Fans before us

A friend forwarded a link to me today about the surviving fan letters to Susan Warner, the author of The Wide, Wide World (1850), one of the biggest bestsellers of the nineteenth century in the United States. The book and its author are hardly known today: she and her sister taught Bible classes to West Point cadets, and the sister, Anna, is probably best known as the author of the hymn, “Jesus Loves Me.” It was Dear Friend who got me to read it, six or seven years ago now, when she was reading it with a student group. (Have we really been friends for ten years this fall?) The book is extremely sentimental, even within the generic conventions of the time. If your major criticisms of Little Women (1868-69) are that it was too short and not heartbreaking enough, you’ll love The Wide, Wide World.

(The article appear in Common-Place, a publication written by academics for educated general readers interested in U.S. history who want something more challenging than a general interest magazine, but perhaps don’t read scholarly journals. It’s a sensitive publication that shows, I think, why scholarship is relevant, and I wish scholars had more time for this sort of thing. This site is one of the most interesting projects in public history by academics currently in operation.)

As I continue to think about fandom in general and my fandom of Mr. Armitage in particular, the following excerpts from the piece seemed particularly relevant, and I thought you might find some of them interesting:

On the novelty of fandom & typical fan behaviors:

While fans today are more likely to approach and engage authors through more twenty-first-century means than the now old-fashioned letter, the queries, preoccupations, and often unbridled enthusiasm of fans then and now share certain qualities. Warner’s readers in the 1800s wanted to know whether and when a sequel to a favorite book was forthcoming, whether a particular novel was founded on facts, how to succeed in writing a novel, and if Warner would be so kind as to respond, preferably with an autograph or photograph. Some readers quoted favorite lines back to Warner, with one reader going so far as to compose a full-length poem around a refrain in Warner’s second novel, Queechy (1852). Many readers described how Warner’s books kept a hold on them long after they put them down: readers wrote anywhere from a few minutes to twenty-four years after reading The Wide, Wide World and often described multiple re-readings, with one reader writing that she’d read it three times alone and three times aloud in less than a year.

On the desire for connection through fandom:

… the most important and fascinating threads that runs through these letters [is] their emphasis on connection and even community among readers and an accompanying desire to include Warner in that community. … This fannish impulse to write to Warner derived, in part, from how readers imagined her. Her fans saw her as a confidant, a mother, a mentor, a minister, or some combination thereof; more basically, they imagined her as approachable and receptive. … [T]hese fans clearly believed that a relationship with the author of their favorite novel was a possibility.

On author vs. characters [for us, actor vs. roles]:

For many of Warner’s fans, that passion and power [they derived from reading] were built on their belief in a form of personal connection to Warner herself and on the interest they took in the characters who came alive in her novel’s pages. … [M]any fans believed Warner’s characters to be more than fictional and used their love for certain characters to bridge the gap that separated them from Warner herself.”

On confusing or illusory feelings of intimacy:

[R]eaders bared their souls to a writer whom they’d only encountered through the medium of a mass-produced book. These letters nonetheless emerged from the paradoxical intimacy of that reading experience, and they showcase the conviction that Warner must be a kindred spirit, someone who fundamentally understood her readers. There was a form of trust extended in these letters, a trust that Warner would take such letters seriously and in the heartfelt spirit in which they were offered. Of course, that trust was not without its anxieties…

On the feeling of having one’s life changed by the object of the crush:

Warner’s novel helped other readers in more dramatic fashion. Joseph Molyneux Hunter, an Irish man, composed his fan letter to Warner over the summer of 1862 on sea voyages between Ireland and Canada. He wrote nine years after he first read The Wide, Wide World to recount the lasting change that the novel worked in him. He stated, ‘In the summer of 1853 I was brought to the Saviour by reading a very few lines of the ‘Wide Wide World’.”

On the genre of the fan letter:

[T]he fan letter gained its value precisely because it was an amateur’s genre, a mode aside from professional, more public commendation. The fan letter instead served as a place for making personal confessions, for adding more capital to an already significant emotional investment, for claiming and trying to prolong connection, for taking liberties.

On the feeling that one just *has* to write to the crush:

Many of these letters spoke less of liberty than of constraint when readers addressed the question of why they were writing to Warner. [One reader] … said he just couldn’t help expressing the great pleasure he felt in reading The Wide, Wide World. Other readers began their fan letters by arguing that they couldn’t help but write: one simply could not refrain from offering her thanks, another wrote that “impulse has overcome all prudence,” still another called “the desire to write … too strong to be resisted.”

