Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Apostles of Culture, Part 2

In part two of her book, Dee Garison takes on the thorny marriage of fiction and the library from 1876-1920's, in particular looking at the gulf between the rhetoric that fiction was bad and the fact that most libraries over time began carrying it while simultaneously arguing that it was bad. She explores the hypocrisy there, but also the pragmatism of stocking things people actually wanted to read.

I think most of us got a kick out of Section 2, laughing at the Victorian notions of what was scandalous and inappropriate. But I think it is also important to note the ways that appropriate and inappropriate fiction were gendered. What kinds of things were immoral or inappropriate and for whom? How did these ideas change over time, and what external factors influenced this change? How does this all tie into the genteel female library hostess role? (FYI keep these questions in mind for class, I'm working on an activity using passages from some of these actual books)

She also discussed the way libraries used fiction to lure patrons in, with the hopes of steering them towards more worthy works. Why was or was this not successful? Why would certain novels appeal more to people of differing classes or genders or social status then others? And in the context of Victorian culture, what was so appealing about scandalous novels in the first place?

And how was the library as an institution (I'm speaking very broadly here) shaped by this gendered and classed debate over moral and immoral fiction? Can we even draw broad claims here?


Kelly said...

Please forgive me for not pursuing your discussion questions here, but I have to vent about this section of Apostles of Culture.

Why on earth did Garrison think it was a good idea to summarize novels without saying what the titles were? She gave the authors and the names of their heroines, but at least half of her summaries of scandalous Victorian novels didn't mention the name of the book that was being summarized! The titles are in the endnotes, but I found it VERY annoying to have to keep flipping back to the end of the book just to find out what the novels were called.

It's not like these books are so well-known that we don't need to be told what they are -- Garrison herself says that most were out of print by the '40s. The only one I'd ever heard of before was Belinda.

Brendan said...

I have to agree with Kelly, no titles was definitely frustrating. But back to the original post...

I think it's important to look at the dual roles played by women during this time, as Garrison sees it. On one hand, we have the quiet, pleasant librarian women who possesses "special feminine talents" (177) that would help with librarianship and are viewed as "custodians of cultural ideals" (178) by library leaders. On the other hand, we have the women who are reading "immoral" fiction (which puts all sorts of crazy ideas in their heads) and striving to become more independent, seek out higher education and employment, and enjoy the same privileges as men. Clearly, these cannot be two completely different groups. Did library leaders of the time not recognize the duplicity of their attitudes towards females? Or did I just miss that part?

Eileen H. said...

Clearly, these cannot be two completely different groups. Did library leaders of the time not recognize the duplicity of their attitudes towards females? Or did I just miss that part?

I found your point intriguing, Brendan. I hadn't really thought about it in this way. The point I left with in Garrison's analysis of the scandalous novels is that one of the main reasons they were considered scandalous was because mainly women were reading them, and these "new types of fiction encouraged female readers to desire wider experiences than could be found within the limits of their normal routine" (70). Perhaps library leaders didn't want to encourage female librarians to get any ideas from these novels about moving beyond their roles as genteel hostesses. By discouraging this type of fiction they would be influencing not only the general public, but also the women working in lower positions under them, who they wanted to maintain working under them.

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

I was uptight about this section of the book from the perspective that Garrison spent so much time in summarization of books and titles, when she could have made a few generlized comments here. From that point she could have focused more on the effects of these popular titles on the user and the librarian. How were librarians able to stock their shelves with these types of books without any noted backlash from library leadership, the town, or the taxpaying public? Was there no issue with how this change in tastes was handled within the library?