Dear Sirs: I have by chance met with a number of The Bookman containing [a] portion of an article on the scenes of the Wessex novels, & should feel obliged if you could send me the whole.
In 1898 and 1899, when my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was in her mid-twenties, she worked as secretary to Frank Crowninshield, publisher of The Bookman, one of the first American literary magazines.
Mary was responsible for soliciting endorsements of the magazine from writers whose names graced its pages of book reviews, industry news, essays, poetry, and the world’s first bestseller list. She kept some of the letters she received in reply, as well as other bits of correspondence.
When I was 16, I spent a chunk of time in libraries, looking up the names of the writers in encyclopedias and anthologies and taking notes on their accomplishments. Now, 40 years later, I am researching the same writers on the Internet. Although the typewritten label on the accordion file reads “Valuable – Autograph Letters”, sometimes I get the feeling Mary saved these letters for me.
My mother and grandmother read through them, but I suspect I am the only family member to research and obsess over them, entranced by the lives of mostly forgotten authors who have nevertheless left traces, not only through the souvenirs of a young secretary, but also through their published writings—a fate that I, as a writer, may aspire to as well.
Thomas Hardy is the most famous of the signers of these letters. Mary saved an endorsement by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the black poet and novelist who was later part of the Harlem Renaissance. Many people will recognize the names of Charles Dudley Warner, co-author, with Mark Twain, of The Gilded Age, and Kate Douglas Wiggin, who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But few people today recall Austin Dobson, Bliss Carman, Louise Chandler Moulton, Lilian Bell, Hall Caine, and many others who were the Jonathan Franzens and Billy Collinses of their day.
A New York Times article from 1983 discusses the history of Onteora Park, one of the upper-class vacation communities in the Catskills, where Mark Twain spent a summer. The article lists seven other prominent New Yorkers who summered at Onteora Park in the late 1800s; three of those names are among Mary’s autographs:
Hamlin Garland won a Pulitzer for one of his Midwestern novels, later settling in Hollywood and devoting himself to “psychical research”;
R. W. Gilder was the editor of The Century, another New York magazine;
Brander Matthews was the country’s first professor of dramatic literature, taught at Columbia, and wrote an early (and glowing) review of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the Saturday Review.
It’s hard to know if any of these artifacts—snippets of business correspondence by once-famous writers—are truly valuable, as Mary seemed to think. But they are priceless to me as windows into the past and threads of connection to my great-grandmother, who left this engaging gift.