In the introduction to My Ántonia (1918), a fictionalized author, ostensibly an unnamed version of Cather herself, tells a story of soliciting and receiving a manuscript from her childhood friend Jim Burden, adding, “the following narrative is Jim’s manuscript, substantially as he brought it to me” (xiii). This frame introduction situates Burden as the narrator of the novel, sets up the story’s autobiographical mode, and establishes an unreliable narrator whose presence arguably inaugurates the experimental or modernist phase of Cather’s career. Notably, the introduction also depicts an established author passing an enthusiastic amateur’s manuscript to the public with an endorsement of its authenticity and importance. This exchange is also a useful point of entry for an analysis of what Aaron Jaffe identifies as “the complex economies of cultural prestige” and “secondary literary labor” fundamental to the U.S. literary marketplace in the early twentieth century (3). The unnamed author of My Ántonia’s introduction acts as an agent or mediator, passing Burden’s work to the public with a brief word of context and an implicit endorsement of its content.
Cather’s depiction of a private literary exchange at the outset of My Ántonia speaks to her awareness of how a range of personal, professional, and managerial figures mediated literary careers. Cather advocated powerfully for herself but also benefited from the support of several literary intermediaries, including but not limited to her domestic partner and collaborator Edith Lewis, her former employer S. S. McClure, and her agent Paul Revere Reynolds. Of these figures, Reynolds has probably received the least attention. He did not introduce Cather to the public, nor did he participate in the early crafting of her literary persona, yet his involvement in her career speaks to Cather’s engagement with the issues of literary identity and credibility raised by scholars such as Jaffe. Reynolds took Cather on as a client once she had established herself, and he placed many of her short stories and novels in magazines from 1916 through the 1920s. During this period, Cather also triangulated her decisions with Alfred and Blanche Knopf (president and vice-president of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., respectively) and made individual efforts to sell her work. Although some have framed Cather as the reluctant artist and Reynolds as the aggressive salesman, her relationship with the market as mediated by Reynolds was more complex than such a dichotomy suggests. In an essay published in 2000, Rebecca Roorda moves past the stereotype of Reynolds as “merely being an employee or a manuscript peddler” (72), providing detailed profiles of the magazines Cather published with and considering their significance to her career. Roorda also argues that “the inconsistencies of her magazine publications would seem to be a direct reflection of her ambivalence about the changing trends in what was becoming the writing business” (75). My analysis of Reynolds builds on Roorda’s, providing a broader historical and theoretical context to emphasize the connection between Reynolds’s work and the driving principles of the modern literary marketplace. Rather than viewing Cather as a figure “caught in the middle and pulled in opposite directions” by artistic and monetary concerns (Roorda 75), I document an association that was limited but mutually beneficial, with Cather and Reynolds consistently seeking a balance between profit and prestige. While their efforts sometimes seem adversarial, Cather made careful use of Reynolds’s skills and crafted a convincing anti-commercial posture as a component of her strategic selffashioning. Reynolds, in turn, developed a diverse client base: his most artistically credible authors ensured his cultural legitimacy in the eyes of editors, publishers, and clients, while his most commercially marketable authors allowed him to maximize his income.
I am less concerned with Cather’s status as a literary modernist than with the distinctly modern cultural factors that enabled a diversity of literary communities and texts. Modernism is often defined by its most distinct stylistic or aesthetic features, especially experimental forms that did not conform to preexisting ideas of texts as commodities. As Catherine Turner argues, modernism is defined by more than stylistic experimentation. Instead, it is an “integrative mode” that both encompasses stylistic differentiation and “describes the place . . . the moderns occupied within their culture” (6). Indeed, Turner argues, the idea of modernism as integrative mode accounts for the fact that modernists simultaneously held “a fascination with and opposition to mass culture” while “play[ing] a role in making their own artistic works into commodities” (7). In recent scholarship, Turner, Jaffe, and Loren Glass have all emphasized the complex relationship between modernists and the broader culture they framed themselves against. Many high modernists, either directly or through proxies acting on their behalf, worked hard to secure their popularity or ensure that their work had wide appeal. Conversely, authors characterized as middlebrow or popular innovated stylistically or engaged philosophical ideas associated with modernism. Much of the work Cather published with Reynolds’s help was not stylistically experimental, but her cultivation of a relationship with him suggests she was a modern author responding to the marketplace’s evolution rather than an inconsistent or indecisive author resisting the market.
