Personal Networks and a First Draft of the Literary Canon

RufusWGriswoldAntebellum editors were bulk retailers. Whatever else their business involved, it happened at scale, and I’m often astonished by how much prose a nineteenth-century newspaper or magazine editor could churn out in a day. Of course, most of that prose was recycled, and much of it was banal. As a forthcoming article by Ryan Cordell, based on research by the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University, observes, the most-reprinted antebellum newspaper articles were pieces of “information literature”—not news, but scrapbookable things like an 1853 starch recipe or a clipping about the dietary value of tomatoes.[1] Apparently, antebellum readers welcomed such textual flotsam—but it was especially useful to editors, who needed a steady flood of context-free, easily resized gobbets of writing for their pages.

The bulk-retail principle applied to literary editors, too, and the difference between “literary” and other kinds of antebellum periodical work is hard to define. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about what that meant for the formation of an American literary canon in the antebellum period.

By the 1840s, improved production techniques and faster distribution networks meant that middle-class readers in America could expect convenient access to a wide range of literary materials in a variety of formats. But they also meant that readers trained to prize discernment needed more sophisticated ways to evaluate the materials passing before their eyes. This was one of the requirements that led to early attempts to define an American national literary canon.

One of the editors who offered to help was Rufus Wilmot Griswold, a rural transplant (from the Vermont Lowlands) to Manhattan and Philadelphia, where he edited Horace Greeley’s New-Yorker and Graham’s Magazine. Emotionally unstable—in ways that probably impaired his critical faculties as well as his personal relationships—yet respected for the great breadth of his reading, Griswold became a prominent anthologist. After 1842, he published several bound collections of works, including The Poets and Poetry of America (1842), The Poets and Poetry of England in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and The Female Poets of America (1848).[2]

It’s a Griswold collection called The Prose Writers of America, published at the beginning of March 1847, that most concerns me at the moment.[3] Two weekends ago, I spent a few hours at the Boston Public Library’s rare books department, viewing correspondence related to this volume. It took Griswold more than two years to compile and publish the book, and the BPL holds some twenty letters that shed light on the way he went about it—and the way other writers and editors reacted to the results.

What I found seems to confirm the impression left even by Griswold’s friends, and certainly by his literary enemies: he was more effective as a promoter than as a discerning critic, and his sometimes-volatile personal relationships directly affected the editorial choices he made. When the book came out, for example, one of its authors, the Boston essayist E. P. Whipple, told Griswold he relished the “sulky, sullen magnificence about portions of your introductory essay.” But he begged Griswold to “cut out . . . the tremendous puff about my style being Milton and Addison fused together” if he brought out a new edition of the book. He suggested that Griswold should transfer some of his praise to Cornelius Mathews, a literary enemy whom Griswold had included but evaluated with contempt in the Prose Writers.[4]

Overall, the BPL letters suggest that putting together a canonical collection of early American writers was a messy and sometimes slipshod business. It was shaped by political as well as personal rivalries. (Griswold was a Whig, and his book drew hostility from certain Democrats.[5]) Above all, the choice whom to include depended on availability. Griswold consulted other editors and writers for suggestions about which authors to include. Several provided similar lists of suggestions, naming authors we still find familiar, like Cotton Mather, Washington Irving, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick as well as writers who have lapsed into obscurity.[6] Perhaps that should give us confidence that Griswold’s Prose Writers represented some kind of antebellum critical consensus.

But in many cases, Griswold’s correspondents seemed to be simply rattling off names as they popped into their heads. Often they were naming their own friends and acquaintances without explaining what made them important. Henry Tuckerman, for example, suggested several writers, “mention[ing] these as they occur” on the vague basis of “each affording something characteristic either in regard to style or material.”[7] And once Griswold selected a writer for inclusion in the Prose Writers, he had to track down copies of her work. This meant that authors, by limiting the citations or texts they provided, could often control Griswold’s exposure to their writings. John Neal, lobbying hard to keep much of his early work out of the collection, extracted a promise that Griswold would let him approve the publisher proofs, apparently with the goal of making changes to his own texts if he thought it necessary to preserve his literary reputation.[8]

When people talk about literary canons today, they use words like “enduring,” “transcendent,” and “great.” Or else they use terms like “dominant” and “apparatus” and “submerged.” Once in a while, they use both kinds of words. To me, though, both ways of talking, for all they offer analytically, seem pretty far removed from the business of actually making an early American literary canon, at least in the case of Rufus Griswold.

Griswold’s editorial choices had little to do with enduring value, but they also expressed something more specific than the class interests of elite white males. What The Prose Writers of America really captured, I suspect, was a set of personal networks. As memories of these networks faded, only a handful of particular authors would keep their place in later versions of the American canon. But their original presence in Griswold’s book, like their original success in a difficult market, owed a great deal to their real-life relationships and the ways texts physically circulated in the early nineteenth century.


Image: Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection, New York Public Library: “Rufus W. Griswold.”

[1] Ryan Cordell, “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers,” preprint version of article to appear in American Literary History 27, no. 3 (Aug. 2015).

[2] Judy Myers Laue, “Griswold, Rufus Wilmot,” American National Biography Online (Feb. 2000); and Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), 211-19 and 438-41. The only full biography is Joy Bayless, Rufus Wilmot Griswold: Poe’s Literary Executor (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1943). On Griswold’s importance to early American canon-formation, see Rose Marie Cutting, “America Discovers Its Literary Past: Early American Literature in Nineteenth-Century Anthologies,” Early American Literature 9, no. 3 (winter 1975): 226-51; Layne Neeper, “Inventing Tradition: America’s First Literary Histories,” Studies in the American Renaissance (1994): 1-19; John Peter Nathaniel Austin, “The Literary Compilation in America: 1820-1850” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2001), 121-45; and Adam Saul Gordon, “Cultures of Criticism in Antebellum America” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2011), 122-220.

[3] Rufus Wilmot Griswold, ed., The Prose Writers of America. With a Survey of the History, Condition, and Prospects of American Literature (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1847).

[4] Edwin Percy Whipple to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, March 9 and April 20, 1847, folders 1184 and 1185, Rufus W. Griswold Papers, Rare Books Department, Boston Public Library.

[5] Edward L. Widmer, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 120-23.

[6] Evert Augustus Duyckinck to Griswold, Sept. 3, 1844; Charles Fenno Hoffman to Griswold, Dec. 28, 1844; H[enry] T. T[uckerman] to Griswold, Dec. 30, 1844; and Andrews Norton to [William Henry] Furness, Jan. 7, 1845; folders 288, 548, 1119, and 771, Rufus W. Griswold Papers.

[7] T[uckerman] to Griswold, Dec. 30, 1844.

[8] John Neal to Griswold, Feb. 27 and March 8, 1845, folders 744 and 745, Rufus W. Griswold Papers.

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  1. Pingback: What We’re Reading: Week of July 6 | JHIBlog


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