Selected Contemporary Commentary on W.W.W.

From Susan Warner,

By Anna B. Warner (New York: Putnam's, 1909)

    One point about that book [The Wide, Wide World] (as indeed in all she [Susan Warner] ever wrote) it is hard to explain to those who know not such springs of life and action. For it was written in closest reliance upon God: for thoughts, for power, and for words. Not the mere vague wish to write a book that should do service to her Master: but a vivid, constant, looking to him for guidance and help: the worker and her work both laid humbly at the Lord's feet. In that sense, the book was written upon her knees: and the Lord's blessing has followed it, down to this day. How many of whom even I have heard, trace their heart conversion straight to that blessing on the pages of the "Wide, Wide World." (p. 264)

    [quoting from Susan Warner's journal for 1851:] "Jan. 1. It was a pretty thing, the reading of the notices of my work that Father had brought home,--from the Evening Post, Boston Chronotype, Commercial and Literary World. The three first, which Father had copied out, were already read--there was some delay about cutting the leaves of the other. I had gone upstairs, and I heard such a shout! and coming down, Anna opened the door to tell me they had given me a column and a half! and an extract!! . . . I lay awake, and thought about it after I went to bed. Thank God for every promise of success and encouragement; and oh! for the spirit to thank him, should both fail!"

    Was it any wonder we were excited?

    "This is," said the learned Evening Post, "a regular two-volume novel by a native author, but whether an old or a young hand, we are unable to say."

    "It will be popular, or we are much mistaken," wrote the Commercial Advertiser.

    "It will be a very popular fireside book," adds the Chronotype; the Literary World copies in a long extract from Miss Fortune's "Bee." . . . (pp. 335-36)

    [quoting from Susan Warner's journal for 1851:] "Jan. 25. Mrs. Codwise spoke to Father about the W.W.W.; asked if he had seen it? Father said he has seen some notices of it in the papers; she said they were reading it aloud, and some young lady staying there would not give them rest about it; there was a scene in a steamboat which said young lady recognized as like what she had experienced herself! Knowledge of the world, etc. . . .

    "Feb. 1. Sam brought the papers to the window while we sat at dinner, and, turning them over, Anna found a second notice of the W.W.W. in the Home Journal. Made my dinner go off very well. Father brought word at night that the edition of seven hundred and fifty copies if almost sold. Six weeks today since published. . . .

    "Feb. 8. I think it was this day (for I write weeks after) that Father brought me a very great budget of praise indeed from the Murrays--Mr. Murray and all--him especially. Miss Ogden had been remarkably interested in the W.W.W., very much engrossed with it, and Mr. M. had seen nothing of the kind in a long time that had pleased him so much. Father detailed a great deal. I longed, I longed, when I had heard it, that my talents might all be thoroughly sanctified. . . .

    "Feb. 15. Father came home with no particular news, and I felt rather down.

    "Feb. 22. The edition is all sold out and Mr. Putnam is talking of another. Nine weeks since published; and sold with great liking. He has had repeated orders for more copies from Boston and Providence, and people have written to know my name,--Mrs. Sigourney among them.

    "March 1. My secret is out. Mrs. Bruen spoke of the W.W.W. so as to shew that she knew it; and going to Mrs. Wilke's she broke out the first thing about it. No book in her neighbourhood has made such a stir in a long time. Miss Few trying to read it aloud broke down entirely. That pleases me. Being out of print nearly it has been selling in the upper part of the city for $2.50, and a bookseller let somebody as a favour have a copy for $2.25. He said he had not had a book in I don't know how long that had sold so well. I thank God for it all, and pray for my entire sanctification to his glory." (pp. 341-43)

    Yes, it was quite wonderful. . . . Professor Gammell wrote, after referring to his previous notice in the "Christian Review":

    "I now write at the instance of many friends here--they are all ladies of course--to know who Elizabeth Wetherell really is, and also to express the hope which is here very widely cherished, that she will be induced to go on in the same strain in which she has so well begun, and either narrate still further the fortunes of her most delightful little heroine, or enter upon some new plot which shall develop similar principles and breathe the same pure and elevated spirit. She has succeeded, I think, better than any other writer in our language in making religious sentiment appear natural and attractive, in a story that possesses the interest of romance."

