of display; the appliances of comfort and ease and literary and studious wants,—no luxury or parade. But here apparently nothing had been spared which wealth could provide or taste delight in, or curious affection contrive for its object. There was no more formality than appeared in the sitting-room; elegance reigned in all the seemingly careless arrangements; but here there was no mixture of incongruous things; all was in keeping though nothing was like anything else. Splendour was not here certainly for the wealth of the room must be found by degrees; and though luxuriously comfortable, luxury was not its characteristic; or if, it was the luxury of the mind. That had been catered for. For that nothing had been spared. A few very fine old paintings hung on the walls in lights that showed them well; in the glow of that warm afternoon they showed marvellously. A number of engravings by the best hands were disposed to the best advantage. Beautiful bits of statuary, in various kinds . . . all disposed with such perfection that though full the room hardly seemed so.
Warner, The Wide, Wide World, pp. 574–575.
Presiding tenderly over this private domain and providing moral ballast for the "masculine" sphere of commerce and politics was—as the parts played by Mrs. Montgomery (as well as Alice Humphreys) in Warner's narrative and by Catherine Putnam in its publication history suggest—the figure of the mother, as influential after death as in life. "Though we must sorrow, we must not rebel," the doomed Mrs. Montgomery lovingly admonishes her hot-hearted daughter (p. 12), thus setting up the didactic thrust of the novel's surface plot: Ellen's experiences will steadily teach her to furl her desires and let them be folded into the will of the Father. And Ellen's author-creator, absenting herself at first under a pen name and professing in journal entries and letters her struggle to let God's voice cover her own in the project of writing, tries to perform and preach an authorial version of the selfless submission required by her Protestant faith—the "New School" form of Presbyterianism that valued the conversion of a prostrated heart over the careful adherence to doctrine taught by the "Old School."
THE WORLD OF REFORM
Outside the walls of home that confined and precariously sheltered both Warner and her heroine, mid-nineteenth-century American society churned—not only with the spirit of evangelical Protestant revival broadcast through such magnetic pulpiteers as Charles Grandison Finney (1792–1875), members of the prominent Beecher family, and Warner's own pastor, Thomas Harvey Skinner, but also with more secular movements for social reform. In 1850, the year The Wide, Wide World appeared, Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis (1813–1876) organized the first national woman's rights convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, following on the Seneca Falls, New York, gathering of 1848; Congress passed the omnibus "compromise" bill in 1850 that included strict new fugitive slave laws, requiring northern citizens to return slaves escaping by way of the Underground Railroad to their so-called owners in the South and thereby stoking the fires of abolitionism; experiments in communal living abounded; and debate over the doctrine of Manifest Destiny flared from podium, editorial desk, and pen. Such women as Davis and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), among New Englanders, as well as the southern sisters Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879) and Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873), spoke and acted with public energy to forward progressive causes, but Warner's novel, like others of its genre, bears few conspicuous marks of such concerns: what little overt attention the manuscript paid to race dropped out almost entirely with the disappearance, from the print version, of an episode about Ellen's encounter with a lower-class black child; and the Christian ethos of femininity Warner purports to champion seems sharply at odds with the woman's rights movement in particular. The world of her best-seller is really a "narrow, narrow" one, according to derisive critical voices of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
But modern recuperators of The Wide, Wide World find otherwise. For Warner as for her sister writers, Baym and Jane Tompkins argue, home encompassed the only world of reform that truly counted—the reaches of the human soul, its capacity for moral growth, which women were manifestly destined to influence in quietly familial and domestic, yet deeply world-changing, ways. This is what Tompkins has resonantly termed the "cultural work" of best-selling sentimental fiction of the nineteenth century. The critical recovery of woman's fiction, unexpectedly, thus supports a partial analogy to a robust branch of current scholarship on transcendentalism, which contends that the mid-century mind work of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, despite its abstracted, inward turn to contemplation and self-culture, made its force felt in socially vital ways. Amy Kaplan and John Carlos Rowe have pushed and troubled the idea of sentimentality's global reach by mapping the "domestic" territory centered in woman and home onto the "domestic" territory marked off by U.S. borders and defined against all that was "foreign." In texts like Warner's, whose heroine reveres General George Washington almost as much as she reveres God, this opposition becomes the ground for religious imperialism—a nationalist vision of Manifest Destiny and world conquest in Christian guise.
