Houghton Mifflin

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Throughout the period 1870–1920, Houghton Mifflin Company, including its preceding partnerships, was an influential Boston printing and publishing firm. During the late nineteenth century, the house established by Henry Oscar Houghton was particularly noted for its distinguished list of American writers and its publication of the Atlantic Monthly. Its authors, many acquired as eventual successor to Ticknor and Fields or through the Atlantic, included most of those associated with the New England renaissance and Indian summer: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Sarah Orne Jewett, and John Burroughs. But it also published the earliest works of William Dean Howells, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford, Kate Chopin, and Charles W. Chesnutt. After the turn of the twentieth century, though it did publish early works by Mary Austin, Willa Cather, Jack London, and Amy Lowell among others, its fiction became less distinguished. During this period the firm's lists emphasized somewhat old-fashioned popular novels but maintained high-quality nonfiction and educational texts. Through editorial selection and shaping of its trade publications, through the Atlantic's fiction and literary criticism, and through the formation of canonical tastes by its educational texts, Houghton Mifflin exercised a considerable influence on the writing and reading of American literature during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.


Henry Oscar Houghton (1823–1895), the principal force shaping the firm, was a spare, bearded Yankee who grew up in rural poverty, the eleventh child of an unsuccessful Vermont tanner. At age thirteen he began an apprenticeship as a printer for the Burlington Free Press and subsequently worked his way through the University of Vermont. As an ambitious young man from the provinces, he was attracted to Boston, where he worked as a reporter, compositor, and proofreader. By 1848 he had saved and borrowed from family enough small capital to meet installment payments on the first of many partnerships eventually leading to ownership of the Riverside Press in Cambridge. While Houghton successfully expanded his printing operation to nearly a hundred employees, the sharp recession of the late 1850s and turmoil of the Civil War created instability in the supply of work. By 1864 Houghton concluded that he could better control the supply, ensure continuous operation, and take advantage of stereotype plates left him by defaulting clients by himself becoming a book publisher as well as a printer.

Many postwar conditions favored expansion of the book trade, including increases in population, public education and literacy rates; a national book distribution system; favorable postal rates; the rise of advertising; and technical advances in stereotyping, electrotyping, and later the rotary press. But there were also dangers, including lack of international copyright, piracy of texts, and a series of steep economic recessions that led to the bankruptcy of many publishers during the period. Houghton Mifflin's survival and steady, gradual expansion were partly due to its founder's character.

Houghton, one model for the title character in William Dean Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), exemplified characteristic Yankee virtues and at times limitations. He practiced and expected a strongwork ethic, including attention to detail and a pride in craftsmanship reflected in his firm's motto: Tout bien ou rien (Excellence or nothing). In book design he advocated simplicity, durability and clarity, counter to the prevailing Victorian taste for ornament. Unlike his competitor and onetime partner, James Osgood, he was financially conservative and deliberate rather than impulsive, avoiding excessive debt or risk as well as flamboyant liberality. But he was also farsighted, willing, for example, to sustain perennial losses on the Atlantic because he believed in the long run it brought prestige and authors to the house. He resisted the escalating payments to authors characteristic of the era, but authors considered him a reliable man with whom to do business, and many remained with the house for the long term. Moderately conservative in politics also, he tended to Whig and Republican views, including sound currency and high book tariffs against English imports, but he actively promoted public education as a source of upward mobility and implemented profit sharing in his business. Having himself a stubborn Yankee independence of mind, he respected his employees' right to expressions of opinion. Occasionally capable of rationalizing self-interest as principle, he was also privately generous. A respected and public-minded citizen, he was elected mayor of Cambridge, was appointed to the boards of many civic organizations, and became a leader in the international copyright movement.

Houghton was conscious of building an institution and took pride in sustaining long-term relationships with employees and partners as well as authors. He felt that both author and publisher ultimately profited from loyalty that allowed the publisher to rework and promote the list in various editions and sets. Loyal authors like Holmes, Lowell, and Burroughs were given annuities. Under first Houghton and later Mifflin, employees at all levels tended to remain at the firm for a lifetime, and senior staff were invited to become partners or directors. Long-term employees included Frank Garrison, son of William Lloyd Garrison and Houghton's confidential assistant; the brilliant early publicist Azariah Smith; his successor Roger Scaife; treasurer James Murray Kay; Susan Francis, relegated by her gender to reading manuscripts for fifty years; James Duncan Phillips, Stephen Davol, and Franklin Hoyt, later heads of the educational department; several Houghton cousins; and Ferris Greenslet, for thirty years head of the trade division. Two of Houghton's associates had longevity in the business and an influence nearly comparable to his own.