Critical to the reassessment of modernism and the market by Glass, Jaffe, and Turner is the theorizing of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu traces the emergence of “art for art’s sake” in nineteenth-century France, where an interdependent opposition arose between the commercial market (the field of large-scale production) and the avant-garde (the field of restricted production). By rejecting financial profit, writers in the restricted field gained credibility, prestige, and authority (symbolic capital), even though they made little or no money (specific capital). That is, according to the ordinary rules of economics the field of restricted production is governed by a “generalized game of ‘loser wins’” (39). Even though the two fields seem antagonistic to one another, the field of large-scale production may “renew itself” periodically by drawing upon the restricted field (Johnson 16).
Further, according to Glass, “the volatile passage from the restricted elite audience of urban bohemia and ‘little magazines’ to the mass audience of the U.S. middlebrow became a signature career arc for American modernist writers. Along this arc, the model of the author as solitary creative genius whose work goes unrecognized by the mainstream collides with the model of the author as part of a corporate publisher’s marketing strategy” (6). This fundamental hierarchy structured the U.S. publishing marketplace in the first half of the twentieth century.
Bourdieu also provides a framework to explain how the different fields influence artistic form. He notes that in nineteenth-century France the rejection of historically rooted formal conventions coincided with the appearance of a “socially distinguishable category of professional artists or intellectuals who are less inclined to recognize the rules” (112). Paradoxically, then, the rise of the mass market led to the social construction of modernism, which in turn spurred modernism’s most conspicuous stylistic features; subsequently, modernism secured elite status by appearing to be separate from the very system that helped give it meaning. Of course, the greater part of literary production fell somewhere between the artistic and popular extremes. Intermediary professionals like Reynolds earned their pay based on their ability to navigate these complexities.
The existence of Reynolds’s profession, in fact, resulted from the emergence of a national American readership with money to spend on magazines and the products advertised within them. Sometimes characterized as America’s first literary agent, Reynolds was actually preceded by British agents operating within the United States. Furthermore, as early as the 1820s, many individuals in the United States functioned as literary agents well before the profession formally emerged (West 81). Born in Boston in 1864 and educated at Harvard, Reynolds wanted to be a writer but abandoned that pursuit after working as a reader for Youth’s Companion. In 1891 he moved to New York, where he became a publisher’s agent for Cassells, a British publisher, and helped place British titles for American publication and vice versa. He was responsible for offering newspaper publisher O. M. Dunham first refusal on British books that might interest them, and he served as a general intermediary between Cassells in England and American publishers or authors. Subsequently, he established similar relationships with Heinemann, Sampson Low, and Constable. By 1895 he represented authors as well as publishers and typically earned a 10 percent commission on material sold. Moving into the twentieth century, commissions from authors became his primary source of income (Hepburn 74). According to James Hepburn, Reynolds was the “most important early literary agent in America” and was of particular interest because “in a much more conspicuous way than his fellows he was a double agent, serving both publishers and authors” (73, 74–5).
