Thursday, March 21, 2019

An Obscure Woman Writer For Women's History Month

In my last post, I commented upon writers who ramble and distract from their points with lots of extra words. So I deleted a couple of paras relating to how I came to have two grocery bags full of books from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, as well as a couple more stacks on the floor. Let's just say, I've got 'em. And in checking them out on-line to see whether or not it's necessary for us to hold on to them, I was struck with how many of them, and their authors, seem...lost. A sobering situation for a writer to learn about.

One of the first books I noticed was a 1900 edition of To Have And To Hold by Mary Johnston. This thing is set in Jamestown during, you know, Jamestown, not one of my favorite time periods. But the story line has features I would have loved as a younger, pre-feminist reader. The lover with a secret identity. How Scarlet Pimpernel! An evil lord. I would probably have eaten that stuff up, though I don't think I was a particular fan of the pirates that also appear here.

What really interests me now is not the book but its author. According to Encyclopedia Virginia, Mary Johnston was the first woman to top best-seller lists in the twentieth century. To Have And To Hold broke publishing records. It's supposed to have been the most popular book between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind. (Hmm. All three of those books were written by women. What am I to make of that?) It made Johnston rich. She was profiled in the New York Times in 1900, and To Have And To Hold became a movie twice. Okay, they were both silent, but they were movies. (A third version was made in 2015 and never released. Yikes.) And though it was Johnston's most successful book, she wrote and published others. She wasn't a one-hit wonder. She had a career.

And Then...Obscurity

You can find some odd editions of Mary Johnston books here and there, but she's far from a household name. Or a name most of us have heard of. What happened to this bestselling author who wrote the most popular book between Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind? We remember Stowe and Mitchell, don't we? Why not Mary Johnston? Come on, Gone With the Wind wasn't that great.

I have a family member who studies and preserves obscure TV at Television Obscurities, so I have given some thought to obscurity. You have your material that is what you might call born obscure because it never made much of an impact when it first appeared. Then you have material that becomes obscure for some reason.

To Have And To Hold certainly wasn't born obscure. But evidently it isn't considered timeless nor some kind of outstanding representative of its era. Or whatever a book has to be to remain in the public memory. And so it became obscure.

Which raises the question, I believe, of which popular books from our period are headed for obscurity?

Feel free to post your answer in a comment.

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