The 19th Century Subscription Book Market Is The Focus of the Next Trouble Begins Lecture

“Laura’s Visit to the Bookstore”
The Gilded Age (Chapter 36)

The 2023 Spring Trouble Begins Lecture Series presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) continues with its second lecture at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, May 17 at Quarry Farm (131 Crane Road, Elmira). The lectures are free and open to the public and recordings of the lectures will be posted to the CMTS website. 

The second lecture, “Between Mark Twain and Bella Z. Spencer: Satire and Sentiment on the Subscription Book Market”, will be presented by Jessica Jordan.

Ask a literary critic about the American subscription book market, and almost inevitably the conversation will turn to one figure: Mark Twain. Not without reason – Twain was both a subscription bookselling wunderkind, selling more than eighty-thousand copies of 1869’s The Innocents Abroad in just a year and a half through this method, and a favorite of the literary establishment, who considered him an exception to the low-quality offerings they believed typified the subscription business. Even so, the emphasis on a single author has resulted in a neglect of figures besides Twain who operated within it.

One such figure is Bella Zilpha Spencer, whose 1866 novel Tried and True, or Love and Loyalty: A Story of the Great Rebellion pre-dates Mark Twain and Charles Dudley’s Warner’s The Gilded Age – long considered the first novel sold by subscription – by seven years. In putting Spencer’s work, and her novel’s life on the subscription market, in conversation with Twain’s, we expand our understanding of fiction’s relationship to this pervasive and diverse system of distribution.

Jessica Jordan is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Stanford University. She is currently at work on her dissertation, Anxieties of Abundance: Book and Body in America’s Gilded Age, which explores how the late nineteenth century “book flood” heightened the already-troubled sense that books were people with minds (and bodies) of their own. Her work on women in the subscription bookselling trade has been honored with a California Young Book Collector’s Prize and she is a 2022-2023 Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

The 2023 Spring Trouble Begins Lecture Series:

  • Wednesday, May 24 – Ann M. Ryan, “The Dangers of Loving Mark Twain”
  • Wednesday, May 31 – Lawrence Howe, “Mark Twain, Property, and Poetry”

In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins Lecture Series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The lectures are now held in the Fall and Spring in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. In the Summer the lectures are held at the Park Church. All lectures are free and open to the public.

The Trouble Begins and Park Church Lecture Series are made possible by the support of the Mark Twain Foundation, Katherine Roehlke, and generous gifts from individual donors.