Reynolds began primarily as a specialist in transatlantic copyright, benefiting from the expansion of the book trade enabled by the Chace Act of 1891 and the availability for the first time of reciprocal copyright between the United Kingdom and the United States. Christopher P. Wilson describes the way literature, as a result of the “initial spark” of the bill, “became defined as legal property,” subject to “managerial collaboration and supervision,” expanding, both directly and indirectly, the need for professionals like Reynolds (74). Within ten years, Reynolds was making most of his income by placing British and American authors’ writings in commercial magazines (West 84). Frederick Lewis Allen, who penned a commissioned “biographical sketch” of Reynolds (published posthumously in 1944), dedicates an entire chapter to the so-called magazine revolution of 1893, when Cosmopolitan, McClure’s, and Munsey’s began to sell their product for five to ten cents. These new magazines relied on ad revenue as their major source of income, and each soon boasted between 500,000 and one million readers. Meanwhile, according to Allen, the shift “was furnishing to Paul Reynolds a new market and a profitable one; and by stiffening the editorial competition for the work of popular authors it was slowly fortifying the position of the literary agent in America” (39). Therefore the rise of the mass market, and specifically of commercial magazines, offered a new profession to figures like Reynolds. By the time Cather hired Reynolds, he was a well-known figure in the New York publishing world, with a dossier of clients that included Stephen Crane, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Booth Tarkington, and H. G. Wells (Allen 71).
In the face of a culturally constructed sense of opposition between the national mainstream and an avant-garde alternative, authors like Cather needed to find ways to reconcile financial gain with artistic status. While agents like Reynolds had been a part of the American publishing system since the late nineteenth century, the rising bifurcation between the most respected authors and the most profitable ones made an agent’s job more difficult and important than ever before. Turner argues that those promoting modernism, “publishers’ agents, patrons, and advertising men,” performed a function “that is more complex than the role they have been assigned in the past” (7). Reynolds’s primary role was to sell his clients’ work, but his strategies varied from client to client. For some authors he focused on maximizing their profit potential by selling their work at progressively higher rates to whatever venues would make both author and agent the most money. For others, such as Cather, he worked within a frame of respectability, following the authors’ wishes, but simultaneously ensuring higher prices than the authors could have negotiated by themselves.
That Reynolds worked for Cather at all speaks to her appeal to a national, middle-class audience, since he refused to take on unproven talent and even said in a refusal letter to Upton Sinclair that he made his living “handling an author’s work that has already made some place for himself” (29 September 1919). He worked exclusively on commission, so he only represented authors whose work he thought he could sell. He did not deal in poetry unless handling it as a small part of an author’s larger body of work for sale. “The commission is so small,” he said of poetry in another letter to Sinclair, “that it doesn’t pay” (19 January 1905). Reynolds did not involve himself in the early stages of an avant-garde author’s career; the unwritten rules of the restricted field of cultural production demanded that such authors reject consumer culture and produce experimental writing that would initially struggle to find an audience. Paul Revere Reynolds Jr., Reynolds’s son and eventual successor at the helm of the family business, recalls in his memoir The Middle Man: The Adventures of a Literary Agent (1971) that Gertrude Stein once contacted Reynolds for representation but he turned her down: “He wrote to Miss Stein that he was unable to understand what she was trying to do with her writing, and hence he was not the person to handle her work” (28). Reynolds played a role in defining his clients’ symbolic status. He used his understanding of the existing market to place short stories and serial novels. His choices affected his authors’ exposure, the kinds of venues they would be associated with, and the kinds of readers they would be most likely to reach. The money authors received from publishing in magazines meant they could make less profitable (and possibly more reputation-driven) choices when publishing their books. The financial benefits of magazine publication are what initially led Cather to take Reynolds on as an agent; as she remarked in 1918, the extra money she made from Reynolds’s salesmanship meant she could afford to “bone down on” the My Ántonia manuscript and finish it (Woodress 279).
