Critical Essay: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox, Jr.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine by John Fox, Jr. enjoyed considerable popularity in the few years following its publication in 1908. The book was the third best seller in 1908 and the fifth best seller in 1909 (Hackett, pp. 104, 105). Reviews were positive and the money from the book helped Mr. Fox get out of debt that resulted from disastrous business ventures (Kurynny). The first three printings sold out quickly and the book was published 19 more times in both new editions and reprintings. The book is still in print today. The novel was made into a play, a feature film, and generated several songs.
Many factors contributed to the popularity the work enjoyed. Mr. Fox's publisher, Charles Scribner's Sons, was a preeminent publisher, engaging in extensive advertising and working closely with the author to maintain a close working relationship and to gauge public interest in a future work. The genre of the work, part romance and part western, was popular at the time. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly for the Trail of the Lonesome Pine, is the transition of the novel into other media. The emergence of the film, play, and songs gave the novel a life of its own outside the four corners of the printed book. This essay will examine three factors that contributed to the success of the book: the importance of the publisher and marketing efforts, the genre of the work, and the transition to other media. Other factors no doubt helped make the book a success, such as the popularity of the author's other works and the universal theme of the book, among others, but are outside the scope of this essay.
Choice of publisher
Charles Scribner's Sons was a prominent New York firm that published works of popular authors such as Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway (Tebbel, p. 224). The publishing house, like many others at the time, worked closely with authors to develop strong working relationships. Fox was part of the firm's stable of authors after leaving Harpers early in his career (Tebbel, p. 201). Scribners also had several magazines that carried its name. Scribners promoted its authors and advertised its books extensively. Ads for The Trail of the Lonesome Pine appeared in Publishers' Weekly throughout the end of 1908 individually and as part of ads for Scribner's other current works. The advertising campaign coincided with dozens of reviews written by major newspapers throughout the country, including The New York Times, The Boston Herald, and the Philadelphia North American. Publishers routinely spent large sums of money sending review copies to newspapers and magazines throughout the country to generate additional publicity (Sheehan, p. 181). Scribners also knew that timing was important to the sale of a book and published Fox's novel in October just before the Christmas buying period when books were often purchased as "holiday souvenirs." In 1910, 35% of the total output of books came during the 6 weeks prior to Christmas while another 30% fell in the weeks following the holiday (Sheehan, p. 175). The good business sense of Scribners in timing the release of the book and advertising it effectively helped place the novel on best seller lists for both 1908 and 1909.
Popularity and interest in the genre of the work also contributed to its popularity. Fox's novel was considered a sentimental romance. The theme of the novel, a rich urban man falling in love with a poor country girl, appeared at a time when the U.S. was moving from being a rural nation to a more urban one. The struggle between rural and urban ways was one that many bookreaders could appreciate at the turn of the century. Romance novels were popular and can be found in bestseller lists at the time (Hackett). Ads in Publishers Weekly toward the end of 1908 included many ads for books showing couples embracing. The illustrations in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine emphasized the romance between the two main characters. Requests for copies of these illustrations and offers to buy the original drawings came from all parts of the country. Fox had an oil painting made of the books' most popular illustration, the heroine standing at the foot of a pine tree, and presented this to his future wife (Tebbel, p. 666).
While originally a romance, the novel emerged as a western as the result of films made in both 1916 and especially 1936. The New Yorker cited the scenery more than either Fox's novel or the abilities of the film's actors and actresses as the reason for the success of the 1936 film, the first feature to be made in Technicolor. The western is a uniquely American genre and is intricately tied to Hollywood and filmmaking. Hollywood filmmakers discovered that the West was still alive in the first half of this century and made films that captivated moviegoers (Hardy, p. x). While Fox's novel does not end up on bestseller lists as a western, the films made from his novels are listed as westerns. Westerns were popular in the 1930s and contributed to the later success of the '36 film.
Transition to other media
Perhaps the most interesting development in the history of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is the evolution from a print novel to a film, play, and song title. Cecil B. DeMille put the novel into film in 1916 and a later major feature in 1936 starring Henry Fonda received critical acclaim. The novel was adapted for stage and performed first in 1912 and countless times since. A song from the 1936 film won an Academy Award and other songs carrying the title of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine were produced, including one featured in another popular film, Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West, in 1937. Plays have been performed each summer since 1964 at the Lonesome Pine Drama Theatre in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (Dictionary of Literary Biography, p. 27).
John Fox and even his publisher could probably not have predicted in 1908 that the most enduring legacy of his novel would be via other media. While his book remains in print, references to the novel's title in database and Internet searches yield countless hits for plays, songs, and references to the film. Few references to the original book were located and no current reviews of his book could be found.
Many factors contributed to this development. First, Fox should be credited with writing a book adaptable to film and stage. The narrative form, storytelling approach, and the writing of outdoor scenes that employed cinematic techniques were all part of the novel. Like Fox, Charles Dickens wrote novels with an eye to the "camera," crafting scenes with ultra-sharp focus and clarity, achieving the literary equivalents of close-ups, long-shots, and aerial perspectives all when photography itself was in its infancy (Tibbetts and Welsh, p. xv). The novel as a narrative form can be traced back to authors such as Henry Fielding and Daniel DeFoe (Tibbetts and Welsh, p. xiii). It is this narrative form that makes a novel adaptable to film.
The 1936 film was the first film made using Technicolor and featured an emerging star, Henry Fonda. Fox and his original publisher could not have predicted either of these events. Reviews of the '36 film focus primarily on the use of color and secondarily on the performances of the lead roles. Little comment or credit is given to Fox and his novel. Henry Fonda later became an American Hollywood institution, generating interest in his earlier works. Songs from both this film and the use of the book's title in other songs enhance the enduring legacy of Fox's novel.
John Fox's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine received no literary prizes nor did any other of Fox's novels. The caliber of the writing is seldom discussed. The writing is good, albeit not exemplary. It is not unlike other novels at the time. The book sold well, in part due to the influence and effective marketing of the publisher. The romance genre was popular at the time and the book's illustrations helped capture the reader's attention. The novel would probably not be in print today had not successful films been made from it ? films that, by pure coincidence, employed new techniques and actors that would draw the attention of reviewers. The history of this book shows us that the book is not just a printed document with four corners, a certain typeface, and good quality paper that may or may not have yellowed over time. The book has a life outside the pages in its story. This story can "jump out" of the book and move in directions never expected, as was the case with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine which is now more commonly thought of as a film, song, or play still performed each summer in the aptly named Trail of the Lonesome Pine Drama Theatre.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9, pp. 25-27. 1981. Detroit: Gale Research Co.
Fox, John Jr. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. 1908. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Hackett, Alice Payne. 70 Years of Best Sellers 1895-1965. 1967. New York: Bowker.
Hardy, Phil, editor. The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western. New York: Overlook Press.
Kurynny, Justin. "John Fox, Jr." (http://athena.english.vt.edu/appalach/writersA.fox.html)(March 25, 1999)
New Yorker, February 29, 1936, p. 51.
Sheehan, Donald. This Was Publishing: Chronicle of the Book Trade in the Gilded Age. 1952. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.
Tebbel, John. History of Book Publishing in the United States. Vol. II. 1975. New York: Bowker.
Tibbetts, John C. and James M Welsh. The Encyclopedia of Novels into Film. 1998. New York: Facts on File, Inc.