The Wide, Wide World, then, claimed uneasy title to the public sphere by serving as a kind of pulpit for its female author, even while it imaged home as her rightful place and self-suppression as her rightful state: writers of woman's fiction, a number of scholars observe, styled themselves with varying degrees of consciousness as "preachers of the printed page," thus finding a way around the prevailing conviction that women should not seek to be heard in public (Kelley, pp. 285–315). In Warner's fictional world, Alice Humphreys figures an unobtrusive version of the female pulpiteer—gently eloquent, preferring to "preach" in private "without taking orders" (p. 217), she takes the place of her minister father with homebound church members—but Ellen herself identifies, powerfully if obliquely, with the more "masculine" and publicly charismatic master of the Word embodied in John; in this, she represents Warner, an unquiet spirit who wrestled throughout life with a strong will, a muscular desire for broad fields of both spiritual and literary influence, that her faith taught her had to be subdued.
In letters that Anna Warner (1824–1915) selected for inclusion in a lengthy biography of her sister, Susan pays less-than-wholehearted allegiance to a conventionally self-effacing style of "feminine" self-presentation akin to Alice's, though not in specifically religious terms. Here, the author records her impressions of two public women, Catharine Beecher (whom she heard speak about female educators several years before beginning The Wide, Wide World) and the singing sensation Jenny Lind (1820–1887) (whose concert she attended just after arriving at Putnam's home on Staten Island to correct proofs of the novel): "Whatever anticipations might have been formed of somewhat bold, unbecoming, unwomanly in the exhibition," she tells Anna after Beecher's talk, "they were not fulfilled. . . . Her address was well written and very interesting, and most part read by her brother; and her own deportment was very modest, delicate, and proper." In apparent contrast, the "compass and power" of Lind's voice seem to Warner, "so to speak, unlimited," reducing her duet partner, who acts the part of her singing teacher, to an inarticulate "grunted 'oh!' of wonder"—a reaction mirrored by the enraptured audience. Yet to the new novelist just beginning to forge her own public identity, "the most moving part of the whole exhibition" is purportedly Lind's "manner of courtesying." "It seemed as if she could not get low enough," Warner recalls; "it seemed to my fancy as if a certain feeling of humility, the sense of gratitude and the desire of acknowledgement, were labouring to express themselves. They did express themselves to me" (Anna Warner, pp. 232, 290–291). Complimenting such manifest female modesty while responding to the expressive power with which it is joined, Warner, who was hardly retiring or humble by nature, intimates her own competing and competitive desires, her anxieties about public "exhibition" in lecture hall and marketplace—about "feminine" versus "masculine" voice.
THE WORLD OF LITERARY COMMERCE AND CULTURE
Like most categories half-derived, half-devised to assist in comprehending social and literary experience, these three—the worlds of home, reform, and finally literary commerce—are useful but less tidy and comprehensive than the subheads above may suggest. The influential notion of separate spheres for women and men, for instance (circumscribing home and religion in one sphere and secular reform and commerce, among other dimensions of outward social life, in the other), carried at least a fair degree of cultural force in nineteenth-century America and a good deal of explanatory force for late-twentieth-century scholars of the period. It has since come under question for its limited ability to describe not only the varied experience of a broad spectrum of geographical, racial, and social groups but even the lives of the northeastern white middle class it especially purports to consider. The fluidity of such interpretive categories—their lively refusal to keep a predictable shape—becomes more apparent upon a return to this essay's place of departure: The Wide, Wide World as a market phenomenon. At the point where Warner uneasily and perhaps most flagrantly crosses the conventional divide between the "feminine" private and the "masculine" public, other borderlines show their instability.
The career of The Wide, Wide World as an object of literary commerce was not a simple one, despite the over-simple story of both its author and its audience told by literary history from the late nineteenth century through much of the twentieth century. This novel was the first commercial offering of a young woman who strenuously disavowed any personal creative or professional stake in the enterprise of writing but who would go on to pen thirty-seven more book-length works of fiction, some independently and some in collaboration with her sister Anna. Along the way, in private and public texts alike, Warner would register the stubborn tug of her contradictory desires: not just to make a modest living as God allowed but, more, to reclaim financial ease and not only to channel God's word but also, contradictorily, to take deep, individual, even seductive pleasure in the act of writing itself and in the literary as well as evangelical power that followed from publication.