Like his other clients, Cather engaged Reynolds only after she had already established her national reputation. In June 1916, Ferris Greenslet of Houghton Mifflin wrote Cather reporting that Reynolds wanted to contact her because magazines were asking for her short fiction (Roorda 73). Cather probably knew of Reynolds as far back as her days at McClure’s; Reynolds sold to McClure’s often and had a professional rapport with the magazine that went as far back at the late 1890s. He sold Cather’s short story “The Diamond Mine” to McClure’s in 1916 and pressed her for more work thereafter, placing approximately two pieces a year with magazines for the next dozen years. Cather was initially pleased with Reynolds’s abilities after he sold “The Diamond Mine” for six hundred dollars. According to biographer James Woodress, “She wrote Harry Dwight that she took the greatest satisfaction in Reynolds’s conduct of her affairs. . . . [She] told Greenslet in June that Reynolds could sell anything” (278–79). While Cather had serialized Alexander’s Bridge as Alexander’s Masquerade in McClure’s in 1912, she did not serialize another novel until she placed A Lost Lady with Century in 1923. Previously, with My Ántonia (1918) and One of Ours (1922), she ruled out serialization with little consideration. A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House (1925), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), her entire book-length oeuvre of the 1920s, appeared in popular American magazines, which meant she would receive quick injections of capital shortly after finishing any given project.
Cather’s potential as a source of profit paled in relation to Reynolds’s highest-paid writers. This may strike some as evidence of an unsuccessful professional relationship, but it should instead call attention to the fact that Reynolds represented an assortment of authors with differing priorities. His highest-paid clients earned him the most commissions, but his best-known or most-respected clients helped him maintain professional validity, which contributed to his long-term success. Paul Revere Reynolds Jr. writes: “What is important for the agent and what takes years of experience is to discover how to handle oneself with authors and editors” (33). Because of her resistance to the commercial system, Cather would never make as much money as some other writers. Dorothy Canfield Fisher was able to command much higher prices for her work ($20,000 for a serial novel, $2,000 for a short story in the 1910s and 1920s), and Booth Tarkington in the 1910s was commanding up to $30,000 for a serial novel sight unseen, and up to $3,500 for a short story, which was more than Cather garnered for Death Comes for the Archbishop. In 1923 McCall’s offered Tarkington $40,000 for his next novel and indicated a willingness to wait up to two years for the manuscript (Reynolds to Tarkington, 27 March 1923). Cather, in contrast, ruled out some publishing venues altogether and hesitated when pursuing other opportunities. Comparing Cather with writers like Fisher and Tarkington suggests that Cather fulfilled a different market niche than either of these Reynolds clients.
An assessment of Cather’s earnings should take into account how much she made relative to what kind of payment she was accustomed to receiving. The James R. and Susan J. Rosowski Cather Collection at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, includes a financial ledger of Cather’s earnings. This small black book (no bigger than a modern-day personal address book) shows the precision with which Cather kept track of profits from her books and magazine writings. Cather kept a separate page for serial novels, and notes her post-commission earnings for the serialization of The Professor’s House in 1925 at $9,000. On a separate page, she lists profits from her publisher and royalties for the book at $20,305.10 by the end of 1929, indicating that she made about 30 percent of the book’s total profits from one bulk sale of the novel, while it took another four years for the remaining two-thirds to accrue. Even though Cather made less than other writers, she made a substantial amount relative to her other income. Furthermore, Reynolds went to great lengths to accommodate her despite the relatively low commissions he earned placing her work compared with clients like Tarkington and Fisher. Not noted in Cather’s ledger is the fact that Reynolds made special arrangements to deposit weekly checks in Cather’s bank account while she traveled to New Mexico in June and July 1925. An internal memo from Reynolds to his staff indicates, “She wishes us when we get the receipt from the bank, to send such receipt to her. She says that the Garfield Bank often makes mistakes and she has to check them up” (Reynolds, Office Memo, 4 June 1925). Miss Magee was directed to see this done “in each case.” At the end of the memo, Reynolds adds, “she seems to be fussy about these details and it is important we should carry them out because she is a valuable author.” Reynolds’s use of the term “valuable author” highlights the complexity of value for agent and author. Cather did not earn Reynolds as much in commissions as Tarkington or Fisher, but the prestige of being associated with her was nevertheless valuable to him.