On fans’ feelings of guilt:

Why, though, should that desire to write be resisted? What was illicit about composing a fan letter? A possible answer to that question is tied to another vaguely disreputable act to which the Warner fan letters were necessarily linked—novel reading. Opponents of the novel in the 1800s worried that novels activated a kind of “can’t put it down,” addictive reading, an idea that existed somewhat uneasily alongside these fans’ compulsive reading and re-reading of The Wide, Wide World … The idea that readers simply couldn’t put novels down implied that they should, or at least that they should be able to—and the fear that they could not accounted for some of the suspicion felt toward this relatively new literary genre. For many novel readers, their scruples about reading were swept away on a tide of emotion. For many of Warner’s fans, their scruples, and even perhaps the nagging sense that Warner didn’t really know her readers, that the praise of a young fan was unnecessary, that there was no good reason to write, were all swept away by what the sentimental novel and the fan letter offered—that powerful sense of connection and what it made possible.

On why fans wrote despite their scruples:

If writing a fan letter was itself a kind of compulsion for these readers, it was one that arose from the desire to be heard, to reveal oneself through talking about love for a fictional heroine, a deceased daughter, a loving god, or a tear-jerking novel. Though readers made such personal confessions, they were still unknown readers writing to an unknown author, with little chance of ever meeting that author face-to-face. Warner’s distance from them—geographical and otherwise—paradoxically made possible the intimacy of their fan letters and the connections they imagined: these letters could cross distances in ways that their writers most likely could not. The impersonality of this situation lent safety to readers’ self-exposure, making heartfelt confessions about their personal lives less daunting.

On the utility of the fiction of the author / fan relationship:

The Wide, Wide World is therefore just one kind of sentimental fiction that Warner’s fans embraced; another is that the author of a sentimental novel, who told familiar stories and knew so well what would bring her readers to tears, understood her readers—that a strong and even life-changing connection was formed between author and reader through the medium of a bestselling novel. The Warner fan letters helped to write that fiction then and help us to recover it today.

~ by Servetus on October 24, 2011.

26 Responses to “Fans before us”

  1. Wow! That’s fascinating. (and now I want to read this novel).

    So the motives, emotions and trepidations of these 19th century admirers of this book seem amazingly similar to our own 21st century fan gurling. for Mr. A.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    The main difference seems to be the reaction is more immediate and on an even larger scale via email, Twitter, Skype, blogs, etc. vs. the old-fashioned letter.


    • I’m still turning over the question in my mind about the Internet because that does seem like the obvious difference. On the other hand, the article describes the passion of these people’s responses to their crushes. And there are other nineteenth-century examples: Franz Liszt is one of them.


    • Ditto!


  2. It’s very interesting to see how the feelings of fandom are universal. It’s funny that you mention Little Women because at the moment I’m reading a sequel, Jo’s Boys, by the same author. The main character is a successful author and is inundated by huge numbers of fans via letters and even personal visits. In one scene in chapter 3, her household has a group of 75 young men to see her and get her autograph!

    Then in the 20th Century, there is Judy Garland singing a love song to “Dear Mr. (Clark) Gable” which I think was introduced to me by a commenter on your blog, but I can’t remember who.

    I find this phenomenon very fascinating. I don’t understand how it’s even possible that I personally have been a rabid fan of Richard Armitage for 2-1/2 years!


    • I just loved Little Men and Jo’s Boys, though not as much as Little Women, which I probably reread five times a year. I didn’t own a copy of LIttle Men until I was twelve or so, and of Jo’s Boys until I was in my late teens. LMA really did have problems dealing with the onslaught from her fans; there are other places in her work where she writes about it. There must have been some difference in the nineteenth-century experience of media that explains the lack of restraint? Hopefully Didion will answer this question.


      • I wonder if it also had something to do with novels being serialized in newspapers. Almost like fans looking to get their regular fix of characters in modern-day soap operas?


        • Potentially — obviously people have studied that for Dickens. These LMA novels were not (afaik) serialized. Also, I know that there were worries about the addictive qualities of novels right back at the beginning of the genre. There are cartoons making fun of people who are reading Moll Flanders (1720s) obsessively. Wonder if Defoe got fan letters.


          • Yes, there was the thought novel-reading was unhealthy and put too many fanciful notions in one’s head (and in the case of romantic ones, too many potentially erotic thoughts in impressionable young girls’ minds?)

