Determining Popularity of Late 19th Cent. Novels/Disc/Feb 1998

Query From Anne T. Kirschmann 05 Feb 1998

I'm hoping someone can help me with the following question. How does one determine the "popularity" and readership of a novel published in the late 1800s. To be explicit, I am analyzing Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's novel, "Dr. Zay," published in Boston in 1883. Secondary sources usually refer to the book as "a popular novel," but how is this determined? Is there information available on the numbers and subsequent editions printed? The author, a New Englander, set her story in Maine and several of the book's characters are Bostonians. Her protagonist is a practitioner of homeopathic medicine--a system of medicine which was popular among urban middle-classes in the northeast, especially Boston in the late 1800s. I am assuming this book would have appealed mostly to that group of women readers but is there evidence I can draw upon to bolster that assumption? Thanks in advance for any suggestions or leads.


From Cheryl Thurber 09 Feb 1998

I agree that this issue is complex and we haven't given it much attention in recent years. I used Mott's Golden Multitudes as my major source to put together a list of popular 19th century works for my 19th century America class (available on my web pages for that class). Although I recognized where he is weak, and had omissions. He tried in the 1940s to gather information from publishers and from trade publications. As a book collector I know that he under-represented some categories. But I always question which books survive on bookstore shelves and in what condition. Many initially weak sellers, in good condition, can stick around bookstores and hence seem more common than they really were. Sermons are classic examples of that. Subscription books are a tough area to crack open a sense of accuracy. Demand in the past and in the present both play a role. I used to be a dealer in rare photograph records. The valuable stuff was valuable because of rarity and current collector taste. I once looked for examples of the most popular recordings from the 1920s and found them in my junk (swill) piles rather than in my own collection. Learning that lesson I do try to hold onto some popular works since they really do tell us more about the period in question rather than contemporary taste. That is true for various formats of publications. This debate has recently been discussed on the SHARP list.

The following two responses are cross-posted from the H-SHGAPE List

From Robert Sherman Laforte 11 Feb 1998

You have a difficult problem. Publishers' Trade List Annual began in 1873 and Publisher's Weekly in 1872. They will tell you something about the novel if it was truly popular. You might find a review that refers to the number published initially in Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, 1st Supplement. Otherwise, ask you local librarian, he/she may know.

From Cheryl B. Torsney 11 Feb 1998

Who published _Dr. Zay_? The firm's cost books may be available, and it's possible to track sales that way. I'd also look at Janice Radway's work on middlebrow reading for other useful information. Another suggestion is to get hold of Carol Farley Kessler, who teaches in the Penn State system (I forget the campus), and who edited Phelp's _The Story of Avis_ for Rutgers UP. Professor Kessler may have a bead on just the information someone studying Phelps might need.