Cronin's fifth novel was immediately successful in the United States. Even well before its publication on September 10th, 1937, buzz from England was making its way into American newspapers (this from the New York Times, 28 July):
According to cablegrams from London, A.J. Cronin's new novel, "The Citadel," is causing a flurry in London. Gollancz, the publisher, reports printings of 40,000 copies, an unusually large English edition. [...]
The Los Angeles Times
In England the book is already creating a sensation among the critics, who declare the new novel to be even better than "The Stars Look Down." (15 August)
A little closer to its American release date, on August 9th, the New York Times
reported that Little, Brown had already printed 35,000 copies ? evidently an impressive (and therefore optimistic) number. But if these reports of unusually large printings and
sensation among the critics
don't come off as national news, or if they sound interesting only to the book chatter ghetto, a later piece revealed cause for the book's wider appeal. Four days before publication (6 September), the New York Times
elaborated on what may have underwritten its success: scandal.
Press releases indicate that some excitement has been whipped up in England by the disclosures of medical practices in A.J. Cronin's novel, "The Citadel," now a London best seller, due to be published here by Little, Brown this week. Dr. Cronin implies that there is a great deal of
racketeering in English medicine, and the president of the British Medical Association is quoted as saying that
if the charge made in the book is not fantasy it is mud-slinging. It is best ignored because nothing can be done about it. The Sunday Referee comments, however, that Harley Street has not retaliated by
banning Dr. Cronin.
Not only have prominent specialists bought the book but last week copies were noted in ten of those discreet bookracks which patients are invited to explore in the waiting rooms, the paper says.
Interesting as Cronin's popularity in Harley Street is (to this day , Harley Street is London's high-end medical district), and curious as the BMA president's response is, what I want to draw attention to here is the fact of the real-world ramifications the book immediately produced. Clearly Cronin's fictional
account was taken as a direct comment on contemporary medical practice. Cronin's credentials and experience as a doctor were often invoked (as above:
), establishing the book's relevance as an accurate picture; the existence and pressure of the
were such that medical officials felt required to respond; and the book went on to provoke talk about the merits of nationalized medicine. Thus, though it wasn't only this, the novel was a message book
. And while The Citadel
, as a bestseller, fits into several categories in what would be a bestseller taxonomy, I claim that it is this particular feature of its history that makes it most distinctive. The fact that it had direct "social" application separates it most particularly from other types.
In saying that this feature ? its scandalousness, its tract-like effect, etc. ? is its most distinctive, I don't mean to say that this is what caused its fantastic success. I'll remain agnostic on this point: too many factors plausibly go into it. These other factors are naturally those that are common to bestsellers in general (inasmuch as there is such a baseline ? it's possible that there's room for special cases), but we should nevertheless go over them here.
Like almost all bestsellers, The Citadel benefitted from the normal, say, external methods of book industry promotion. Cronin was probably seen as an established and promising author, one who had landed one book on the bestseller lists (Three Loves, 1932) and who had had other hits besides. The Citadel was number five and any book he published would have gotten notices in the book columns. These began, as above, as early as late July, 1937. Also, the staggered publishing schedule (first in Britain, then the US) worked to the book's favor (also as above): it must have given Little, Brown the chance to gauge interest and modify their printing numbers accordingly. Publicity-wise, this staggered schedule only works to publishers' benefit, however, if the book is successful; Cronin's was, as the "cablegrams" made evident.
Much later in the book's life on the bestsellers list, very near the end, two more external factors came into play. The first is that ? to compensate for flagging sales, one presumes ? Little, Brown allowed a bargain edition of the book to go on the market. This hardcover edition was printed by Grosset & Dunlap (a house who did much of this kind of shadow printing) and sold for $1.39, compared to the $2.50 for Little, Brown's hardcover. Publisher's Weekly reports that it went on sale in October of 1938; the novel went off the bestseller list in January 1939. The other factor that played a part in raising its profile was that the book was adapted into a film. MGM released it on November 3rd, 1938 (IMDB), and the curious thing is that the film didn't extend the book's bestseller life even more. It is a common occurrence these days that a "classic" novel which has received a new filmic treatment gets put out in a new tie-in edition; and, in Spring 2006, it seems likely that a recent blockbuster like The Da Vinci Code's sales will be boosted by a movie release. But perhaps it was because of just how quick the turnaround was (the film was released about thirteen months after the book was) that no longer effect was produced. It's also possible that the film version did increase interest for the book, but mainly in its pre-release capacity; after all, as early as November 1937 (one year before release) there was word of Cronin's speaking with MGM.
But bestsellers aren't made on promotion, discounts, and film adaptations alone. (Publishers then and publishers now haven't figured out how to completely engineer the market.) And, indeed, all of these factors seem overshadowed by the scandal effect. But there are different kinds of scandal. What kind did Cronin generate? First, it was not a scandal of taste. The Citadel didn't "push the envelope" of what could be portrayed or made explicit in subject or in detail like sexual-revolution bestsellers in the 1960s (see Myra Breckinridge or Portnoy's Complaint in this database). Nor was it a religious scandal like books such as Elmer Gantry or The Satanic Verses. These sorts of scandal offend someone's sense of propriety in what they dare to depict ? the books themselves offend. The Citadel is different in that what gets it attention is its claim about something in the world: the state of the medical profession. And the question of the legitimacy of this claim generates scandal (
Can it really be that bad?). Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) seems to fall in this category as well, and they share the exposé-style accusation of corruption in an industry.
