July 30, 2021

1911 NYT nugget suggests fiction-divorce connection; “rose-color books” cited


NYT Books editor Joumana Khatib unearthed this droll article from the Times archive.

We confess that we don’t always play super-close attention to the “Gray Lady’s” weekly “Books in Brief” missive—so many e-mails! triage! triage! Our fancies were tickled, though, by the inclusion in this week’s installment of a 1911 Times article asking the truly incisive question “Is There Any Connection Between Modern Written Romance and Unfortunate Marital Relation”?

Yowza! Now that’s what we in the trade call an “evergreen”! The article, written by one Charles H. Caffin and appearing in the July 30, 1911 edition, brazenly asks if there might be “some connection between that increase of divorce in the United States” and “the enormous consumption … of novels.”

Holy amateur sociology! We read on eagerly, avid for gross oversimplifications and meretricious arguments, and boy were we not disappointed! According to Mr. Caffin, “the sentiment of love” that appears in, by his estimation, 80 percent of then-contemporary novels is “presented upon high altitudes of sentiment and emotion that make pretense of being ordinary levels of human experience.”

We wavered for a moment, distracted by the implicit argument, presumably alien to Matthew Arnold, that fiction’s purpose is to simulate “ordinary levels of human experience.” Our postmodern sensibilities quivering with anticipation, we continued, waiting for the shoe to drop …

And we were not disappointed! As it turns out, the problem lies not in readers of novels in general, but specifically with women readers of novels. According to Mr. Caffin, “the women of the country have … more native liking for literature that deals with sentiment,” and are thus prey to having their expectations of “the every-day experience” of marriage inflated to an unreasonable degree. Hmm … sounds like gender essentialism to us! I mean, so what … we guess? “When the rose-color books,” Mr. Caffin concludes, “begun to be read by the hundred thousand they began to make their influence felt.”

Even by the standards of 1911, this seems extremely obtuse! Could it be that the Times readers of 1911 were being … trolled? Could this be an example of proto-clickbait? Is Mr. Caffin an ur-sea lion? In search of answers, we turned to our in-house anthropologist and social historian Simon Reichley, but unfortunately he was unwilling to go on the record with even so much as speculation.

We had to content ourselves with a snicker at Mr. Caffin’s expense: According to the byline, at the time of writing the author was “at his Summer home at Seaford, L.I., at work on ‘The Story of French Painting.'” Ooh la la! Talk about unreasonable expectations of domesticity!



Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.