posted December 8, 2003

Succes de Scandale Has Long Tradition

Although a full 100 years separate them, a Hope College English professor has found that the 19th and 21st centuries aren't that far apart when it comes to promoting a book.

In both the Gilded Age and the Information Age, according to Dr. William Pannapacker, controversy is good for sales and offers a route to commercial success for artists in a culture that insists that they shun self-promotion. It's an insight that follows his ongoing research into the career of 19th century literary luminary Walt Whitman, whose initial status as an outsider ultimately led to lasting fame.

"Artists cannot buy advertising without sacrificing their credibility as artists, so they attract attention through public feuds, sensationalism and personal eccentricity," said Pannapacker, who is an assistant professor of English and Towsley Research Scholar at Hope. He is author of the recent book "Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship" (Routledge, New York and London), and also teaches a course at the college on banned books. "The greatest possible coup for an author is to get his or her book 'banned,' which almost ensures a bestseller."

The dynamic, he noted, has arisen since the 19th century, when mass-market book sales became not only possible but necessary to a writer's livelihood. "Literature is about intense personal and economic struggle, as well as the quest for 'truth' and 'beauty,'" Pannapacker said.

As a recent example, he cites Jonathan Franzen, author of "The Corrections," who generated considerable attention for refusing to appear on the Oprah Book Club.

"It's a Faustian pact, almost - how can one turn this down?," Pannapacker said. "But if you have aspirations to be a 'literary author,' then an appearance on 'Oprah' looks like selling out."As it happened, the move served Franzen well, Pannapacker believes. "He attracted more media coverage by snubbing Oprah as a middle-brow reader, than he would have garnered by appearing on her show," he said. "And he preserved his 'high-literary' pretensions."

In the late 1980s, he noted, Salmon Rushdie gained more attention for his book "The Satanic Verses" because of the death threat by the late Ayatollah Khomeini than otherwise would have been the case. Similarly, when groups object to books such as the "Harry Potter" series, he said, the resultant coverage results in free publicity and greater sales.Whitman, Pannapacker noted, not only realized the same sorts of benefits but practically turned obtaining them into an art form.

Pannapacker will be making a presentation on the topic on Monday, Dec. 29, during the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in San Diego, Calif. His paper considers Whitman in contrast to James Russell Lowell, a contemporary who epitomized the conservative literary tradition of the day.

Whitman as a young poet shocked the established literary community with his unconventional verse and earthy subject matter, according to Pannapacker. In 1865, he was dismissed from a position with the Department of the Interior for reasons including moral turpitude, based on the character of his poetry. In 1881, a Boston publisher declined to print some of his work because the city's postmaster deemed it obscene and unfit to send through the mail, making it unmarketable.The rejection became an opportunity, Pannapacker said. The poet's response: capitalize on it.

"Whitman sets himself up as a hero for free expression," he said. "He begins to proclaim how he is a censored author. Not only that, but he says that he is the target of government persecution."

Lowell, a Harvard professor, son of a New England minister and editor of the "Atlantic," became a particular focus for Whitman. He tried to position Lowell as his greatest enemy, a threat to the progressive spirit in American literature that Whitman claimed to represent - although how much of a focus Whitman was for Lowell is less certain, Pannapacker believes.

"Whitman said much more about Lowell hating him than Lowell ever said," Pannapacker said. "It was in the interest of Whitman and his supporters to claim that they had this patrician enemy who wanted to crush them."

In the end, the campaign worked.

"People began to rally around Whitman, writing defenses of him," Pannapacker said.

That book that couldn't get published in Boston? Readers in places like New York and Philadelphia snapped it up, in part to one-up the prudish Bostonians. The admiring literary community in England got the idea that Whitman was unappreciated and starving in the U.S. - many British fans started sending him money, not realizing that he was actually enjoying middle-class comfort. More U.S. readers, in turn, embraced Whitman's work to refute Britain's perception that they were ignoring a literary giant.

As a result, Pannapacker said, Whitman ultimately became a mainstream success himself, remembered even today not only for his controversial works but for pieces like "O Captain! My Captain!," an ode to Abraham Lincoln published after the president's assassination in 1865. Lowell, on the other hand, who was once considered canonical in importance, has faded to relative obscurity.