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The years 1870 through 1920 saw the publication of numerous popular books and stories in the United States. Many of them lacked artistic complexity, adopted a predictable plot, and sugarcoated reality, offering little more than popular appeals. Other works—by Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Jack London, for example—have achieved a canonical status in American literature. Several forms of bestsellers are identified in American literature during this period: historical romance, stories of sentimental love or adventure (including westerns), local color fiction, sentimental novels for young readers, religious writing, and sociological fiction.


Historical romance was inhabited by stereotypical characters—either good or bad—and set in a distant time period. Writers typically borrowed their ideas from events in European and American history such as the French Revolution, American Revolution, and American Civil War, embellishing them for artistic appeal. Among the most important historical novelists were Lew (Lewis) Wallace (1827–1905), Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), Francis Marion Crawford (1854–1909), Charles Major (1856–1913), Mary Johnston (1870–1936), and Winston Churchill (1871–1947). Wallace was a military leader and lawyer who earned fame as the author of the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880). It sold two million copies, was translated into many foreign languages, and was adapted into a movie twice, in 1925 and 1959. Classified also as a religious novel, Ben-Hur concerns the title character's triumph over his jealous rival Messala, the supernatural healing power of Jesus, and the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire. Wallace portrays how Ben-Hur is wrongly accused by Messala, escapes death, rescues his leprous mother and sister from imprisonment, and takes a just revenge against his enemy.

While Ben-Hur is set in biblical times, Mitchell's novels are based on events related to the French Revolution, American Revolution, and American Civil War. His most popular work was Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1896), which deals with adventures of the title character, a Quaker during the Revolutionary War. The story is narrated by Hugh Wynne himself, son of a Philadelphia merchant. During the Revolutionary War, he runs away from his strict Quaker father, becoming a "Free" Quaker and a military officer under George Washington. The rest of the novel deals with Wynne's romantic pursuit of—and winning the hand of—Darthea Peniston. Among other historical novels by Mitchell are Roland Blake (1886), Circumstance (1901), Constance Trescot (1905), and The Red City (1908).

Crawford was another widely popular historical romance writer of his time. He published forty-five novels, including the historical romances Zoroaster (1885), set in ancient Persia during the time of Cyrus; Via Crucis (1898), concerning an Englishman in the Second Crusade; In the Palace of the King (1900), the story of Spain under Philip II; Marietta (1901), about a glassworker in fifteenth-century Venice; and Arethusa (1907), the story of fourteenth-century Constantinople.

Major, also a lawyer and legislator, is remembered for his two best-selling historical novels, When Knighthood Was in Flower (1898) and Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (1902). The former work, set in sixteenth-century England, is a love story between Queen Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon. In the latter work, set also in England, the title character is forced by her father to marry Sir Malcolm Vernon, whom she does not love. The novel chronicles how the strong-willed heroine seeks and marries the man of her heart, the son of the Earl of Rutland. Major's less-successful historical novels include Forest Hearth: A Romance of Indiana in the Thirties (1903) and Little King: A Story of the Childhood of Louis XIV, King of France (1910).

The author of twenty-two books mostly set in Virginia, Johnston achieved literary fame largely with her To Have and to Hold (1900). The most popular among her works and the number-one best-seller of the year, it tells of the journey of Jocelyn Leigh, a ward of King James, who refuses to marry an English nobleman. She flees to America under the name of Patience Worth and is sold as a bride to the valorous Captain Ralph Percy of the Virginia Colony. After a series of suspenseful events, the two fall in love and together return to England. The American Civil War forms the background of Johnston's next novel The Long Roll (1911) and its sequel, Cease Firing (1912). They are set in the South and based on thorough research of the war.

Churchill, frequently confused with the English statesman Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874–1965), authored several best-selling historical novels with the American Revolution and the American Civil War as their backdrops: Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), The Crossing (1904), Coniston (1906), and Mr. Crewe's Career (1908). Set in Revolutionary Maryland, Richard Carvel deals with Carvel's adventurous naval career as well as his romantic pursuit of Dorothy Manners. The novel sold almost one million copies. Richard Carvel's daughter, Virginia, appears as the heroine of The Crisis. Set in St. Louis of the Civil War era, this work focuses on the love relationship between this Southern lady and a Northerner, Stephen Brice. In The Crossing, Churchill uses such historical figures as George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone to chronicle the settlement of Kentucky during the American Revolution. New England politics forms the background of Coniston and Mr. Crewe's Career. The former tells of the career of the corrupt and power-hungry Jethro Bass, modeled after the New Hampshire politician Ruel Durkee; the latter depicts the degree of political clout a railroad company exerts over the state government.


