As soon as it was published in April of 1906, Owen Wister's Lady Baltimore enjoyed a stellar run on the bookselling charts, competing heavily with Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Winston Churchill's Coniston. According to Bookman, until September, the book remained in the top six sellers in virtually all of America's major cities. But by October, Lady Baltimore drastically dropped in the charts, remaining in the top six in only five American cities, and by December of that same year, it had dropped out of the top six in every major American market. Though the book has remained in print for nearly a century, it has never surged in popularity as it did following its initial publication.
There are two puzzling aspects of the novel's initial popularity which I plan to address in this essay. First of all, the novel was extremely popular throughout the United States, including the Northeast. However, the novel itself extensively vilifies the North, essentially categorizing all northerners as the "yellow rich." Amid sermon-like tirades against the nouveau-riche plaguing Newport, the narrator (who considers himself one of the few exceptions to Northern vulgarity), spends the entire novel trying to devise a plot to separate his Southern friend John Mayrant from the flagrantly new-moneyed Northerner, Hortense Rieppe. In fact, Wister's bleak characterization of the North was enough to make his good friend Theodore Roosevelt rebuke him for such characterization. In Roosevelt's notorious fourteen page letter chastising Lady Baltimore, Roosevelt laments that Wister committed a "capital error [by making] your swine-devils practically all northerners and your angels practically all southerners".
But despite Wister's unforgiving disdain of the North, why did the book sell so well in every major Northeastern city, from New York to Boston to New Haven? Given the sheer volume of sales that the charts indicate, certainly Wister's elite blue-blood classes were not the only ones purchasing the book. Why did the book sell so well, even amongst the classes that Wister so explicitly bemoaned?
The second puzzling aspect of Lady Baltimore's success stems from its reviews at the time it was published. Though most reviewers deemed the book a pleasant read, most also did not fail to characterize the book as lacking substantive plot development to justify its four-hundred plus page length. As the "Critical Reception" segment of this database entry indicates, typical reviews called Lady Baltimore "perhaps a little long winded and slow of development" (Book Review Digest), and "defective on the side of construction" (Dial). Though they praise Wister's picturesque characterization of Charleston and its native people, the book's reviewers seem to suggest that this probably could have been accomplished just as masterfully in half the number of pages.
Such reviews lead one to wonder exactly why the novel took the bestseller charts by storm. Lady Baltimore simply does not have the pace of most novels that characterize bestsellers?rather than trotting briskly through the story, it meanders, strolling as languidly as its old Charleston society women, and often seems to stop altogether at some points in which Wister indulges himself in an anti-North tangent serving no particular purpose in the plot. Thus, given the fact that the novel is decidedly short on plot and heavy on Wister's own ranting and ravings, why did the American people so voraciously embrace it upon its initial publication?
I believe that this success can be explained by two factors surrounding its publication. First and foremost, it is essential to remember that the novel was Wister's follow-up to his tremendously successful work The Virginian. Thus, author-recognition factored heavily into consumers' decisions to purchase Lady Baltimore. Second, the dynamics of the American population were rapidly changing during the early twentieth-century. Immigrants were comprising more and more of the population, and perhaps to many people, the "yellow rich" did not merely symbolize the new-moneyed classes who were taking over the North, but the foreign blood that was threatening to displace the traditional notion of what it meant to be an American.
When The Virginian was published in 1902, The New York Times Saturday Review of Books declared, "Owen Wister has come pretty near to writing the American novel." As sales soon proved, the American public readily agreed. Current Literature declared The Virginian "Easily the best book of the year," and the Bookman proclaimed that Wister had "driven into the soil of Wyoming a stake which seems likely to remain for a long time to come." Within eight days of its publication, Wister's friend Theodore Roosevelt (to whom the book was dedicated) had read the book and declared "If I were not President, and therefore unable to be quoted, I should like nothing better than to write a review of it." Though the Sewanee Review gave a negative review, deeming the book "an impossible love story," such a criticism actually sheds some insight into the basis of the book's popularity. After all, what could the American public love more than an impossible love story?
Sales were as favorable as reviews. Within two months, the book sold 50,000 copies. Each day, MacMillan received orders by the thousand; on a particularly brisk day, an order for four thousand books was placed. By the third month of its publication, The Virginian had passed the 100,000 copy mark.
Letters of response for Wister poured in, and would continue to do so throughout Wister's entire life. The content of these letters was widely varied; some asked questions about plot details, some reacted to the lynchings in the book, some were simply letters of praise, others asked Wister for advice in planning their own journeys out West. Such diverse letters are tied together by one common point: Wister's work had captivated people across America. Americans did not merely read The Virginian, they immersed themselves in it and formed a very personal relationship with various aspects of the book.
Given the tremendous response to The Virginian, it is of little surprise that after a four year wait, the public was eager to embrace Wister's follow up novel. MacMillan did not merely market Lady Baltimore as the latest work of Owen Wister; rather, it was the lastest work of "Owen Wister, author of The Virginian." As Publisher's Weekly from the era indicate, no advertisement for Lady Baltimore was complete without some mention of The Virginian.
