Friday, December 21, 2012

Christmas gift-books and holiday stories:
The rise and demise of lucrative markets for nineteenth-century authors

A cover of The Token and
Atlantic Souvenir: a Christmas
and New Year's present
(c. 1852)
Courtesy of the Library Company
An 1895 article in The Publishers’ Weekly notes the passing of a trend that had lasted most of the century: “Sets of an authors’ works or a special work profusely and artistically illustrated have almost entirely superseded the old-fashioned Christmas gift-books so largely at one time a feature of the holiday publishing season.” Initially a British development, these “old-fashioned” Christmas annuals spread to America early during the early 1800s. Their heyday was the first half of the century, although a number of them continued to be published until the 1860s, and attempts to resuscitate them continued until the early 1900s. A century ago, The Cambridge History of English and American Literature emphasized their importance to American literary history by devoting an entire chapter to Christmas gift-books: “Almost or quite all of those published in America were literary miscellanies, the contents being original, or, in case of some of the cheaper volumes, ‘selected.’”

Most of the material published in the annuals was what we would describe as “down-market,” but, attracted by the lucrative pay, many prominent authors were featured as well. William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Edgar Allan Poe, Lydia H. Sigourney, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Greenleaf Whittier all contributed to annuals. (In fact, many of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales first appeared in holiday gift-books.) Because the annuals were meant to be read—and sold—all year, the contents were rarely seasonal; readers didn’t buy holiday annuals for Christmas stories.

The rise of the holiday story was instead a separate, later development; as the annuals waned, seasonally themed issues of magazines provided an alternative source of income for authors. Penne L. Restad, in her book Christmas in America, puzzles over how initially these stories “appeared only sporadically and during seemingly odd times of the year. Harper’s Monthly, for example, made its first reference to Christmas in a poem, ‘The Approach of Christmas,’ in its August 1850 issue. Godey’s first literary tribute to the holiday, ‘A Christmas Hymn,’ ran in February of 1841.” Indeed, the grandfather of the American Christmas story, Washington Irving, published his famous sketches as part of the serially-published Sketch Book. His four holiday pieces—“Christmas,” “The Stage Coach,” “Christmas Eve,” and “Christmas Day”—originally appeared in January 1820—and they were not published until July in England. (In the English and subsequent American editions, the fourth piece was split into two: “Christmas Morning” and “The Christmas Dinner.”)

Eventually, however, magazines began publishing Christmas-themed stories, recipes, and illustrations in their December issues every year. By 1865 their prominence was notable enough that Mark Twain would publish a devastating parody, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls),” in the December 23, 1863, issue of The Californian. In a study of Kate Chopin’s career, Emily Toth writes, “The market for conversion and happily-ever-after stories for Christmas and Easter was immense. It was also one of the best sources of income and recognition for professional writers.” It was a Christmas story that first brought Chopin to the attention of a national audience when it was syndicated by the American Press Association.

Like the Christmas gift-books that preceded them, magazine issues devoted to holiday stories have virtually vanished; with occasional exceptions, Christmas-themed fiction seems to have been largely relegated to the children’s literature market or, less frequently, to “regular” issues of literary magazines. When William Maxwell published a Christmas story in 1986 (“The Lily-White Boys”), it appeared in the Summer-Fall issue of The Paris Review.

With best wishes to our readers for a happy and healthy holiday season, we present three selections for Christmas from Story of the Week:

Washington Irving, “The Christmas Dinner” (1820)
Irving’s alter-ego Geoffrey Crayon is invited to Bracebridge Hall for an old-fashioned English Christmas celebration.

Mark Twain, “The Christmas Fireside (for Good Little Boys and Girls)” (1865)
An impishly wicked story about the monstrously wicked little boy to whom only good things happened.

William Maxwell, “The Lily-White Boys” (1986)
Arriving home to a ransacked townhouse after a lovely Christmas party, a married couple experiences a moment of grace.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Lincoln’s Cabinet crisis (December 1862)

Guest blog post by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University and one of the co-editors of The Library of America's four-volume series, The Civil War: Told by Those Who Lived It (the first two volumes of which have appeared).

Less than a week after the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln confronted one of the most serious political crises he faced during the war. The debacle fed mounting frustration among Republicans over the administration’s conduct of the war. Led by its Radical members, the Senate Republican caucus tried to force Secretary of State William H. Seward out of the cabinet. The Radicals accused Seward of opposing vigorous prosecution of the war, exercising undue influence on the President, overruling other cabinet members, and blamed him for the administration’s slowness in embracing emancipation. Many of the Radicals hoped his ouster would increase the influence of their favorite in the cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Seward had indeed entered the administration in 1861 imagining that he might guide Lincoln, who, he believed, had little sense of how to respond to the great crisis facing the country. But Lincoln’s relative paucity of national experience obscured his considerable political skills. The two men developed a close working relationship in which Lincoln made it plain that he would decide and issue executive branch policies. His reluctance to endorse immediate emancipation came about because of his own astute evaluation of border state politics, and not from Seward’s influence.

A committee of predominantly Radical senators went to the White House on December 18 and shared with the President their concern about Seward’s influence in the administration. Lincoln had little patience for their conspiratorial view of his administration, exclaiming to his friend Orville H. Browning, “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.”1 Nonetheless, Seward resigned in order to avoid becoming a liability to the administration. Lincoln did not accept his resignation but instead convened a meeting with his cabinet on December 19, without Seward, to ascertain their views about how the cabinet operated. Despite reservations, most of the cabinet members agreed with Lincoln’s assessment that he fairly valued their opinions and that the cabinet sought agreement in its deliberations. The President then called the senators back to the White House, where they were surprised to find themselves in a meeting with the cabinet (absent Seward). Lincoln explained that, contrary to what the senators had heard, cabinet members freely debated issues and reached a consensus before policies were announced. Although Chase offered a mild dissent, no other cabinet member contradicted the President.

Embarrassed by this turn of events, Chase submitted his resignation, precisely the turn of events Lincoln needed in order to maintain the political balance in his cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln’s response when Chase handed him his resignation: “This said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh cuts the Gordian knot. An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. I can dispose of this subject now he added.”2 Knowing that he needed the support of both radical and conservative Republicans, Lincoln refused to accept either resignation, and both Seward and Chase remained in the cabinet. As the President reportedly told Senator Ira Harris of New York in one of his characteristic rural analogies, “Now I can ride: I have a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”3 Lincoln accomplished two important goals in these delicate maneuvers. By managing the disparate personalities and ideologies in his administration he continued to enjoy the counsel of some of the North’s best political minds. The episode also preserved the President’s prerogative to administer his cabinet and the executive branch as he saw fit. Republicans, Democrats, and border state Unionists in Congress would continue to use their legislative and investigative power to promote their own agendas, but as commander-in-chief, Lincoln would possess ultimate authority in a time of war.

1 Orville H. Browning: Diary, December 18, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (Library of America, 2012), 684.
2 Gideon Welles: Diary, December 19–20, 1862, The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, 692.
3 An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996).


(This item will be cross-posted at Civil War 150, cosponsored by The Library of America, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the National Endowment of the Humanities)

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