Many popular writers during this period produced melodramatic love stories set in contemporary locations, both in and out of the United States. These stories emphasized action, depending upon predictable story lines, characters, and themes. Prominent among these writers were Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885), Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916), Francis Marion Crawford, Harold Bell Wright (1872–1944), and James Branch Cabell (1879–1958). Jackson, who sometimes wrote under the pen name Saxe Holm, was a dedicated defender of the rights of Native Americans. After a warm public reception of her Bits of Travel (1872), she wrote A Century of Dishonor (1881), a work of nonfiction in which she criticizes the U.S. government's unfair policy toward American Indians. Her best-selling novel Ramona (1884) was written to expose the prejudices against American Indians. It sold millions of copies mainly because of its love story of the half-Indian Ramona and the Indian Alessandro.

Davis, a highly successful reporter and romance writer, authored dozens of popular novels and plays set in the American West, England, Europe, and Latin America. Among his entertaining adventure stories were Gallegher, and Other Stories (1891), Van Bibber, and Others (1892), Soldiers of Fortune (1897), Ranson's Folly (1902), In the Fog (1901), and The Dictator (1904). He also wrote a number of commercially successful plays, including Ranson's Folly (1904; adapted from his 1902 title) and "Miss Civilization" (1905).

Crawford's sudden literary fame came with the publication of his first romantic novel, Mr. Isaacs: A Tale of Modern India (1883), a story of a diamond merchant. Italy provided the setting for the well-received novels A Roman Singer (1884), To Leeward (1884), Marzio's Crucifix (1887), Saracinesca (1887), Sant' Ilario (1889), Don Orsino (1892), Corleone (1896), Pietro Ghisleri (1893), Casa Braccio (1894), and The White Sister (1909). Among the works set in Germany were Greifenstein (1889), A Cigarette-Maker's Romance (1890), and Doctor Claudius (1883). The novels set in the United States include An American Politician (1884), The Three Fates (1892), Katharine Lauderdale (1894), and The Ralstons (1895).

Though scorned by critics, the clergyman-turnednovelist Wright was the most popularly read American writer in the early twentieth century. He authored a number of best-selling stories of sentimental love and adventure set in the Ozarks of Missouri and in the southwest United States. They were written to instill morals and to advocate living in nature. The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), his first commercial success, allowed him to retire from the ministry and to write full time. It was followed by such widely read works as The Calling of Dan Matthews (1909), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), The Eyes of the World (1914), and When a Man's a Man (1916). The Winning of Barbara Worth was his most successful work, selling over two million copies.

Among the most prominent adventure writers of this period were Mark Twain (1835–1910), George Wilbur Peck (1840–1916), and Jack London (1876–1916). Their works were produced mainly for popular consumption. The humorist Twain (Samuel Clemens), born in Missouri, achieved worldwide fame with such commercially successful adventure stories as Innocents Abroad (1869), a satirical and humorous travelogue based on the author's voyage to Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land; Roughing It (1872), concerning Twain's adventures in the West and the Pacific Islands; and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), set along the Mississippi River.

The Wisconsin humorist Peck won popularity with his humorous sketches of adventures. His first collection of such stories came out in 1871 with the title Adventures of One Terence McGrant. More successful was Peck's Bad Boy and His Pa, which was launched in 1883 and featured adventures of a mischievous boy. It was followed by such works as Peck'sBad Boy and His Pa, No. 2 (1883), Peck's Boss Book (1884), Peck's Irish Friend, Phelan Geoheagan (1888), Peck's Uncle Ike and the Red-Headed Boy (1899), and Peck's Bad Boy with the Cowboys (1907). Thanks to his literary popularity, Peck also achieved political success, becoming mayor of Milwaukee (1890–1891) and governor of Wisconsin (1891–1895).

