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Guilty Pleasures

Popular Novels and American Audiences in the Long Nineteenth Century
Hugh McIntosh

BUY Cloth · 184 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941646 · $65.00 · Sep 2018
BUY Ebook · 184 pp. · ISBN 9780813941660 · $65.00 · Sep 2018
BUY Paper · 184 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813941653 · $24.50 · Sep 2018

Guilty pleasures in one’s reading habits are nothing new. Late-nineteenth-century American literary culture even championed the idea that popular novels need not be great. Best-selling novels arrived in the public sphere as at once beloved and contested objects, an ambivalence that reflected and informed America’s cultural insecurity. This became a matter of nationhood as well as aesthetics: the amateurism of popular narratives resonated with the discourse of new nationhood.

In Guilty Pleasures, Hugh McIntosh examines reactions to best-selling fiction in the United States from 1850 to 1920, including reader response to such best-sellers as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ben Hur, and Trilby as well as fictional representations—from Trollope to Baldwin—of American culture’s lack of artistic greatness. Drawing on a transatlantic archive of contemporary criticism, urban display, parody, and advertising, Guilty Pleasures thoroughly documents how the conflicted attitude toward popular novels shaped these ephemeral modes of response. Paying close attention to this material history of novel reading, McIntosh reveals how popular fiction’s unique status as socially saturating and aesthetically questionable inspired public reflection on what it meant to belong to a flawed national community.


This smart, provocative, and accessibly written cultural history makes a significant contribution to scholarship on the history of the book and illuminates larger questions about the political possibilities of mass culture.

Erin A. Smith, University of Texas at Dallas, author of What Would Jesus Read? Popular Religious Books and Everyday Life in Twentieth-Century America

"Exceptionally readable, well-researched, and theoretically astute, Guilty Pleasures reveals an intriguing history of how concerns with reader reception intertwined with narrative strategies in American fiction of the long nineteenth century.  A rousing, innovative, and substantial contribution to the field."

Wesley Raabe, Kent State University, editor of "walter dear": The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt, Walt Whitman Archive

[McIntosh] sets out to prove that some popular American novels, though not considered major literary achievements, have had powerful and lasting cultural impact.... [U]ndergraduates will gain something valuable from cultural tableaux of certain literary works.


McIntosh convincingly argues for the existence of a profound strain of "ambivalence" in the general reception of popular texts that "stood out against the language of intense emotion that so often characterized nineteenth-century novel reading" (2). In doing so, he reminds us that, even as scholars have redeemed popular culture from the concept of guilty pleasure, they have at the same time instantiated, to some extent, an opposition between "high" and "low" cultures that did not in the nineteenth century exist in the way it does now.

American Literary History

About the Author(s): 

Hugh McIntosh is an independent researcher.

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