Yesterday, I was looking at the prospectus for a book called America’s War for Humanity, a kind of typical-for-the-late-19thC-subscription-marketplace cheap war history, appearing in 1898, the same year as the Spanish-American War that is its main subject (fast turnarounds are kind of a signature of the subscription market). The closing line of the publisher’s summary of the book on the terms and conditions sheet, just before the details about cost, binding, and so on is: “It is history told by the history makers.” This line, I think, says so much about how this market was structured, the role these authors thought they were playing, and how these marketers convinced their readers to buy their books.
That phrase says a lot about the niche filled by subscription books. Most histories on this market are immediate–summaries of the most recent World’s Fair, descriptions of each of the battles of the Civil War, memoirs of one’s time spent in a dungeon behind Confederate lines (there are actually at least two of these marketed via subscription, both by the American Publishing Company), and other such topics. Looking back is rarer, and the emphasis tends to be on timeliness. (At least one ad for agents–directed at women–specifically notes that the book is going to be the style to carry that year).
What comes from being the first to record a history? Getting the book to market first has some obvious fiscal incentives–what customer can claim that they “already have” a book about an event that happened two weeks ago? But how does that fiscal incentive transform into the power to create a national (or bigger) consensus on what that event was or meant. How does the authorship, books written by the history makers themselves, change the way we interpret and understand events? How has the N.D. Thompson Publishing Company’s (the book doesn’t even have a listed author!) shaped the way people understand the Spanish-American War? How did the Heroes of Three Wars and all of the Grant biographies and memoirs help to determine whose heroic acts we remember today?
I guess what I’m really thinking about today is, how is history different when it is written “by history makers”? What can we, today, take from these texts? What kinds of cultural legacies have they created, promoted, sustained?
Subscription books play such a peculiar role in this memory-creating. These aren’t books that buyers sought out, but ones brought to their doors, books that many were coerced into buying. Many anecdotal accounts note that subscription books were sometimes one of only a few books in a household. How does that role, that unique place in a home that might otherwise have only the Bible, an agricultural book, and a medical book, influence the way that the owners end up understanding their country and its military actions? How is a child growing up in that home’s worldview shaped by that book?