London's adventure stories are less humorous and more naturalistic than those by Twain and Peck. He first attracted the reading public's attention with the short story collection The Son of the Wolf (1900), which was compared to Rudyard Kipling's fiction. The Cruise of the Snark (1911) is an adventure story derived from his voyage to the South Pacific. London used his firsthand experience with the Klondike in writing his all-time best-seller The Call of the Wild (1903). His other celebrated works of adventure include The Sea-Wolf (1904), set in the sea and on a desert island, and White Fang (1906), a sequel to The Call of the Wild set in Alaska.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the wild popularity of westerns—adventure novels and short stories set in the trans-Mississippi West. A product of the American imagination during the westward expansion, these works used such staple characters as cowboys, ranchers, outlaws, saloon owners, town sheriffs, U.S. marshals, Indians, and scouts. Their story lines were predictable: good guys always beat bad guys. Many of these stories featured historical figures of the West such as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Sitting Bull, and Geronimo and were later adapted into Hollywood movies with great commercial success. Some western stories first appeared in pulp magazines, including Smith's Magazine (founded 1905), Western Story Magazine (founded 1919), and Ranch Romances (founded 1924).

Among the most popular western writers were Owen Wister (1860–1938) and Zane Grey (1872–1939). Set in the Wyoming territory during the late 1870s and 1880s, Wister's The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902) set the pattern for the genre of western fiction, establishing the cowboy as a folk hero. The novel attained both critical and commercial success. A dentist turned author who eventually published over sixty books, Grey is the best-known writer of the life on western frontiers. Sales of his books reached more than fifteen million copies. His literary fame soared with the publication of his Riders of the Purple Sage (1912). Other well-known westerns by Grey include The Last of the Plainsmen (1908), Desert Gold (1913), The Border Legion (1916), and The U. P. Trail (1918).

Finally, in Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919), James Branch Cabell mixes romantic and antiromantic elements. Set in medieval Poictesme, the protagonist—a middle-aged pawnbroker—travels through various places including heaven and hell before he comes back to his nagging wife. A fictional work of succès de scandale (success by scandal) it was banned under charges of obscenity.


As the United States expanded all over the continent, there appeared writers who set their stories in their own regions, featuring local customs, manners, and values. They used vernacular speech and local characters to mirror the lifestyle unique to their regions. Some writers offered humorous sketches of characters and experiences, while others described the provincialism of their respective regions through their works. Popularly successful local color writers included Bret Harte (1836–1902), Edward Eggleston (1837–1902), Edward Noyes Westcott (1847–1898), Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908), and Zona Gale (1874–1938). Harte won worldwide fame with his stories of the American West, which were inhabited by romanticized characters, including miners and women of ill repute. The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870) helped to launch the local color movement in American literature.

A circuit preacher and schoolteacher turned writer, Eggleston is famous for his novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871), which sold 500,000 copies. Based partly on the experiences of the author's brother, it tells of a first-year young schoolteacher in southeast Indiana and his amusing episodes in and out of school. The novel uses Hoosier dialect and offers a glimpse into backwoods life and culture in Indiana after the settlement of the region by whites.

Westcott became famous posthumously with his novel David Harum: A Story of American Life (1898), which tells of a clever, humorous small-town banker in upstate New York in the 1890s. David is an illiterate widower who is skillful in horse trading and enjoys dispensing words of wisdom. He kindly patches up the broken love relationship between John Lenox and Mary Blake, who thankfully name their child after him. David Harum sold over one million copies and was both dramatized and made into a movie.

Harris was a Georgia author who achieved fame as the creator of the black folk character Uncle Remus. In Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), and other collections, Uncle Remus tells a white boy a series of humorous fables in the Negro dialect. The animal characters in his stories include Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, and Brer Bear, who exemplify useful morals for the reader.

The Wisconsin author Gale is known chiefly for her popular novella Miss Lulu Bett (1920) and other realistic stories about midwestern small-town life. Miss Lulu Bett studies the title character, whose emotional life is stifled by the drab midwestern village life. A thirty-four-year-old spinster, Lulu is the unpaid and unappreciated servant of her sister's family, but her life changes when she marries a new schoolteacher. The dramatized version of Miss Lulu Bett won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize.


Horatio Alger Jr. (1832–1899) and Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849–1924) are two of the most well-known authors of sentimental fiction for children, written both to instruct and to entertain. Alger popularized the genre of the American success story—the rags-toriches story. In 102 juvenile books, including the Ragged Dick series (begun in 1867), the Luck and Pluck series (begun in 1869), and the Tattered Tom series (begun in 1871), he typically featured boys with humble beginnings who rise in society through hard work, integrity, and luck. His books claimed wide readership, and sales of his books reached over seventeen million copies.

