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Unhappy Endings

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Wally Niebart

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 Italians ...

Dear Herman:
   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.

Dear Sam:
   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 professor.

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