Because Reynolds’s job description varied from one client to the next, a proper understanding of the function of the agent requires a broader historical perspective and a willingness to engage in case-by-case interpretation. Literary agents in the first half of the twentieth century did not merely serve as financial representatives, and the scope of their duties steadily expanded between 1890 and 1945. Agents gradually took on handling film and other subsidiary rights, managed literary estates, and represented newcomers as they sought publishing contracts with book publishers (West 114). Comparatively, Cather limited Reynolds’s role, only allowing him to place fiction in magazines and not granting him an exclusive right to perform this service for her. This constraint suggests that Cather resisted at least one aspect of the changing market, although she did rely on other intermediaries to perform much of this work for her. The Knopfs, for instance, handled the sale of film rights for A Lost Lady and subsequently helped her to fend off film offers when she became disillusioned.
Bourdieu’s model, once again, is a useful interpretive tool to explain these kinds of maneuvers. His concept of “position-takings” accounts for the ways authors and secondary literary laborers construct literary meanings by defining themselves and each other “relative to other positions” (30). Artistic works, written pronouncements about art, and market choices all constitute “position-takings” in the field of cultural production. Cather may well have trusted Blanche and Alfred Knopf more than Reynolds. However, her rejection of Reynolds’s attempts to do more work for her also operated as a series of “position-takings,” which, within the context of Cather’s entire career, helped define her as a commercially suspicious and, thus, artistically credible writer.
Less tangibly, though perhaps more significantly, secondary literary laborers like Reynolds could help convert past artistic success to financial profit and could act as buffers, allowing authors to accrue specific capital without losing symbolic capital. An exchange between Cather and Reynolds in the winter and spring of 1926 illuminates this aspect of their professional relationship. In the winter of that year, Cather spoke with Reynolds regarding the serialization of her most recent work, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). In February 1926 the two had already spoken about where it would appear. They discussed the Forum, as well as the Atlantic Monthly (Reynolds, Office Memo, 5 February 1926). Cather then received a direct query from Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick sometime that spring, asking why Reynolds had offered her manuscript to his magazine. In a 28 May 1926 letter she replied that it was offered because Mr. Reynolds wished it, that she never had any interest in the serialization of her books, and had never cared at all whether they were serialized. It was Reynolds who wished to serialize. She added that it was entirely Reynolds’s decision, and she had merely mentioned Sedgwick as one of a few editors to whom she would allow him to show her work. Beyond that, she said, she would not interfere.
A superficial reading suggests that Cather hired Reynolds, set him loose on the magazine marketplace, and had little interest in what he did with her work except to collect payment, minus 10 percent. In this version of the story, Cather distanced herself from Reynolds because his profession was indicative of the dirty business side of publishing and she, a consummate artist, had no time for (or interest in) such things. According to Janis P. Stout, Cather has not, until recently, “been regarded as a person or a writer for whom the material world held much importance” (2). This version of Cather is not accurate, but her published pronouncements on the subject of art and the artist have contributed to a stereotype that persists to this day. Early in her career Cather wrote that “an artist should not be vexed by human hobbies or human follies” and “should be able to lift himself up into the clear firmament of creation where the world is not” (Kingdom 407). Later, she discouraged inexpensive editions of her books and worked to prevent cinematic adaptations of them after her negative experience with the adaptation of A Lost Lady. She railed against popular culture and said that “the modern novel, the cinema, and the radio” formed “an equal menace to human culture” (qtd. in Bohlke 155). Even though her expressions of distaste for various elements of consumer culture may have been sincere, her denouncement of the commercialization of literature must be placed within the context of her choices as an author and a businessperson. She verbally rejected the market while simultaneously enacting an individualized version of market engagement. The sincerity of her anti-market maneuvers is not at issue, but as Bourdieu argues, the field of cultural production itself offers writers like Cather a way to engage with the market in precisely this way, through position-takings that eschew commercialism but still engage in a “game in which the conquest of cultural legitimacy” is at stake (137).
