Making Literary History, Part I

Among the authors assembled on these pages over the last eleven months, Gene Stratton-Porter’s name may be the most obscure to all but those contemporary readers who stumbled upon her work in their youth (such as myself) or came to her later in life by way of a book club or a latter-day fondness for what is now considered young adult literature.

Writing on “The Why of a Bestseller” in The Bookman: a Review of Books and Life, the Yale professor and literary critic William Lyon Phelps suggests in Dec. 1921 that “Posterity is far more cruel than the contemporary public; contemporaries abuse but posterity forgets.”

Both in her own time and in years since, critics, academics and (all but local) historians have mostly conspired against Stratton-Porter but readers have continuously intervened on her behalf, particularly when it comes to A Girl of the Limberlost.

Phelps characterized Stratton-Porter as a “public institution like Yellowstone Park,” by virtue of her books having sold nine million copies each of which, he estimates, are likely to have been read by five people amounting to a total readership, at the time, of about 45 million.

More than 20 years later, the historian Frank Luther Mott would devise a system by which he compared the top selling books from 1665 onwards and named Stratton-Porter as one of just three American authors who had written five bona fide bestsellers over the course of nearly 300 years (the other two being Harold Bell Wright, whose books haven’t stood the test of time, and James Fenimore Cooper).

Popularity, as Phelps points out, is not necessarily a “true indication of greatness,” but it may nonetheless achieve something greater than itself.

Phelps credits Harold Bell Wright’s adventure stories, for instance, with coaxing many young people into what he charmingly describes as the “garden of printed pages.” He bestows that and warmer words on Stratton-Porter:.

Gene Stratton-Porter lives in a swamp, arrays herself in man’s clothes, and sallies forth in all weathers to study the secrets of nature….She is primarily a naturalist, one of the foremost in America, and has published a number of books on flora and fauna, illustrated with photographs of her own taking. These books – which are closest to her heart – have only a moderate sale. Thus she hit upon the plan of writing sentimental novels, in which her observation of nature is brought to the attention of America. I have no doubt that she has led millions of boys and girls into the study of natural objects; that she has accomplished in this way, much permanent good.

“If she is not a literary artist,” Phelps concludes, then “she is anyhow a wonderful woman.” But what, then, of literary posterity?

To be continued…


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