New York Middlebrow: Selling the Modern Library series to the Canadian Market

Lise Jaillant, PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of British Columbia

The Modern Library, a uniform series of reprints created in New York in 1917, was marketed as a sophisticated series that appealed to the growing professional-managerial class. This essay examines the specific ways in which the Modern Library was sold to the Canadian market. It argues that an important part of the appeal of the series was its perceived cosmopolitanism and sophistication. The positioning of the Modern Library was, to a large extent, similar to that of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. Like these “middlebrow” magazines, the Modern Library established a setting and characters for its brand: intellectuals, artists, and glamorous actresses all played a role in its “branded story country,” New York City. However, censorship and copyright issues meant that not all Modern Library books were available in Canada. Whereas Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre, Balzac’s Droll Stories and other controversial books could be sold in the United States, these titles were banned in Canada. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, then, the United States was moving away from the social purity movement born in the Progressive era, while Canada remained much more conservative. Drawing on extensive archival research, I show that Macmillan (the distributor of the Modern Library) was increasingly frustrated with the censorship legislation in Canada. At the time when Canadian literary and commercial discourses highlighted New York as a center of culture and taste, the censorship of Modern Library titles appeared as a sign of provincialism and exclusion from modern civilization.

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