Some years after Cobb began writing for the New York Ledger, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a public lecture in East Boston. The honour of introducing him happened to fall to one of Cobb’s brothers. On the subject of modern literature, Emerson made a contemptuous mention of “yellow-covered literature of the Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. stamp.”
He was referring to so-called “sensational literature,” as opposed to substantial matter. “To what base uses we put this ineffable intellect! To reading all day murders & railroad accidents, & choosing patterns for waistcoats & scarves,” he wrote in his journal of May 1852. The social critic Charles Eliot Norton voiced his similar dismay a few years later in reference to popular publications, which he considered to be consumed by
a horde of readers who seek in them […] the gratification of a vicious taste for strong sensations; who enjoy the coarse stimulants of personalities and scandal, and have no appetite for any sort of proper intellectual nourishment.“The Intellectual Life of America” (1888)
The term “yellowback” was imported from Britain, where it was used to denote cheap, sensational railway novels; these appeared as a result of reciprocal developments in mass printing technology and the evolution of a reading public. In 1840s America, speculative “yellowback publishers” arose who, unrestricted by international copyright law, were able to pirate the British works. Cutthroat operators, these companies managed to put each other out of business before long, in a melee of price-cutting. Subsequent publishers, however, continued to produce cheap, paperbound editions, such as paperbacks and dime novels (West, 788-9).
But back to East Boston, where at the end of the meeting, Cobb’s brother approached the lecturer. Cobb’s daughter resumes the narrative in her memoir:
‘Mister Emerson, did you ever read one of Mr. Cobb’s stories?’
‘No, sir!’ with a tone and look that implied that such a question was almost an insult.
‘And do you think it just and honest to hold up one of the most popular writers of the day as a representative of a certain class of objectionable literature, when, as you confess, you have never read a line of his work?’
After some further conversation, Mr. Emerson said:–
‘Well, I confess that I may have erred in this matter in relying too much upon impressions, and I promise that the remark to which you object shall not be repeated until I am able to judge for myself whether or not it is just. I will read one of Mr. Cobb’s stories at my earliest opportunity. What one shall I read?’
‘It makes no difference,’ said Mr. Cobb; ‘select any of them and read.’
About three months after this the two gentlemen met in the little den of Mr. James T. Fields, in the famous Old Corner Bookstore. After a mutually cordial greeting, and a few general words, Mr. Emerson looked Mr. Cobb in the face with a frank smile, and said:–
‘By the way, Mr. Cobb, according to promise I have read one of your brother’s novels, and I have ascertained that it is a fair representative of all his stories. While it is not in my line of reading, I confess that when once I had begun it I could not leave it unfinished. And it will be sufficient for me to say to you that I have never, since that East Boston lecture, nor can I ever again, hold up the stories of Mr. Cobb as an illustration of yellow-covered or merely sensational literature. In sentiment and language that story was not only unobjectionable, but elevating.’Ella Waite Cobb, A Memoir…
High praise from a luminary of American letters, the man whom Nietzsche called “the most fertile author of this century” (qtd. Ratner-Rosenhagen, 5).
One could quibble with Emerson over his use of “yellow-covered,” given that even at this quite established stage in Cobb’s career, with scores of serialized novels behind him, he had actually published barely any books as such. From the pen of the most prolific novelist in history, his daughter tells us, issued just one single book, which was “a memoir of his father, a duodecimo of four hundred and fifty pages, written in 1866” (A Memoir).
The reason underlying this ironical circumstance is that Robert Bonner, his New York Ledger publisher, strictly maintained the rights to all Cobb’s work, for subsequent republication in the serial format. Cobb saw none of his novels in book form until late in life. His best known work, The Gunmaker of Moscow, his first contribution to the Ledger, serialized in 1856 — a novel that became almost as popular as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin — did not appear in book form till 1888 (Hart, 99, 809).
Apart from the obstacle to his “pet scheme” of publishing an actual book (see A Memoir 261), Cobb had no reason to complain, perfectly satisfied as he was with his agreement with Bonner. The contract required him to produce a “novelette every eight weeks and a minimum of two short pieces in a week”, and provided him with $50 per week for the next thirty years. A most satisfactory and indeed lucrative arrangement for “the first American one-man fiction factory” (Ljungquist 83).
Cobb, Ella Waite. A Memoir of Sylvanus Cobb, Jr. Boston, 1891.
Hart, J.D. The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste (NY: 1950, OUP).
Ljungquist, K.P. ed. Bibliography of American Fiction Through 1865 (NY: Facts on File, 1994).
Norton, C. E. “The Intellectual Life of America”, The New Princeton Review 6 (1888) 312–324 (318). Available here on the Internet Archive.
Ratner-Rosenhagen. J. American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2012).
West, J. “Twentieth-century publishing and the rise of the paperback,” in Cambridge History of the American Novel, Vol. 3, 1860-1920, ed. Leonard Cassuto et al. (Cambridge: CUP, 2011).