In the case of Death Comes for the Archbishop, the magazine version ultimately appeared in the Forum, not the Atlantic, a fact that Reynolds Jr. traces back to the exchange between Cather and Sedgwick in May 1926. In his memoir, Reynolds Jr. refers to this exchange between Cather and Sedgwick, but he tells the story through the interpretive lens of a former agent: Sedgwick read Death Comes for the Archbishop. To circumvent my father Sedgwick wrote directly to Miss Cather. He told her that he much admired the novel but he asked two questions. Why was the novel offered to the Atlantic? What did Miss Cather think of the Atlantic? Miss Cather replied that her novel was offered to the Atlantic because Paul Reynolds so decided. She stated that she was sure the Atlantic was a fine magazine but did not have time to read any magazine regularly. Sedgwick then returned the manuscript to my father with a letter stating that “in view of Miss Cather’s attitude,” he would not buy it. (27) The younger Reynolds’s version adds detail to the extant archival record. If Sedgwick asked Cather what she thought of the Atlantic, she did not reply in the May 28 letter (his letter to her does not survive). Reynolds Jr. offers the anecdote as a way of explaining that “sometimes the outcome of a submission depended on my father’s relationship with an editor” and that the entire interchange was a product of the animosity between Reynolds and Sedgwick (26). He also offers the story as an example of the rarely mentioned pact between author and agent, a silent complicity that formed the cornerstone of their functional business relationship. Cather articulated a lack of interest in Reynolds’s work as a way of quashing Sedgwick’s attempt to establish a direct line of communication between editor and author. Her letter to Sedgwick is performative: while she may express deeply internalized attitudes and values, her position-taking also served a generative purpose within the structure of the cultural field.
The Sedgwick anecdote points to a layer of confidentiality between Reynolds and Cather to which few would have had access. The limited volume of correspondence between author and agent as compared to that of some of his other writers tells a story of a resistant or an often uninterested author who acquiesced occasionally to her persistent agent. According to Roorda, Reynolds’s “letters are full of advice and directions, prodding and suggestions to get his authors to do what was best for them” (73). In the case of Cather, she often refused Reynolds or ignored his requests. Reynolds regularly pressed her for more work, while Cather fairly consistently rebuffed his inquiries. Cather’s private rejection of his advice, however, does constitute a kind of cultural work. The very act of exploring options for profit and eventually rejecting them is a kind of position-taking in the game of legitimacy. Many of the details of Reynolds and Cather’s interactions are unrecoverable, since at least four internal memos refer to phone conversations between the two, and they also appear to have met in person. Reynolds as a rule made sure a paper record existed whenever he received instructions from a client, but his notations are restricted to actions he was instructed to take or not take, such as sending a manuscript to a specific magazine or relaying payment to specific address. The existing archive suggests that the back-and-forth between figures like Reynolds and Cather was an essential ritual of the modern culture of letters, evidence that the publishing world was learning to incorporate anti-commercialism into its workings as a brand of artistic respectability.
Exchanges between Cather and Blanche Knopf, as well as between Cather and Reynolds, pertaining to the serialization of Death Comes for the Archbishop, suggest that although Cather was communicating individually with Reynolds and Knopf, Reynolds and Knopf were not necessarily communicating with each other. Reynolds’s internal office memo dated 5 February 1926 expresses some confusion over Cather’s discussions with the Forum regarding the serialization of Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather told Reynolds “she had never made any promises to the Forum.” The memo concludes, “It is evident that she has made no promise and they have written her a similar letter to the one they wrote us.” In fact, Blanche Knopf had received a letter from the Forum and relayed it to Cather with an explanation on 2 February 1926. In her letter, Knopf says the Forum “called up and fussed about wanting you.” In other words, Cather was making use of Reynolds’s skills but not designating an entire sphere of labor to him exclusively. Instead, she consulted the expertise of other professionals, such as Knopf, and certainly did not set Reynolds loose on the market with little or no supervision. She made use of his skills but exercised restraint in how much she was willing to allow him to do on her behalf.