Undoubtedly, Americans regarded the old-time, Southern feel of Lady Baltimore as curiously as they had regarded the rough and tumble West in The Virginian. The novel's antiquarians, such as Mrs. Gregory St. Michael or Mrs. Weguelin St. Michael, disdain the North (Mrs. Gregory St. Michael tells the narrator that the Northern prosperity is going "to ruin you all"). But at the same time, Northerners probably laughed at the carefully-wrought depictions of these women, regarding them as intriguing, humorous novelties that clung tenuously to their antebellum memories. Though Wister's goal was to glorify the old South, he also unintentionally succeeds in making it appear stagnant, old, and frail.
Thus, the success of Lady Baltimore can be at least (if not totally) attributed not so much to its literary merit, but to the previous success of its author. At the time of its publication, people were hungry for another Wister tale, and were not willing to be thwarted by lackluster reviews complaining of an absence of plot. The author-recognition factor explains the novel's sudden sales surge and subsequent plummet from the charts. In addition, although Wister had set about trying to distance himself from the masses that so idealized him, the novel's success indicates that Wister's audience was not thwarted by the author's unflattering characterizations. Wister's depiction of Charleston is so quaint, so extremely old-fashioned, that to most readers, it was probably merely another exotic locale rather than the epitome of good breeding that Wister attempted to exalt.
A second factor surrounding the book's popularity is the surge of immigration into the United States that had begun in the 1880's. The invention of steam power had made the journey across the Atlantic significantly shorter and easier, and immigrants poured in by the millions around the turn of the century. Between 1880 and 1930, 27 million immigrants came to the United States. Of this 27 million, 20 million came through Ellis Island in New York. The Northeast's largest cities, especially New York, continued to become segmented into pockets of various nationalities. Immigrants comprised a large source of the workforce and participated in organized labor, which Wister vocally disdained. So intent was Wister's animosity towards these newcomers that he joined (and eventually became Vice President of) the Immigration Restriction League.
The influx of foreigners soon presented a dilemma to staunch aristocratic Northerners such as Wister?as immigrants had children born in America, the very meaning of the word "American" was changing significantly. A child could be "American" in that he was born in the United States, but still not know a word of English. The blue blood that Wister so emphatically relished was beginning to thin with every generation.
In addition to what Wister saw as the immigrant "problem," Wister was also openly and unreservedly racist. Though blacks were generally treated inferiorly to whites at the turn of the century, Roosevelt's appointment of a Negro to head the customs house in Charleston was a step towards equality that Wister clearly regarded as inappropriate. To Wister, therefore, the notion of "American" was being encroached upon not only by foreigners, but by blacks as well.
Thus, on a broader level, Lady Baltimore is not merely a North versus South tale?rather, it is an American versus foreigners tale in which the old, genteel South stands as a symbol for the traditional British-descended American, while the vulgar Northerners epitomize the immigrants and blacks that were diluting this traditional American stock. For example, soon after the narrator arrives in King's Port, Eliza Le Heu (the girl behind the counter at the Women's Exchange) tells the narrator, "We consider Northerners foreigners, you know." Later in the novel, when the "yellow rich" actually appear in person in King's port, Wister characterizes Charlie, one of the tackiest of this pack, by remarking that "His accent also was ever so little foreign--that New York downtown foreign, of the second generation, which stamps so, many of our bankers." Such a remark is outwardly casual, but given Wister's own involvement in the IRL, we know that this seemingly casual remark is backed by disdain.
Given the chaos of the immigration situation in 1906, undoubtedly many "Americans" in the traditional sense agreed with Wister's harsh views towards foreigners. Technically, "Americans" weren't just the most aristocratic, well-bred members of society anymore?now, they could be Italian, Swedish, German, Hungarian, Polish, or even black. Thus, to many whites who whose families had been in the United States for many generations, Lady Baltimore was widely embraced because of the "us versus them" mentality that it fostered.
Though Lady Baltimore's initial popularity was tremendous, it soon faded into obscurity. Its prose was simply too loquacious, its heroes too dated, for the book to truly captivate its audience as The Virginian had done. However, the book sends an important message to modern scholars considering the often-puzzling phenomenon of the bestseller. In the case of Lady Baltimore, although Americans ultimately were unwilling to cherish Lady Baltimore as they had with The Virginian, they were certainly willing to initially give this second novel a chance, as shown by Lady Baltimore's strong initial sales. Secondly, Lady Baltimore teaches us though a particular work might not be a bestseller when taken out of its historical context, at the time of its publication, it might be popular merely because it expresses an important and widely-embraced sentiment of the time. Today, the descendents of the immigrants who flocked to Ellis Island at the turn of the century are unquestionably and unreservedly considered "American," but a hundred years ago, our country was challenged with an influx of people who threatened to turn the traditional Anglo-hierarchy on its head. Undoubtedly, if Lady Baltimore was published today, it would hardly raise an eyebrow. But at the turn of the century, the status of its author and the challenge of its message fit neatly into the historical context of America, and these factors inspired its brief run on the charts.