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Consumerism and American Girls’ Literature, 1860-1940
Peter Stoneley
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£40.00, $55.00, 167 pages, ISBN 0-521-82187-8 (hardback).

Daniel Opler
New York University

Peter Stoneley, a Lecturer in the School of English at Queen’s University in Belfast, argues in this impressive if somewhat flawed study that authors who wrote fiction for American girls in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century used fiction as a means to educate young women about consumption. In making this argument, Stoneley makes several important points about the history of consumption and a number of important American authors active between 1860 and 1940. At the same time, in this relatively brief study (144 pages of text and 20 pages of footnotes), often Stoneley does not take the arguments he makes as far as he might.

His most important insight is his thesis—that literature written for girls plays a fundamental role in the process of consumption. Consumption, Stoneley reminds us, played a critical role in the rise of the middle class. Girls, as they grew into womanhood, were to become the central actors in this process: as both the consumers themselves, and, through marriage, objects to be consumed. As a result, Stoneley argues, these girls deserve more attention; and girls’ fiction—one of the most obvious ways adults had of educating children about consumption—was in some ways at the center of the creation of the middle class.

Many of the most important points Stoneley has to make are about the ways in which particular authors address consumption. Unlike far too many literature scholars, Stoneley devotes ample attention to the process of literary production, suggesting that the way girls’ fiction was produced and published matters greatly to any reading of these works. Though Stoneley might have made this argument more explicitly throughout the book, it is particularly persuasive in two places. In Chapter Two, which discusses the girls’ magazines of the late nineteenth century, Stoneley pays particular attention to the genteel magazines that ostensibly opposed consumer culture in order to celebrate an earlier notion of acceptable upper-class behavior. These magazines, Stoneley argues, began to accept commercial advertisements in the 1860s and 1870s; and, as a result, consumerism began to appear more prominently and more favorably both in the magazines and, eventually, the stories that filled these magazines, despite their ostensibly anti-consumerist mission. Stoneley provides an equally detailed treatment of the process of production in Chapter Eight, which addresses the Nancy Drew novels, a series produced by a publishing house rather than by an individual author. The complex and shifting role of women and consumption in the Nancy Drew series, Stoneley suggests, was the result of “struggle [between] the dominant notions of an older editor, and the radical, emergent feminism of a younger writer” (125).

Stoneley has other important achievements as well, many of them a result of his ability to weave historical analysis into this study of literature. In a fascinating passage, Stoneley points to the critical role of the transformation from mercantile upper class to urbanized bourgeoisie in the work of Louisa May Alcott. Drawing particularly on the work of Karen Haltunnen, Stoneley argues that in the rapidly urbanizing world of mid- to late-nineteenth-century America, upper-class people were in a very insecure position: they were in a new environment, trying desperately to demonstrate their membership in the upper class to strangers. They attempted to solve this problem through appropriate consumption. This situation becomes the context into which Stoneley places Louisa May Alcott’s contradictory attitudes towards dress and manners. Alcott, Stoneley tells us, “was uncertainly located” with regards to the new upper class, since “she had affiliations with the grand old mercantile class of Boston, but these had been weakened, and her immediate family had not participated in the rise to prosperity of the ‘middling sorts’” (28). Within this situation, he suggests, Alcott “harks back to a morally and behaviorally determined social hierarchy, in which fashionable display was a liability as much as anything,” even as her work “testifies to an increasing pressure to live up to more showy forms and codes” (28). It is a critically important and surprisingly original context for Alcott’s work, and demonstrates yet again just how important consumption is to literature aimed at American girls.

There are other historical insights of a similar nature that are both convincing and exciting. Perhaps most intriguing of all was Stoneley’s discussion of Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of Hans Brinker. Dodge, Stoneley tells us, “was from a well-to-do and educated background, but her family’s fortunes took a series of sudden and severe blows. This financial collapse was compounded when Dodge’s husband committed suicide” (53). This financial and social insecurity, Stoneley argues, led Dodge to set Hans Brinker in the more stable and secure world of Holland, and to set the main characters of the novel in solid, old, and permanent settings, decorated with solid, old, and permanent furniture. While there is less evidence than I wished for this connection, the imagination and insight that Stoneley demonstrates here is still very impressive and most welcome.

At times, Stoneley does not take his insights far enough. In particular, Stoneley’s attempt to deal with the issue of race through a discussion of the work of Gene Stratton-Porter makes for one of the most interesting and yet most flawed chapters in the entire book. First, he demonstrates convincingly that Stratton-Porter absorbed, shared, and helped to spread the racism of the time. This is no momentous task; Stratton-Porter was quite blatant in her racism. In one of Stratton-Porter’s later novels, Her Father’s Daughter, the heroine (a white girl named Linda) announces that “when a white man is constructive, when he does create, he can cut circles around the colored races” (118). Additionally, Stratton-Porter’s villain, a Japanese student named Oka Sayye, is so unreasonably jealous of his white classmates that he tries to kill several of them for no apparent reason. In the book’s climax what “Stratton-Porter described as ‘just a plain little story cut clean from the pages of life’” (118), Linda and a friend hunt down and murder Oka Sayye, apparently without any moral quandary. Drawing this blatantly racist book into his discussion of consumption, Stoneley argues that Stratton-Porter’s racism can be understood, in both this novel and Stratton-Porter’s earlier A Girl of the Limberlost, as being largely about the competition between races for wealth and for the ability to consume. According to Stoneley, this reflects a new concept of consumerism in which wealth and consumption are not boundless, but limited to the point that we must compete for them.

