E S S A Y
By "Guido Veloce"
I've been reading a lot of popular 19th-century American
fiction, an exercise I would not recommend unless you are
training for an excruciating visit with long-winded
houseguests. It has, however, set me thinking about the
handful of truly great works of literature from that period
and imagining how much poorer our culture would be if there
had not been publishers then--as I hope there always will
be--for the weird and wonderful stuff.
Let us imagine a parallel universe in which the
masterpieces of the 19th century passed across the desk of
a powerful editor whose sole mission in life was to find
that era's Tom Clancy. Here are excerpts of some letters to
authors from Elijah Profitt, just such an editor at our
parallel universe's best-selling publishing house, Charles
Scribbler & Sons:
My Dear Lady:
Now that I have read the final
installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I must say, in all
candor, that it is unsuitable for publication by Scribbler
& Sons. It would be folly in the extreme to expect a book
to be popular when it treats an unpopular subject, as
agitation of the slavery question most certainly is. That
is not to say Scribbler & Sons avoids all delicate matters.
We would, for instance, be interested in a tale about a
prominent minister's indiscretions with a parishioner,
should you assay an attempt at one.
I should add that in addition to its
subject, Uncle Tom's Cabin is defective in other
ways. It has far too many deaths. One or two exquisite
passings are good literary practice. An excessive number of
corpses, however, offends readers' sensibilities and
reminds them of opera. In addition, the male characters in
your novel are uniformly either weak, absent, obtuse,
maimed, or violent. While this may amuse readers of the
Fair Sex ...
Dear Mr. Hawthorne:
There is no market whatsoever for novels
about Puritans or other gloomy people. Should you persist
in seeking a literary career, you might wish to consider
Your early literary efforts were most
promising tales of the sea, of colorful sailors, and of
their love of adventure and each other. Readers could
almost smell the wild ocean and see the beauty of South Sea
Islands, with their tawny peoples, and their lascivious
ways and occasionally naked breasts. Those were manly
yarns. With Moby-Dick I must say that I fear you
will steer your literary reputation on a fatal course
unless you accept certain changes. The tone must be
lighter. Perhaps the cabin of the coffee-loving mate,
Starbuck, could be a place for the odd, but lovable, crew
members to gather as friends, telling quaint stories.
Although this is very painful for me to
say, Herman, I have saved my most serious objection to the
manuscript for the last. It must end differently. You have
violated a fundamental precept of literature if it is to
meet public acceptance: THE FISH MUST NEVER WIN!!
I am certain that with due consideration,
you will see the wisdom of the changes I suggest. With
such alterations, Moby-Dick will have two things the
present manuscript, if published, could never have--readers
and a sequel.
Dear Mr. Thoreau:
Your manuscript is unsuitable for
publication by Scribbler & Sons. It does, nonetheless,
have a certain charm and might find favor at a lesser house
whose specialty is outdoor subjects.
As you well know, I have supported all
your previous literary endeavors to the utmost, and even
humored you in tolerating that abominable pseudonym you
insist upon using. This time you have gone too far. Parts
of this new piece, Huckleberry Finn, are simply not
funny. I must further say that on other matters, you seem
positively determined to offend the sensibilities of our
genteel readers. I will allude to only one such instance
because I am firmly convinced that you very well know what
I have in mind and are willfully doing this out of some
perverse and uncharacteristic aversion to selling books. I
refer, of course, to instances such as the scenes of Huck
and Jim on the river. It must be made absolutely clear to
readers that Jim sits on the back of the raft. If you
prefer, you may place him on a separate, and most assuredly
equal, raft, but in no instance ...
With this, we exit our parallel 19th century. It is one
purged of all the books that really mattered.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University
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