The English-born American author Frances Hodgson Burnett is remembered for writing two hugely popular novels for children, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and The Secret Garden (1911). The former focuses on a good American-born boy, Cedric, who inherits his grandfather's estate in England. The novel was later dramatized, receiving enormous commercial success. The Secret Garden features the ailing girl Mary Lennox, who moves from India to England to live with her rich uncle. A new environment improves Mary's health and temperament; she discovers a neglected garden on the grounds and transforms it into a charming place.


This period saw the explosive popularity of religious novels, especially those on the failings of the church. Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) advocated the social gospel in his tremendously popular novel In His Steps (1896). A graduate of Brown University and Andover Theological Seminary and the pastor of the Central Congregational Church of Topeka, Kansas, Sheldon challenged Christians with the question of what Jesus would do in everyday life. Rather than squabbling over doctrinal differences, Sheldon maintained, Christians should focus on the two supreme commandments of Christ: loving God and loving neighbors. This novel of faith in action sold millions of copies and was translated into dozens of languages.

The New York journalist and author Harold Frederic (1856–1898) wrote several realistic and historical novels. His most popular work was The Damnation of Theron Ware (1896), set in upstate New York in the late 1880s and published as Illumination in the United Kingdom. It traces the spiritual journey of the title character, a Methodist clergyman. Ware is a young narrow-minded preacher who craves ecclesiastical power, fame, and money. The novel illustrates Ware's increasing awareness of his inadequacy as a pastor and of the problems with the church—sectarianism, anti-intellectualism, hostility toward culture, and religious hypocrisy. Finally, Ware resigns from his pastorate and starts a new life as a real estate agent in Seattle.

In the field of nonfiction, Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), the founder of Christian Science and the Church of Christ, published Science and Health, with Key to the Scriptures in 1875, which has sold millions of copies worldwide.


The Gilded Age (roughly the last quarter of the nineteenth century) and the succeeding decades revealed that unbridled capitalism and materialism can lead to moral corruption and plutocracy. Among the most notable writers who satirically portrayed the problems with American society was Edward Bellamy (1850–1898). Bellamy is best known for his highly popular utopian novel Looking Backward (1888), which envisions changes in the economic system of the United States. The hero of the novel falls into a hypnotic sleep that lasts from 1887 to 2000 and awakens to find the nation transformed into a socialist nation. The new society is marked by common ownership, equal opportunity, and happiness for all people.


Most commercially successful literary works in the period 1870–1920 offered simplistic and repetitive story lines, adopted stock characters, and were written in formulaic style. However, these works also met the needs of the American reading public, which wanted stories of an exalted past, exotic experience, moral teaching, and hope for a better future. Popular writers changed the literary landscape of the United States. They rejected the genteel literary tradition from the East, developing new writing materials—such as cowboys, ranchers, and adventurers—and often critiquing the mainstream American culture.

See alsoBook Publishing; Domestic and Sentimental Fiction; Historical Romance; Literary Marketplace; Regionalism and Local Color Fiction


Secondary Works

Bold, Christine. Selling the Wild West: Popular WesternFiction, 1860 to 1960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Cobbs, John L. Owen Wister. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Coulombe, Joseph L. Mark Twain and the American West. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

Dekker, George. The American Historical Romance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Dickinson, A. T. American Historical Fiction. New York: Scarecrow Press, 1958.

Dinan, John A. The Pulp Western: A Popular History of theWestern Fiction Magazine in America. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1983.

Graulich, Melody, and Stephen Tatum, eds. Reading "TheVirginian" in the New West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Gutjahr, Paul C. Popular American Literature of theNineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Kimball, Arthur G. Ace of Hearts: The Westerns of Zane Grey. Forth Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1993.

Korda, Michael. Making the List: A Cultural History of theAmerican Bestseller, 1900–1999. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2001.

Leisy, Ernest E. The American Historical Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the AmericanLiterary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Simonson, Harold P. Beyond the Frontier: Writers, WesternRegionalism, and a Sense of Place. Forth Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1989.

Smith, Herbert F. The Popular American Novel, 1865–1920. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Walle, Alf H. The Cowboy Hero and Its Audience: PopularCulture as Market Derived Art. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000.

Wright, Robert Glenn. The Social Christian Novel. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

John J. Han

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