The circumstances under which Cather and Reynolds parted ways complicates the question of institutionalized market rejection, since it seems that Cather ultimately found Reynolds’s professional style disagreeable or perhaps even personally encroaching. Reynolds’s office memos from the 1910s and 1920s refer to a handful of private, face-to-face meetings or lunches between the two, but more often than not he had to work to communicate with Cather. In at least four letters from the 1920s, Reynolds contacted Edith Lewis at 5 Bank Street to track Cather’s travels or otherwise attempt to get in touch with her. In 1928 he wrote to Lewis at her workplace, the J. Walter Thompson Company, stating that he had tried to call Cather but he “judged she has changed your address” (14 January 1928). In the fall of that year he documented by office memo that he had “talked with Miss Cather and she is always to be reached care of Knopf” (1 October 1928). He adds, “I suppose if we wrote to her care of Knopf, the letter wouldn’t be opened so we would be perfectly safe in addressing her that way.” However, a letter from Alfred Knopf to Reynolds the following winter states, “Miss Cather asked me to answer your letter of January 30 to her,” suggesting that Cather had meant to consolidate her business affairs and cut Reynolds out of her professional life (15 February 1929). Reynolds provided Cather with a variety of incentives and benefits that she ultimately rejected, preferring to place her own work or rely on the assistance of Alfred and Blanche Knopf, whom she seems to have trusted more than Reynolds by the close of the 1920s.
Understanding Cather’s relationship with Reynolds in connection with the most important aspects of modern publishing culture requires a central reversal in thinking. Reynolds, like Cather, did not thrive merely on financial gain but depended on a respectable reputation. Between 1890 and 1945 the profession of literary agent was emerging, and the legitimacy of the job was a subject of some dispute. According to Allen, “the respectable publishers of the nineties . . . looked upon agents as pests, as contemptible interlopers” (90). Early distrust of agents is an issue that Reynolds’s son addresses at length in his memoir. He spends an entire chapter early in his book describing his father’s profession as he encountered it as a young apprentice. His overriding concern in this chapter is the respectability of the office and its performed service. “This was a formal age,” he says, “and my father was a formal man. Air-conditioning for offices did not exist and on the hottest summer day my father would not remove his coat or unbutton his high starched collar” (16). Reynolds Jr. portrays his father’s professional demeanor, his deference toward editors and writers, and his disrespect of hack agents who took fees from unknown amateurs. He explains, “The pseudo agents make their living by charging amateur authors a fee for the reading of each of their manuscripts. An amateur who pays the fee hopes the pseudo agent will sell his manuscript to a publisher” (18–19). His digression about pseudo agents points to a desire to differentiate the respectable work of the legitimate agent from the suspicious activities of hack pretenders. He tells a story of how his father showed discretion by writing a summary of payment to Eleanor Hallowell Abbott in code to protect her from her gossiping neighbors (23). He also recalls the case of Thornton Wilder, who, unprotected by a literary agent, naively signed an exploitive contract with a book publisher (28). As with all memoirs, the reliability of Reynolds Jr.’s narrative deserves a certain amount of skepticism. Regardless, the precise veracity of these descriptions is less important than the apparent concern Reynolds Jr. is responding to as he describes the agent’s role in the publishing world. A sense of propriety was a deep-seated concern.
Likewise, Allen’s “biographical sketch” of Reynolds dedicates a significant amount of attention to Reynolds’s conservative salesmanship and overall decency. According to Allen, “Though his life work has consisted in selling, his technique is far removed from that suggested these days by the word salesmanship. There is no tub-thumping in it, no oratory, no frenzy of enthusiasm, no attempt to hypnotize the editor into signing on the dotted line” (85–86). Allen was hired by the Reynolds family to write this account, and he conducted the research for the book without ever explaining his intentions to Reynolds. The book was privately printed after Reynolds died. The document’s bias is clear, but as with Reynolds Jr.’s memoir, its rhetorical goals are more significant than its accuracy. “The prices that he names are invariably high,” Allen states, “but when he gets them it is not through high pressure methods. It is rather because editors know that through long experience he has gained an almost uncanny knowledge of his markets and of the sum which any particular manuscript can be expected to bring” (86). Allen’s interest in describing Reynolds’s conservative salesmanship, for example, shows how important the idea of respectability was to Reynolds and his family. Allen’s eventual claim that “the feeling against agents . . . died because there were men acting as agents who were incorruptible” is equally loaded (93).