There are several difficulties with this discussion of Stratton-Porter. First, especially in his discussion of A Girl of the Limberlost, a tale of how the process of transforming nature allows one to attain vitality, Theodore Roosevelt’s writings and speeches were highly influential on Stratton-Porter’s work, a fact entirely unmentioned by Stoneley. This is particularly problematic in that Roosevelt has gotten so much attention from cultural historians like Gail Bederman and Amy Kaplan lately. More attention to Bederman’s work would be especially welcome here, since she—perhaps more than any other scholar—successfully examined the role of gender in American racism and imperialism at the turn of the century. While gender is addressed briefly in Stoneley’s treatment of Stratton-Porter, it could have been privileged far more and been even more interesting had he taken Bederman’s work into greater account.

Second, there is a long, apologetic, and entirely unnecessary passage at the end of the chapter on Stratton-Porter, as though to excuse her inclusion here, beginning, “If we allow ourselves to forget about someone like Stratton-Porter [because she is racist], does that not become a way of pretending that she and what she represented did not exist?” (121). Anyone familiar with studies of American literature and American history should be aware that a discussion of racist literature is hardly groundbreaking, and hardly requires apology. This apologetic passage also forces us to question why race was not brought out more in the earlier chapters. Stratton-Porter’s work, Stoneley writes at the end of his apology, forces us to acknowledge that the “American girl—the one that is seen to matter—is white” (121). Yet, outside of two references in the introduction and two brief references in two other chapters of the eight-chapter book, race disappears entirely as a category. We are given no indication of what this whiteness signifies to either readers or authors, or how the changing notions of whiteness in these decades, from 1860 to 1940, affected the relationship between consumerism and girls’ literature in America. Indeed, “race” makes it into the book’s surprisingly sparse index only under the somewhat baffling heading of “immigration and race” (165).

Finally, the chapter on Stratton-Porter illustrates the troubling possibility that Stoneley might be oversimplifying the genre of girls’ fiction. Although Stoneley isolates Stratton-Porter in the penultimate chapter, which is devoted exclusively to her work, Stratton-Porter was most influential at exactly the moment that many other fictional works Stoneley discusses were being read and discussed. Serial novels like The Automobile Girls and The Aviation Girls were at their height during the period when Stratton-Porter’s novels were published, and both Daddy-Long-Legs and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm enjoyed highly successful stage productions that ran during this period as well, in between 1900 and 1921. This overlapping raises the question of intertextuality, surely a legitimate question for someone as influenced by Raymond Williams as Stoneley is. If Stoneley’s study of girls’ fiction, as he argues, is in part about what readers learned about consumption from these novels, should we as historians of literature consider how a reader might react to reading these books on top of one another? To what extent are the separations between authors that Stoneley adopts reflections of actual separations in the readers’ minds; and to what extent did the readers view these authors as part of the single canon that Stoneley seeks to establish in this work? Stoneley provides no answer to these questions, although the answers might have provided some additional insights.

There are other weak points in the book. Especially considering the extremely rich studies available on the period, the chapter on girls’ fiction of the 1930s is sadly and surprisingly brief on context. As Stoneley suggests (and as others have previously shown), Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Depression-era novels were essentially a defense of laissez-faire capitalism, an argument that neither women nor men should complain of the difficulty of their circumstances, arguing that people should instead make the best of their situation, as the characters in Wilder’s Little House novels consistently do. Stoneley would have done well to expand his discussion by another five or even ten pages (the entire section on Wilder is only six pages long). For one thing, he could have noted that the celebration of stoic suffering was a central tenet of Depression-era literature. Even radicals like Meridel LeSueur wrote of suffering without complaining as a highly admirable trait, though LeSueur was no defender of laissez-faire capitalism. Additionally, Stoneley claims that underneath these messages encouraging self-reliance and stoicism was a pro-consumerist ethos in Wilder’s writing, exhibited most-clearly in These Happy Golden Years. This seems possible, but he does not address the fact that, unlike Wilder’s earlier Little House books, this These Happy Golden Years was written after the Depression ended and the U.S. entered World War II, something that might explain Wilder’s new, more favorable attitude towards consumption.

The final point that must be addressed is Stoneley’s writing, which leaves a great deal to be desired. Paragraphs start and end with no immediately apparent logic, and the book probably could have used another run-through by its editor. Additionally, Stoneley’s use of the personal pronoun “I” is excessive and somewhat jarring. There is almost always an element of apology in these passages, as in the Stratton-Porter passage mentioned above. This is entirely unnecessary and even a little confusing: it is as though Stoneley is attempting to excuse the weak points of his study, or even attempting to forestall any criticism of his work.

These few weaknesses, however, do not destroy the value of what is overall a fascinating and important study. Stoneley’s arguments and insights are unquestionably important, and the work as a whole is highly admirable in many respects. The thesis is a fascinating one, and Stoneley demonstrates convincingly that consumerist ideas were indeed central to American girls’ literature. Additionally, and perhaps most impressively, Stoneley does an excellent job in looking at the ways in which consumerist ideas were addressed by the authors he discusses. Despite a few flaws, this book will be highly satisfying to those seeking greater insight into either the particular books he addresses or the history of consumption in the U.S. between the 1860s and the 1940s.

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