I’ve recently been reading through some letters from John O’Hara Cosgrove (link) , the editor of Everybody’s Magazine, to Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian (1902). My principal interest is Cosgrove’s connection with Frank Norris, who had worked at The Wave when Cosgrove was its editor, and his thoughts on Jack London, but this excerpt gives a good sense of what editors–or at least this editor–was thinking might sell in 1902.
In 1902, the California novelist Gertrude Atherton (today best known for her novel Black Oxen, 1922) published The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Macmillan and Company, 1902). By the time she republished it in 1916, the book had acquired a slightly less sensational title: The Conqueror: A Dramatized Biography of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1916).
Responding to the book, Cosgrove pitched Wister, as he often did, about participating in a series of articles “treating real men as though they were characters in fiction”:
I have just been reading Mrs. Atherton’s book on Alexander Hamilton. The form, which is really a departure, gave me a very clear impression of the subject’s individuality. It represented a form of treatment that I have often urged using and treating real men as though they were characters in fiction. I mean using the fiction method to project the personality of the individual. This seems to have been done very well by Mrs. Atherton, and if we could have in the magazine a series of five-thousand word interviews with Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Daniel Webster Henry Clay and their like, selecting a strenuous moment in their careers & putting in an appropriate background, it would make a capital series. Mrs. Atherton has the Hamilton one under way. (23 July 1902)
But apparently what worked well for a “romantic story” did not translate as well into the type of fictional interview that Cosgrove had in mind:
Entre nous, Mrs. Atherton tried Hamilton for us, and turned out a mighty poor thing, which I had to return. It was slap-dash, rather common, frivolous, and quite outside the idea—rather crude journalism, in fact. It is mighty difficult to get that sort of thing accomplished just as it must be done. (6 August 1902)
“Mighty difficult,” indeed. This raises a question for all those who would undertake biography or speculative biography: How much more sensationalism or sentimentality did Atherton’s unpublished draft contain to be labeled “common, frivolous” and “crude journalism”?