Horace Elisha Scudder (1838–1902) worked with Houghton from 1864 until his death. Over this period he influenced Houghton Mifflin's publications in a range of capacities more than any other individual. Beginning in 1864 as initiator and editor of the Riverside Magazine, a high-quality but commercially unsuccessful children's periodical, Scudder became a literary adviser in the 1870s, then from 1886 to 1902 editor in chief of trade publications. A prodigious worker who finally drove himself to exhaustion, he was also a prolific writer who for more than three decades contributed influential reviews to the Atlantic Monthly and frequently edited it, serving as editor in chief from 1890 to 1898 in addition to his responsibility for the trade list.

The force that drove Scudder was an essentially religious sense of the value and influence of humanistic culture, particularly literature. Literature, he believed, without being didactic should reveal a moral pattern in human experience and can thereby be a source of spiritual and social good. This was particularly true, he felt, of American works. An admiring friend of William Dean Howells, Scudder in innumerable reviews as well as through editorial selection supported the literary realism of Howells, James, Mark Twain, Jewett, and many others. But he was ultimately not able to support the naturalism of the next generation of American writers that seemed to him reductive, despairing, or sordid.

If Scudder was an idealistic Victorian believer in the humanizing effects of literature, he was also enough of a pragmatist to operate effectively within a commercial context. As a result he had Houghton's complete confidence. He recognized that publication would ultimately have to justify itself by reaching a readership broad enough to cover costs and provide a modest margin. But he also made it his purpose to persuade Houghton and the firm to take the long view that not every book had to make an immediate profit and that quality would ultimately be recognized, respected, and rewarded. Pragmatism and idealism combined in Scudder and Houghton's initiative—progressive in the 1880s—to publish unabridged major American works, copyright mostly held by the house, as educational texts to supplant the patronizing, didactic readers of the time. This led to the establishment in 1882 of the Riverside Literature series, which by 1922 had over three hundred titles and more than $1 million in annual sales (Ballou, p. 513).


Houghton's other most influential associate, George Harrison Mifflin (1845–1921), was a pragmatist with the principles of a nineteenth-century gentleman publisher. In their first interview in 1867, Houghton judged the wealthy, privileged Harvard graduate unsuited to business. But Mifflin's persistence led to a job at the Riverside Press, a chance to demonstrate an aptitude for sustained, demanding work, and by 1872 a 10 percent partnership. Thus began the association and the work that ended only with Mifflin's death and to which he attributed the energy and purpose of his life.

By nature Mifflin combined a conservative business sense with a somewhat boyish emotional impulsiveness, frequently giving vent to brief explosive outbursts of impatience, enthusiasm, or laughter. While confident of his business judgments, he distrusted his literary tastes, seldom intervening in book selection. He also respected editorial independence, refusing to intervene either in 1898, when Walter Hines Page, as editor of the Atlantic, welcomed the Spanish-American War by flying the U.S. flag on the magazine's cover and editorially praising the war as a necessary surgery for the progress of civilization, or in 1899, when the new editor, Bliss Perry, denounced the war as racism. Financially stringent, Mifflin believed that each venture should justify itself on the bottom line. But he was also capable of taking real delight in the artistry and craftsmanship of the book designer Bruce Rogers's limited editions and providing Rogers with very liberal resources.


During Mifflin's fifty-three years with the firm (1868–1921), it went through a series of reorganizations initiated mainly by changes of partnership and the need for increased capital to expand. Houghton's partnership with Melancthon Hurd, initiated in 1864, was widened to include new partnership capital in 1867 and again in 1872. These additions reflected primarily the success of the Riverside Press but also provided capital for the purchase in 1873 from James Osgood and Company (successors to the old Boston firm Ticknor and Fields) of the Atlantic Monthly, edited by Howells, Every Saturday, an eclectic weekly edited by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and the American Naturalist.

In 1878, when Melancthon Hurd and Houghton's cousin Albert Houghton retired, leaving their capital in the firm, Houghton again expanded the publishing side of the house by entering into a partnership with Osgood. Osgood, heavily in debt, was close to brokering an arrangement with the Harpers of New York, but Houghton convinced him that he and the list he had purchased from Ticknor and Fields, including most mid-century New England authors and many, such as Howells and James, currently writing for the Atlantic, should stay in Boston. The conflict between Osgood's sometimes prodigal liberality and tolerance for debt and Houghton's fiscal conservatism soon dissolved the partnership. In the acrimonious aftermath, most of the old list stayed with Houghton. This list and the Atlantic provided a continuing core to the firm's publications for the rest of the century. Howells, however, went to New York, taking with him something of the progressive spirit in literature.

The break with Osgood resulted in the formation in 1880 of Houghton, Mifflin and Company. The death of Houghton in 1895 and his son Harry in 1906 precipitated a need for additional capital that was substantially met by Mifflin, leading to incorporation in 1908 as Houghton Mifflin Company, George H. Mifflin, president.

During the 1880s and 1890s the firm's list expanded steadily from about twelve hundred titles to over three thousand, adding an average of about a hundred titles per year. Scudder and his assistants, including Susan Francis, Herbert Gibbs, and later Mark Howe and Walter Hines Page, were the major sources of selection. Their readers' reports were generally respected, but the firm, particularly after Mifflin's seniority beginning in 1895, tracked the sales records of each work, and the author's past and present prospects for profitability were discussed in the weekly "powwow" of department chiefs that made final decisions on acceptance.


