Gunter Biosnip: Curse of Popularity

The word “unenthusiastic” well encapsulates Gunter’s critical reception. Observe his appearance in a number of overviews of the history of American letters and theatre. In his Dictionary of American Authors (1899), Adams pronounces Gunter’s “popular sensational romances” as “quite destitute of literary merit” (161). In American Authors, 1600-1900 a Biographical Dictionary of American Literature; complete in one volume with 1300 biographies and 400 portraits (1938) Kunitz grudgingly acknowledges Gunter as the “most widely read American novelist” for a few years, before concluding that “[h]is work had little merit and is almost completely forgotten today” (323).

We find with Gunter the same theme that comes up with J.F. Smith and Sylvanus Cobb, Jr.: how often preeminently successful writers in their own day—when viewed through the lens of their popularity—were pilloried critically. Indeed, specifically for an author to make a considerable income from his or her work, generally attracted derisive opinions about their literary value. In the shorter term, they were prejudged (as Emerson prejudged Cobb, Jr., without having read him.) In the longer, their perceived shortcomings magnified, they were no longer read, for their unjustly disvalued reputations preceded them.

This effect is particularly pronounced in encyclopedic coverages of the kind I mentioned in opening, because the compilers and editors have no opportunity to read the corpora of every single author they cover. Rather, they must distil the critical accounts of popular authors such as Gunter. Even though literally masses of readers celebrated him, what mostly remains is the critical taint.

Hence, far more recently than the overviews I mentioned, in their Oxford Companion to American Theatre (2004), Bordman and Hischak find that

[Gunter‘s] two dozen produced plays were generally perceived as lacking in real merit, but theatrically effective.

p. 280

Traditionally—and to a good extent in the present day—theatre was considered a “lower” artistic form than literature. Only by extracting the words from the dramatic context, the theatrical occasion, can they attain to transcendence and timelessness. One truly appreciates Shakespeare, not by seeing a play, but by reading him on the page. Gunter’s play is merely “theatrically effective.” I don’t know quite how, but somehow Gunter must produce his play’s theatrical effectiveness from out of thin air rather than from his writing, which is obviously very poor, according to the remnants of critical account.

Consider Bordman and Hischak’s verdict on Gunter’s early box office success, Fresh, the American (1881): a “loosely contrived farce” that nevertheless “provided [its leading man] with a major hit for two years” (245). And again, their description of another of Gunter’s successful plays, Two Nights in Rome (1872), as “a crude but powerful drama” (280). Note yet again the persistence of the dual description, and how “crude” tends to outweigh “powerful” in the impression it leaves regarding his literary talent — and a reader’s orientation towards his books..

Their ambivalence betrays their instinct to avoid the taint of a literary elitism that bolsters the structures of the traditional canon. One mainstay is a perceived opposition between “merit” and “popularity.” Hence this “crude but powerful” each-way bet. The play lacks some ephemeral quality that marks true literature, despite—or because of—its vulgar mass appeal. On the other hand, Adams, writing more than a century before them viewed a “popular sensational romance” as crossing a line drawn in filth.

Archibald Clavering Gunter, in King, Notable New Yorkers of 1896–1899

Understandably, canonical-critical preconceptions pervade the institution of publishing. Gunter wrote his first novel, Mr. Barnes of New York (1887), in response to a dare by a friend: “I bet you couldn’t put me into a book and make me interesting” (San Francisco Call, Volume 101, Number 90, 28 February 1907). Hart, in his The Popular Book: a History of America’s Literary Taste (1950), describes the novel as “awkwardly written.” This implies he has read it; but of course, it could only have been awkwardly written to have been so roundly rejected for publication.

I don’t mean to suggest that the book may not in one way or another be considered awkwardly written—many are. Its awkwardness was clearly not, however, a defining characteristic that prevented the novel from providing immense pleasure for millions of people who actually did read it.

According to a celebratory account in the San Franciso Call, written the week after Gunter died in Chicago in 1907:

[Mr. Barnes of New York] was offered to most of the publishers in the country, and not one would consider it, so the author finally decided to publish it himself. It came out in 1886, and was not a best seller at once. Indeed, it fell as flat as the proverbial pancake, but one copy being sold on the first day of publication. Within seven months, however, it was selling at the rate of nearly 3500 a day,

… ultimately to the tune of three million copies (Burt, p. 271).

The astute obituarist views the issue of Gunter’s “literary merit”:

Archibald Clavering Gunter’s works will never be considered literature. He lived a generation too soon; he never became one of the “six best sellers” because his books always sold in greater numbers than the “Six Best” ever dared to.

It would have been laughable for Gunter’s cheap yellowbacks ever to make it into the Bookman’s bestseller list. The “Six Best” would have found it equally ludicrous to leap from literary grace in pursuit of such spectacular popular acclaim, even if they were able to.

Notes and References

Adams, Oscar F. A Dictionary of American Authors (Boston: Houghton & MIfflin, 1899).

Burt, Daniel S (ed.) The Chronology of American Literature: America’s Literary Achievements from the Colonial Era to Modern Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).

Bordman, G. and Hischak, T.S, Oxford Companion to American Theatre (2004). 3d ed. (NY: OUP, 2004)

Hart, J.D, The Popular Book: a History of America’s Literary Taste (NY: OUP, 1950).

King, Moses. Notable New Yorkers of 1896–1899, NY: King, 1899.

Kunitz, American Authors, 1600-1900: A Biographical Dictionary of American Literature; complete in one volume with 1300 biographies and 400 portraits (1938).

Sorenson, Alan T., “Bestseller Lists and Product Variety,” Journal of Industrial Economics, 55.4, Dec. 2007 (pp. 715–38).

“The Insider”, San Francisco Call, Volume 101, Number 90, 28 February 1907.

© 2020 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

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