Readers and Reading Groups

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In an 1873 “Introduction” to A Library of Famous Fiction, Harriet Beecher Stowe recalled that while she was growing up “novels were considered a dangerous indulgence, and in our youth one of the stock themes for composition-writing was ‘On the disadvantages of novel-reading.’” Stowe's comments and the Library of Famous Fiction itself endorse the novel as a literary form; but the declaration of victory over the lingering resistance to fiction was premature. The “rise” of the novel in the United States was uneven. Until well into the twentieth century fiction-reading was an extremely popular but still contested social practice-entertaining, useful, and important for some, disturbing and potentially dangerous for others. The modern novel, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote in 1896, “is to this generation what drama was to the Elizabethan age; we must simply accept it as the now recognized mould, into which the brightest contemporary intellect is cast.” A certain reluctance, evident in Higginson's “we must simply accept it,” is often salient in commentaries of the period. Anxiety about fiction-reading as destructive and addictive lingered in many quarters. This chapter addresses changes in the status of fiction between the 1870s and the 1920s by examining its cultural meaning for several discrete reading publics: Cultural insiders (authors and literary commentators; ducators and newly professionalized librarians) but also cultural outsiders (African Americans, immigrants, and children).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge History of the American Novel
EditorsLeonard Cassuto, Clare Virginia Eby, Benjamin Reiss
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9780511782046
ISBN (Print)9780521899079
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2011


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