A Little Perspective

My intermittent Google-news trawl brought me this quote from a press release on AScribe, which is of those wire services that local newspapers turn to when it’s a slow news day, the same sort of service that no doubt brought us Medieval Underpants: the Reckoning.* Anyway, here’s the quote:

Some critics might not regard the Harry Potter series as great literature, but people still will be reading the books 100 years from now, predicts a Duke University graduate student of medieval literature.

“In my field, we’re still reading texts that exist in a single manuscript that has survived 500 years,” says Heather Mitchell, a Ph.D. student in the English Department. “There are already 325 million copies of these novels in print, so I anticipate we’re going to be reading Harry Potter 100 years from now whether people think they’re literature or not.”

First, why does no one call me up and ask for quotes? I’ll happily provide any newspaper with a hilarious and/or thought-provoking blurb about any medieval topic, especially the ones I don’t know much about. The headline to this release even calls her a “Duke expert.” If all you have to do is be a PhD student, then from now on everyones referring to me as “Yale expert That Got Medieval Guy.”

Second, there are professional academics who read all kinds of weird things. Even Orm’s Ormulum.** This has little to do with what ‘we normal people’ read or will read in 100 years. There are very few 500-year-old single-manuscript modern bestsellers out there. About all there is is Malory’s Morte Darthur. It’s about 500 years old, give or take, and does exist in only one manuscript that was found on a shelf in Winchester College in the 30’s. Though the large number of printed copies put out by Caxton probably factors somewhere into its continued popularity.

Finally, let’s put the bestseller plus 100 years theory to the test. According to various internet sites of dubious legitimacy, the #2 bestseller for the year 1902 in America, as well as the #6 bestseller in 1903, was Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch by Alice Hegan Rice. Now, I know we all have a copy of that on our shelves, so I won’t need to tell people that its chief claim to fame was that it was made into an equally unforgettable film in 1934 starring W.C. Fields. And how many times have we all read Frances Little’s The Lady of the Decoration, Winston Churchill’s Coniston, or May Augusta Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe–#1 bestsellers from 1907, 1906, and 1905, respectively.

OK, I’ll stop picking out the weirdest names from the list and just link it, but I could go on and on. For the entire 1900’s, the only two names I recognize on the list are Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and the House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. The first is read, I’ll grant you, but I challenge you to find anyone who’s read the second. Sure, it’s assigned a lot in literature classes, but nobody’s ever read it, not even the screenwriter of the movie version starring Gillian Anderson.***

According to a class on women in American literature I once took, Augusta Jane Evans Wilson’s Macaria was the best-selling novel of the Confederacy, a book so important that it was banned and burned by Union troops, and not even Civil War re-enactors read it today. Just because something sells a lot of copies doesn’t mean it’s going to be treasured for generations to come.

*Which, incidentally, was my most popular post in a long while. From now on, I’m going to work underpants in wherever I can.
**Which, incidentally, has the coolest name of any doggedly uninteresting medieval text.
***Incidentally, it’s comments like this which are going to make my job hunt interesting next year. [Them: Now, it says here on your blog that no one ever reads the House of Mirth. Are you aware that our department head is the world’s leading House of Mirth expert? Me: That proves nothing. There are people who claim to be experts on Finnigan’s Wake, too, and you don’t expect me to believe that they’ve read that, do you?]

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  • fgizzardbrain

    Not only do I own a copy of Mrs. Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch, but I have read it (not in a long while, mind you. I got it in about the sixth grade when I read a lot of late Victorian/early 20th century books where the main characters are “poor but plucky.” Another favorite was The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.) It was also made into a movie starring W. C. Fields, but as I recall from seeing it, the plots were only vaguely similar.

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    First it was the Harry Potter fans. Now it’s the Mrs. Wiggs fans. What awesomely powerful internet demographic will I piss off next?

  • fgizzardbrain

    Wow, I’m an awsomely powerful internet demographic? I thought I was just a geek who had eclectic tastes in literature even when I was a kid.

  • LLCoolCarlIII

    You are now.

  • Sherry

    I’ve read House of Mirth and Rebecca, but I must admit that most of the rest of the books on that list were unknown to me.

  • ffc1886

    True Fact: Alice Hegan Rice and Frances Little (real name Fannie Macauley) were both from Louisville and they were both friends of the subject of my dissertation, Ellen Churchill Semple. I have actually read The Lady of the Decoration and it’s not bad. There’s a sequel, too!

  • http://el-jefe-rey.livejournal.com/ Jeffrey

    Dear Carl,

    Thanks to the popularity of your blog, my publisher has plans to reprint one of the books on the list you linked to, When Knighthood Was in Flower. I wondered if I might send you a copy and have you look it over and tell me if I should change anything to be more authentic to medieval times. There’s a castle on the cover and everything. Just sayin’.


    Charles Major (a.k.a. Edwin Caskoden)

    P.S. I apologize that there are no cover blurbs at this point

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