    "The truth is," said the N. Y. Times, "that one book like this is not produced in an age."

    "It is capable of doing more good than any other work, other than the Bible,"--so said the Newark Daily Advertiser. (p. 344)

    The book drew in all classes of people. A friend calling upon Mrs. George Bancroft one day, expressed surprise at seeing a book of that sort upon her table. With an expressive gesture the woman of fashion replied: "My dear, you know, one must read it!"

    On the other hand, little four-year-old Henry Olin--leaning his elbows on his mother's lap as she and his aunts read the book aloud, twisting about with the utter fatigue of the long-held hard position, was advised to run off and play. But with another twist, the mite sighed out: "It's so interesting!"

    Another small boy, to whose home we went on a visit, planted himself near my sister, with hands behind him, and took a long, serious observation. Then turned away with the competent remark: "I should n't have thought she could have done it!"

    Of course there were criticisms,--of the religion, the style, the story; but I do not think they disturbed my sister much. And as a rule, the critics found fault with yet a touch of kindness in their words; or we thought so. No one seemed really to wish to hurt us. Sometimes the comical came in, as thus:

    "In the 'Wide, Wide World' cannot be found better undergarments and hosiery that at James E. Ray's, 108 Bowery."

    This might have been a hint at Ellen's stockings.

    In 1852 the book was already verging towards the fourteenth edition. So it was stated. (pp. 345-46)

    "It is now nearly a year," wrote a stranger from New Jersey, "since I first met with your incomparable work, 'The Wide, Wide World,' which I read with the most heartfelt sympathy and delight. I immediately purchased it as a suitable gift for the thirteenth anniversary of my Ellen,--and recommended it to everyone in whom I felt the slightest interest,--and now every reading friend I have possesses a copy, and enjoys it as I do. During an illness of my husband (a grave man of fifty-seven), I read it aloud to him. Like myself and so many more, he was perfectly charmed with the faithful individuality with which each character was portrayed, and the loftly principles and scriptural truths inculcated in the volumes. My oldest daughter of twenty (not very fond of reading) is charmed with it,--and my Ellen (its owner) has read it three times over with renewed enjoyment, and I truly believe, profit. I have read it myself with attention three times alone, and as many times aloud, to a deeply interested circle of auditors; and each perusal gives fresh pleasure, and an increased perception of its value. Even my youngest, a boisterous boy, who cannot read, will listen to it for hours as a rich treat to him." (p. 355)

From The Literary World

28 December 1850

    THIS is a very excellent example of the now common class of religious novels. The heroine is a little girl, whose mother is forced to leave, for the healing influences of a foreign clime, her native land, while her child is placed by her father in the care of Miss Fortune, a New England spinster of most vinegar composition. There is no let up to her severity. She is, however, sketched with considerable humor, and several scenes of rude country life are presented in a very agreeable style. This discussion of the pros and cons touching a contemplated "Bee," would not do discredit to the pages of Mary Clavers.


    Without laying claims to an elaborately planned plot, the story is not devoid of interest, and its religious teachings are worthy of all praise for their gentleness and earnestness, and the happy manner in which they are introduced. The author's chief fault is diffuseness. She tells a story or describes a scene with a woman's indiscriminate minuteness. The consequence is, that the reviewer, hardened to novel reading, gets over her two sizable volumes at a rate which would would hardly think complimentary. The book would stand a great deal of compression--a fact the author would do well to bear in mind, if disposed for another experiment on the public. But this is a common and characteristic trait of the novel literature of the day, particularly of English literature; and, we may add, of this especial class of religious fictions. So that the Wide, Wide World, in taking a canvas proportional to the text, is by no means unique.