This feature of the book is what provokes this kind of (unsympathetic) response (originally from the Daily Express in London, reprinted in September 1937 in The Living Age):
Come, come, Dr. Cronin! Since your book is about disingenuousness in the noblest profession, why permit yourself to be disingenuous? Why preface your novel with the note about every character, place, and institution in your book being entirely fictitious? Characters, yes; places and institutions, no.
Your attack on Harley Street is the most vigorous demolition of anything since Dickens. [...]
And this is how Cronin responds (in the same The Living Age
reprint from the Daily Express
): after saying how his sympathy for struggling doctors evident in the three quarters of the book not dealing with Harley Street is ignored in the press account, he reaffirms his accuracy, and then expands
But I can say that everything in The Citadel is factual, the result of fifteen years spent inside the profession. And if you hold it to be 'nonsense,' I must disagree with you.
I honestly believe our medical system to be as dead as a doornail, as the dodo, as a play Mr. Agate [the reviewer quoted above] has French-quoted to its doom. But what am I up against? That inestimable British virtue?inertia.
Agate's charge and Cronin's defense again underscore the prominence given to its critique of something in the world. The reviewer (James Agate) criticizes Cronin essentially for hiding behind his fiction, but no one else seems to have gotten hung up on Cronin's disclaimer: they read his book as a basically unambiguous denouncement of uptown medical opportunism, exploiting the fears of wealthy hypochondriacs. So though the book is no doubt a novel (as, in an unquoted section, Cronin reminds Agate), many of the ways it's talked about treat it like it might as well be a tract. It's the polemical content that counts. Early in its advertising campaign, Little, Brown's chosen angle supports this. In an ad from September 20th, the two biggest words, in bold print, are: DR. CRONIN'S and DOCTORS (see ad here). The first starts the phrase
Dr. Cronin's The Citadel and the second ends the phrase
The novel about Doctors. Thus Cronin's authority and claim to expertise in the field are essential qualities that the publisher wanted communicated. And these are, of course, extra-literary qualities. I must confess to being a little dumbfounded at the tagline
The novel about Doctors; it struck me that if one is going to advertise a novel by what it's
about, it should be about something more compelling than simply one of the professions (
The novel about Bankers?). But what this suggests is either that medicine was especially topical at the time or that Cronin's book was unique in its treating doctors (
the novel...). Or perhaps a third possibility: The Citadel had such publicity already (as something like
that book about doctors) that it only needed to be tied back to this particular book:
Know that book about doctors you've been hearing about? This is it. But it's hard to say; the point is that in any case it was the book's status as a directly referential document that identified it to the public.
If, at the popular level, it's safe to say that book critics are likely to be those most concerned with the particularly literary qualities of the book, reviews of The Citadel are striking because they too tend to focus on its real-world message. Where they do treat its literary merits, most are sympathetic but say things like: his characters are
types, he has trouble writing of
personal and intimate human affairs convincingly, or he is not
original or clever or profound ? his style is
workmanlike (see the book's reception history above). Some ? big names like Alfred Kazin and William Carlos Williams ? are harsher. Kazin calls it
ineffectual fiction and sees it as the product of
second-hand skill. In Williams's words, it's
a crowded story clumsily but sincerely told, even passionately convincing at times. So it seems the verdict is that Cronin's writing is either passable or badly done, but no one misses that it's an important, serious book, and that this is due to its topical concern for medical corruption. Williams writes:
The principal interest of the book, the picture Dr. Cronin gives of this English world of medicine?and what goes on in it?is convincingly real [...] . And Kazin says that the "moral" is central. So regardless of a critic's estimate of Cronin's gifts, he or she always respected its reformist significance, expressed through the exposé.
Admittedly there is something somewhat artificial in separating purely stylistic and "literary" features from those of subject and "content"; a good novelistic creation will be good in both, and at some level it's hard to imagine one without the other. But in the case of this book, it seems entirely clear that the main locus of interest was in what could have been conveyed just as well in a polemical pamphlet. What drew attention was the book's revelation and condemnation of the worst of cynical medical practice. It shouldn't be ignored, either, that the book's competent but unremarkable literary qualities ? stereotyped characters, melodramatic plot ? likely served as perfectly complementary packaging for the message: it presents the object of interest in a familiar, undistracting, and pleasant story. Thus The Citadel seems an exemplary case of this kind of novel whose popularity comes from the scandal of high-minded accusation.
"Book Notes." New York Times. 28 Jul 1937: 17.
"Book Notes." New York Times. 9 Aug 1937: 17.
"Book Notes." New York Times. 6 Sep 1937: 15.
"Books Abroad." The Living Age. Sep 1937: 81. [Reprints James Agate's review of The Citadel, "Demolition on Harley Street," in the Daily Express (London) and Cronin's reply from the same paper.]
"Gossip Of The Book World." Los Angeles Times. 15 Aug 1937: C8.
"Release dates for The Citadel (1938)." Internet Movie Database. Accessed 2 May 2006 [http://imdb.com/title/tt0029995/releaseinfo].
Please also see review citations in the Contemporary Reception section.