Until 1908 the Atlantic continued to be a major means of attracting authors. After Howells's departure in 1881, it was edited by Aldrich (1881–1890), Scudder (1890–1898), Walter Hines Page (1898–1899), and Bliss Perry (1899–1909), all of whom also served as advisers to the trade department. The magazine lost readers and contributors to New York's illustrated magazines. But while its readership hovered frustratingly around twenty thousand and it more often made a small loss rather than a small profit, the firm maintained it because of its prestige and the contacts it afforded with authors. The old "courtesy of the trade" mandated that competitors respect the rights of a writer's first publisher to subsequent works unless the writer initiated a change. This made magazines valuable sources of new talent.

But by 1900 trade courtesy was rapidly breaking down, particularly among younger authors, under a much more freewheeling economic competition in publishing. Jack London was typical: the Atlantic published his first story and Houghton, Mifflin his first book in 1900, but he soon moved on to S. S. McClure, then Macmillan, drawn by increasingly large advances. Its profitability dubious and its advantages to the trade department increasingly marginal, the Atlantic was sold in 1908 to Ellery Sedgwick. While the magazine was supposed to continue to feed Houghton Mifflin's trade department, within a decade Sedgwick turned book publisher himself, and the long connection between Houghton Mifflin and the Atlantic was broken entirely.


From 1900 to 1920 the firm's fiction list was extensive and commercially successful, but the new fiction generally lacked distinction and reflected an editorial distaste for modernism. Scudder, whose dedication to preserving nineteenth-century New England culture accounted for much of the list, died in 1902. On Scudder's death Mifflin hired Ferris Greenslet, who, like Scudder, served the firm for nearly forty years, the last thirty (1910–1940) as editor in chief of trade publications. Like Scudder, Greenslet was a gentle, self-effacing humanist who had more sympathy for the literature of the past than the bleaker, grittier literature of the present. Chilled by Boston censorship, Greenslet rejected work by many younger modernists while publishing successful historical novels, British wartime propaganda fiction, and genteel romances, including twenty-one best-sellers between 1911 and 1920. While comfortable with literary commerce, Greenslet believed in a "balanced list." He valued but lost Amy Lowell and Willa Cather and published considerable distinguished nonfiction, including major works by Henry Adams, John Muir, Havelock Ellis, Paul Elmer More, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Albert Beveridge.

While Greenslet's trade division was commercially successful, by 1920 its sales were exceeded by those of Houghton Mifflin's education division. After 1908, under the influence of Franklin Hoyt, a product of Columbia Teachers College with experience as a teacher and school administrator, Houghton Mifflin's expanding educational list was relatively progressive. Hoyt emphasized John Dewey's child-centered, age-appropriate curriculum as opposed to Scudder's classics and character. Since progressivism was newly dominant in education at the time, the texts Hoyt sponsored were both influential and successful. In the twelve years after his arrival, the education division quadrupled its sales, moving from tenth to fourth largest among educational publishers nationally.

By 1920 Houghton Mifflin's education and trade divisions together published a list of over 4,000 titles, reviewed over 10,000 submissions annually, selected 150 to 200 new titles for publication, had over $3 million in book sales, and maintained offices in Boston, New York, Chicago, and London in addition to a greatly expanded Riverside Press in Cambridge (Ballou, pp. 558, 573, 581). This reflected more than a half century of sustained growth in number and range of publications, financial success, and influence on America's reading.

see alsoThe Atlantic Monthly; Book Publishing; Boston and Concord; Harper & Brothers; Literary Marketplace


Primary Work

Houghton Mifflin. Archives. Houghton Library, Harvard University. A rich collection including letter books for the Atlantic and Houghton Mifflin, readers' reports, financial accounts, diaries, scrapbooks, and catalogs.

Secondary Works

Ballou, Ellen. The Building of the House: Houghton Mifflin's Formative Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. The definitive secondary source, exhaustively researched and clearly written.

Carpenter, Charles. History of American School Books. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963.

Greenslet, Ferris. Under the Bridge: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Houghton Mifflin. Fifty Years of Publishing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.

Houghton Mifflin. The Firm of Houghton Mifflin and Company, Publishers, Boston, New York, Chicago, and London. Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1889.

Houghton Mifflin. Of the Making of Books and the Part Played Therein by the Publishing House of Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921.

Houghton Mifflin. The Riverside Press. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911.

Laughlin, Henry A. An Informal Sketch of the History of Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.

Perry, Bliss. And Gladly Teach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1935.

Scudder, Horace. Henry Oscar Houghton: A Biographical Sketch. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1897.

Weber, Carl. The Rise and Fall of James Ripley Osgood. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1959.

Ellery Sedgwick