A 1916 letter to Wilbur Daniel Steele in which Reynolds tries to convince Steele to take him on as an agent exemplifies how Reynolds used salesmanship to craft himself as a trustworthy commodity: “I have sold stories of authors like Booth Tarkington, Mary Robert Rinehart, Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews, Richard Washburn Child, Fannie Hurst, Gouverneur Morris, H. G. Wells, Henry Kitchell Webster, and so forth. I have only sold their work because I got them more money than they’ve got themselves. I am sure I could do this for you if you’d let me try!” (15 January 1916). At the heart of Reynolds’s pitch is the promise of more money, but Reynolds knew all too well that his offer did not appeal exclusively to the greed of authors. By using the phrase “I could do this for you” he invites a prospective client to put something bothersome in his hands. In this sense he is selling liberation. Further, in order to convince authors to take him on, he had to convince them he was reputable and trustworthy. If authors had to spend as much time guarding themselves against sneaky agents, the appeal of a proxy would be lost. Hence the mention of his top clients, which subtly asserts his credibility.
The example of Cather and Reynolds points to the way modern American literature was framed, defined, evaluated, and edited—in essence, given meaning—by interactions between authors and intermediary professionals, including publishers, editors, and agents. The same cultural conditions that gave rise to these figures—in the United States, the emergence of a national, massmarket literature—created an environment in which avant-gardism and art for art’s sake (i.e., stylistic modernism) had elite status. New hierarchies, however, affected literary figures at various points of the spectrum between avant-garde and mass popularity. In the modern marketplace, position-takings defined all parties in relation to both symbolic capital and financial profit. A range of authors enlisted middlemen like Reynolds to aid in that very process of negotiating both prestige and money. Though the work of literary agents was perhaps more subtle than that of editors who demanded manuscript revisions or publishers who marketed critically acclaimed masterpieces, their function was no less substantive.
These questions of the position-takings of authors and secondary literary laborers return us to the exchange in Cather’s introduction to My Ántonia. The moment of exchange between an unnamed author and her childhood friend serves as an act of position-taking in relation to the secondary literary laborers Cather encountered repeatedly as a writer of the modern period. Cather’s choice of narrative form in My Ántonia is itself an act of position-taking, since Cather complicates point of view in a way that aligns her with the modernists. The subject matter of the introduction further represents an act of position-taking, as estranged friends, former denizens of the West both living in New York, meet on a train and begin to talk of their old friend Ántonia. They agree, “more than any person we remembered, this girl seemed to mean to us the country, the conditions, the whole adventure of our childhood” (xi–xii). The two travelers form a pact: both will catalog their impressions of Ántonia. According to the fiction of the introduction, the frame tale’s narrator—crucially an author figure—performs an act of secondary literary labor that is at once functional and intimate. On a pragmatic level, by acting as an intermediary, she enables Jim’s story to cross over from manuscript to print and thus be accessible to readers. More importantly, the act of exchange requires a certain amount of credibility on the part of the intermediary. Only a secondary literary laborer who shares Jim’s sympathies for the prairie, who is a member of “a kind of freemasonry,” has earned the right to take possession of and disseminate Jim’s narrative (10). This moment of exchange becomes a discursive meditation on the relationship between narrative and cultural legitimacy, a reenactment of the kind of position-taking Cather had repeatedly engaged in throughout her career. As a writer, Cather walked a middle path, triangulating with professionals like Reynolds and the Knopfs and others, to enact a strategy that balanced profit and respectability. Cather and Reynolds’s relationship, with all its limits, exemplifies the intricate negotiations required by the modern literary marketplace.