From The North American Review

January 1853

[By Caroline Kirkland]

    As far as we know the early history of the Wide, Wide World, it was, for some time, bought to be presented to nice little girls, by parents and friends who desired to set a pleasant example of docility and self-command before those happy beginners. Elder sisters were soon found poring over the volumes, and it was very natural that mothers next should try the spell which could so enchain the more volatile spirits of the household. After this, papas were not very difficult to convert, for papas like to feel their eyes moisten, sometimes, with emotions more generous than those usually excited at the stock exchange of in the counting-room. Whether any elder brothers read, we must doubt, in the absence of any direct testimony; for that class proverbially despises any thing to "slow" as pictures of domestic life; but we are much mistaken if the Wide, Wide World, and Queechy [Warner's next novel], have not been found under the pillows of sober bachelors,--pillows not unsprinkled with the sympathetic tears of those who, in broad day, manfully exult in "freedom" from the effeminate fetters of wife and children.

    All this while nobody talked about these simple stories. They were found on everybody's table, and lent from house to house, but they made no great figure in the newspapers or show-bills. By and by, the deliberate people who look at title-pages, noticed the magic words, "Tenth Thousand," "Twelfth Thousand," and so on; and as the publishing house was not one of those who think politic fibs profitable, inevitable conclusions began to be drawn as to the popularity of the books--conclusions to which the publisher had come long before, perhaps not without a certain surprise.

    With our intuitive respect for the public fiat, we scarce feel like criticizing, in the usual terms, works which have received the unbought stamp of its hearty approval. All critical rules worth using are deduced from works thus stamped; that is to say, from works of genius; for the universal heart leaps up to none other. And as each of these must be to a certain extent original, we ought, perhaps, to consider it as instituting some new rules, of which it should itself first enjoy the advantage. We should certainly be much at a loss for any single book to which we might profitably compare these truly indigenous novels, unless we take the liberty of supposing that the Vicar of Wakefield may have seemed to English readers of Goldsmith's time somewhat as these do to us--a simple transcript of country life and character, depending for interest partly on the ordinary joys and sorrows of our common humanity, partly on life-like pictures of individual loveliness and virtue, which sweeten what is homely in the accessories, and brighten scenes and fortunes that might otherwise leave on the mind a too oppressive sadness. As far as we can analyse the elements of literary popularity, that of the Vicar and that of these world-wide stories of ours rest on a somewhat similar basis, though we are far from claiming for the American tales an equality of merit. In plot they are deficit, certainly; may almost be said to have none; and in variety they fall immeasurably behind, as every picture of common life drawn by a woman necessarily must, for want of the wide experience open only to the other sex. . . .

    Miss Warner--who can no longer expect to find shelter under her pseudonyme of "Elizabeth Wetherell,"--sets out on her task with a religious intention--as who should not? under the injunction, "WHATEVER ye do"--yet she does not write what we have been accustomed to comtemplate under the title of a religious novel. Attempting, as her main point, the development of a female character from mere childhood upward, she makes religion the decisive element, as whoever would draw from nature must do, spite of convention, fortune, amiable dispositions, happy circumstances, or strange reverses. Whosoever looks below the mere surface of things, finds that when virtue, happiness, or even prosperity is in question, religion is the ultimate disposer, though the world is slow to recognize its power over "the life that now is." In our view, Miss Warner allows it no higher than its due place, and ascribes to it no wider than its real influence. She makes her young girl passionate, though amiable, in her temper; fond of admiration, although withheld by innate delicacy from seeking it unduly. She places her in circumstances of peculiar trial to her peculiar traits, and brings her, by careful gradations, to the state of self-governed and stable virtue which fits woman for her great office in the world; a fitness which would be impaired by the sacrifice of a single grace, or the loss of one sentiment of tenderness. To build such a character on any basis other than a religious one, would have been to fix a palace upon the shifting sands . . . Ellen and Fleda [heroine of Queechy] are reared, by their truly feminine and natural experiences, into any thing but "strong-minded women," at least if we accept Mr. Dickens's notion of that dreadful order. They are both of velvet softness; of delicate, downcast beauty; of flitting but abundant smiles, and of even too many and ready tears.
"Not learned, save in gracious household ways;
Not perfect, nay, but full of tender wants."
They live in the affections, as the true woman must; yet they cultivate and prize the understanding, and feel it to be the guardian of goodness, as all wise women should. Without a touch of the Corinna, we feel that neither could ever sink to the level of Priscilla. They are conscious of having a power and place in the world, and they claim it without assumption or affectation, and fill it with a quiet self-respect, not inconsistent with modesty and due humility. Such is the ideal presented, and with such skill that we seem at times to be reading a biography. There is a sweetness in the conception and execution that makes the heart and the temper better as we read. A little gentle monitor puts our pride off its guard, and we are led away captive by goodness--even religious goodness--without resistance.