            Didn’t Austen have certain of her characters question the wisdom of reading novels? Not that she actually thought it wrong. She was a novelist, after all. 😉


            • Interestingly, in Wide Wide World, the main character is warned not to spend time reading novels.

              There’s also a contemporary case of reception in volume 2 or 3 of the Elise Dinsmore novels that I ran across a few years ago, in which Elsie’s rather strict father is extremely careful with letting his daughter read Wide Wide World.


      • I’m not sure if it was the two media of novels prompting fan letters so much as the intimacy and emotion of sentimental novels prompting outpourings of response. I really think there’s something about those novels in particular that calls forth eager response.

        But then, I was the kind of kid who wrote lots of fan letters to my favorite writers. I think I liked the possibility that they might write back to me (and some of them did) — I loved getting mail. So maybe it’s not just the sentimental novel itself, but the perceived humanity and accessibility of the author?


        • the author of the article says that. I find it interesting that we construct people who we don’t know as humane and accessible. I’ve been thinking about that in regard to Armitage for approaching two years now.

          I never wrote a fan letter to anyone as a kid. Who wrote back to you? Thinking about it, there are definitely authors i would have written to. The Laura Ingalls Wilder museum in Mansfield, MO has some examples of kids writing to LIW, but many of them seem to have been written under the supervision of a teacher.


    • I read Little Women (about a thousand times) and Little Men but never Jo’s Boys, which is actually a sequiel to Little Men, which was a sequel to LW. Have I confused everyone? However, I have it on my Kindle along with my other favorite Alcott books and plan to read it in the near future.
      So it sounds as if Louisa May had her own contingency of fans to contend with.

      Can’t believe I have been an ardent fan for close to 3 1/2 years now. Never before had I experienced this kind of longterm celebrity crush in my life.


      • I loved LW but was less thrilled with the sequels — I think because they were about boys and not my favorite character, Jo, who seemed so domesticated. Likewise with the later Anne of Green Gables books, when she’s lost all her fire and has become a perfect mother. I think by the time I read the books, I was already doubtful I was cut out for the perfect mother role in life (and how right I was).


        • Yeah, Little Men is all about how Jo’s given in. That’s the only way that she can reach Nat and Dan — by pointing out that their own submission needs to mirror hers. It makes the whole pedagogical model at the school seem curiously feminine.

          I fell in love with Nat — that scene at the beginning of LM where he shows up at the school still makes my eyes water.

          Our library didn’t have all of Anne of Green Gables, so I never made it to the end of the series. I had a similar realization, though, in response to the Beany Malone novels (Lenora Mattingly Weber). It was a series that ended up being surprisingly edgy, because Beany has friends who are LMC and she ends up babysitting a very troubled child. You kind of suspect that Beany was a Mary Sue of some kind and that the end of that series, where Beany is a mother, reflects experiences that Weber had herself.


  3. Oh you darling little babies – I first read “Little Women” at the end of 1957 when I was given the book as a prize for coming 1st in my 5th grad English class!


  4. Oh my goodness – that should have been “grade”, of course. that’s what I get for rushing.


  5. Isn’t it amazing how fandom hasn’t really changed much over the centuries?


  6. Fascinating reading, thankyou servetus. It would appear that fandom itself hasn’t changed much over a couple of centuries, just the means and the scale of its expression.


  7. Byron got them, too, and they were collected and published not long ago. What’s interesting about the letters to him were the number of women who wrote really erotic things and then asked him to burn their letters. It’s like his image and his work unleashed some erotic longing for these women. Sound familiar?


  8. Dear Servet,
    Thank you for your blog, it often brings me to some reflections and brings many new approaches. This helped me to write back, so I would like to invite you to know my blog. He will not be focused on RA, but will have many entries about it.
    Ana Cris


    • Thanks for the link, Ana Cris, and best of luck. I have a hard time keeping up with my own blog any more, but I’ll definitely be reading and commenting when I can.


  9. Thank you for the pointer to Common-Place. It’s just the kind of thing to appeal to me, a lapsed Americanist. I have subscribed.

    I remember A Wide, Wide World well from graduate school. One of my friends (and a fellow student in my program) wrote her dissertation on authors of sentimental fiction of the 19th century, including SW.


    • Glad you like Common-Place. I really think it’s a great resource.

      We should probably have a group read of Wide, Wide World — it’s definitely the kind of thing that a lot of readers of this blog would enjoy. It’s just SO long and SO weepy.


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