Necessity was certainly a motivating factor, and as Mary Kelley observes, the economic straits that brought Warner and other "literary domestics" to write for a living testify to the breakdown of masculine responsibility, the failure of fathers and husbands to fulfill the roles assigned them in the sphere of money making. Warner, however, also thirsted for a return to the prosperous gentility of the upper middle class (which was gaining an unsteady footing in mid-nineteenth-century society), as evidenced in the sumptuously tasteful fantasy of her original ending to The Wide, Wide World. Canniness about the marketplace wraps itself up in sincere religious feeling here: as Susan Williams's study of Warner's manuscript revisions suggests, the author likely fine-tuned her text to a sense of what was selling best, editing out worldly tales of river-boat peril along with, perhaps, the fantasy conclusion (though Warner's part in this decision is unclear) and bringing forward the passages of sentimental godliness her projected audience seemed to want most.
This apparently sexless, self-effacing piety did sell—very, very well—seducing legions of readers in an irresistible way that it is hard to imagine Warner, with her self-confessed love of sway, not relishing. A veiled, surprisingly eroticized ambition for power over her audience makes its presence felt textually in Ellen's near-obsession for winning and withholding kisses from one and all, a gesture that vies for prominence with persistent scenes of crying—which critics have sometimes parodied and at other times recognized as outbursts of Ellen and Warner's subversive anger at the stifling of womanly passion and at their exclusion from patriarchal power. In some modern readings, sexuality slips into Warner's narrative in the form of masochism: the thrill that trembles through Ellen, for example, at the thought of John relentlessly breaking a spirited horse. The Wide, Wide World is all about power, many have observed, and though the exquisite pain of powerlessness certainly runs through the text, it is countered by a strong undertow of feminine agency that issues from Warner's covert writerly ambitions and her discovery of narrative's potent effect.
In terms of personal material gain, Warner's enthralling first novel was not as brilliant a success as its sales figures imply, largely because the deficiency of international copyright laws meant publishers outside the United States could pirate the text without sharing a cent of profit with its author; in a representative instance, Warner's second novel, Queechy (1852), would reportedly sell ten thousand copies at one English train station, with no return to the woman who labored to create it. Yet because Warner remained single and attached to an increasingly feeble father, she escaped subjection to the persistent influence of "coverture": a feature of common law transplanted to the colonies from England, according to which women vanished in a legal sense at the point of marriage, ceding most rights to their property and, until as late as 1860 in New York State, their earnings. Such liberation into self-sufficiency would likely have seemed a dappled blessing at best to Warner, who grieved for the marital prospects that ended with her family's fall from social grace and whose inclination toward energetic mastery was shot through with a love of toil-free, aristocratic languor: "Her particular delight was to have a low seat at the corner of the hearth and read by fire-light," sister Anna recalls, "but all her life long she liked to have some one else keep up the fire" (p. 88). So the fantasy ending of sexual and material fulfillment was left unrealized in life as it was in fiction.
The reception of The Wide, Wide World in a newly developing mass market for books further complicates this picture. Detractors of the novel in Warner's era—and through much of the twentieth century—attributed its huge popularity to a kind of mass simple-mindedness: the appeal of an author steeped in banal sentimentalities and weepy piety for a mostly female reading public, neither author nor audience bold or searching enough to question the common wisdom of the age. Contemporary scholars, however, see wrinkles in this easy explanation of success. Beyond the unexpected complexity of Warner's motives, there is evidence that more than a few men came under her narrative spell: acquaintances recorded the effect of her storytelling on male auditors not accustomed to bookish indoor pleasures; some studies—by Glenn Hendler, notably—show that men both responded to sentimental discourse and produced it themselves; and Warner received fan mail and favorable reviews from male as well as female readers (authors Henry James [1843–1916] and Caroline Matilda Kirkland [1801–1864] among them). Admirers paid tribute not only to her potent evangelical voice but also to her skillful way with prose, her vivid rendering of rural customs and dialects—putting her in company with other female local colorists now acknowledged as foremothers of postbellum realism—and, in Kirkland's case, her characteristic "Americanness," her unsung part in the campaign for a national literature advanced, for example, by the Young America movement. Such kudos—not least those of an aesthetic bent—pleased Warner, who harbored half-guilty ambitions for high-cultural as well as preacherly greatness. As for the undeniably large audience of antebellum women that embraced The Wide, Wide World and wept in sympathy with Ellen: the scholar Joanne Dobson and others persuasively contend that the discontent roiling beneath the submissive surface of Warner's narrative would have spoken in secret to those whose lives were similarly constrained.
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"The Wide, Wide World." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/wide-wide-world
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