    So much for the charm of the books. As a matter of pure judgment, we must place their pictures of American country life and character above all their other merits, since we know not where, in any language, we shall find their graphic truth excelled. When after times would seek a specimen of our Doric of this date, Aunt Fortune will stand them in stead; and no Theocritus of our time will draw a bucolical swain more true to the life than Mr. Van Brunt. . . . Captain Montgomery is another of those invisible persons with whom we are perfectly well acquainted, although not a line is given to describing him; and the "hateful" clerk who wreaks his petty spite upon Ellen's horse, is a character whose truth to nature little girls bear witness to, by the hearty indignation with which they read the scene. Nancy Vawse is a white Topsy; . . .

    But, on the other hand, we are compelled to say that such magisterial loversw as Mr. Carleton and John Humphreys are not at all to our taste, nor do we believe they would in actual presence be very fascinating to most young ladies. It is true that youthful pupils have fallen in love with their schoolmasters ere now, but if we were condemned to go masquerading after a wife, we should, relying upon observation, choose almost any other role sooner. It is hard to imagine Ellen slipping into the equality of wifehood, from the childish reverence which she is represented as feeling, to the last moment, for him who has been for years her stern and almost gloomy teacher. . . .

    In each and all of the three books we are thinking of [besides Wide World & Queechy, Kirkland discusses Dollars and Centers, by Amy Lothrop], pecuniary difficulties are made the chief means of the development of character; in real life, as it seems to us, they are more certainly the means of developing talent. Is it not assigning to money an office higher than that which really belongs to it, to make the possession or lack of it so influential in that high region where the affections, the conscience, the hope for another life, are the acknowledged arbiters? Character must spring from the heart; conduct may be, in part, the result of circumstances. The possession of riches does, indeed, sometimes seem to harden the heart and deaden the sympathies; mean and shallow minds it makes self-forgetful and irreligious, sometimes. But, on the other hand, has not the struggle with poverty its mischiefs? Even the effort to escape, not from poverty, but from mediocrity, to the dazzling heights of wealth,--that strife which we of this "happy land" see around us every day,--may well remind a looker-on of the fate of those wretched prisoners, who, after agreeing to march in procession past the only breathing place, that each might have his share of the chance for life, soon forgot, in their frantic selfishness, that the good of all was the good of each, and trod upon one another, filling the air with poison and death. Only the philosopher, and, above all, the Christian, whose philosophy has possession and command of the entire man, heart as well as intellect, finds poverty favorable to the cultivation of all the virtues. Angry discontent, if not open murmuring against Providence; if not absolute and conscious envy, at least so much of it as prevents a hearty rejoicing at the prosperity of others; such a yielding to sordid cares as shall make the imagination a mere caterer to Mammon, and so stifle the affections that our eye shall be evil to the son of our bosom as being another consumer of the diminishing store; these are some of the too common and natural evils of poverty; evils against which strength of mind offers no adequate defence, because the intellect alone makes poor and wavering battle against the passions and propensitites.

    Poverty is not, therefore, the ordeal to which we should choose to subject an ordinary mind and heart, with a view to their highest improvement. The trials of temper to which little Ellen is exposed, under the iron hand of Aunt Fortune, are training indeed, and tests indeed. To profit by such blows, the heart must have had the annealing of heavenly fires, for none other would serve; to bear them without absolute injury would be above the moral strength of most children, as our painful interest in the struggles and slips of the dear little girl bears witness.