The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells: Investigations into a Forgotten Mystery Author

  • By Rebecca Rego Barry
  • Post Hill Press
  • 256 pp.

An animated, unpersuasive case for a writer’s resurrection.

The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells: Investigations into a Forgotten Mystery Author

Critiques of the literati usually focus on who is included (with well-deserved grumbles over all the dead white men). Less attention is paid to who is not, mostly because we don’t know who they were: Being left out means these authors are no longer read. There are, of course, more forgotten writers than there are names in The Norton Anthology or on any college syllabus. And, yes, the process is weighted: Women like Susan Warner and Maria Susanna Cummins dominated book sales in the 19th century before virtually disappearing. Nathaniel Hawthorne complained about that “damned mob of scribbling women” because he had trouble competing with it.

Still, while I recommend Cummins’ 1853 novel, The Lamplighter, not every name that has disappeared from readers’ minds deserves to be brought back. In The Vanishing of Carolyn Wells, Rebecca Rego Barry ably chronicles the life and reputation of one of the most successful novelists of the early 20th century but fails to make a case for her renaissance.

Wells is perhaps best remembered as a book collector. Her archive of Walt Whitman’s work forms an important part of the Library of Congress’ oeuvre on the poet. (Barry, also a collector, was first taken with her subject after receiving a first edition of Thoreau’s Walden once owned by Wells as a birthday present from her husband.) But Wells was a significant and prolific author in her own right. Though she did not begin publishing until 1893, at age 31, by her death in 1942, she’d published 134 books and edited nine collections.

Yes, that’s almost three books a year. It is impressive. (Barry leans heavily on that degree of output to establish Wells’ importance and seems to discuss all 134 titles here, however briefly.) Wells worked in many genres, beginning with puzzles and humorous word play and expanding into poetry, children’s literature, and — most notably — mysteries. Her Fleming Stone whodunits ultimately numbered 61 volumes. Wells wrote one of the first how-to guides to mystery-writing, and she published a steady stream of stories, essays, and parodies in magazines and journals.

While doing all that, she also wrote for silent films, beginning with Thomas Edison’s earliest releases and eventually writing for the studios Reliance, Biograph, Essanay (when Charlie Chaplin was its star), and Paramount. Though none of the films are available for viewing, Barry shares what she knows about dozens of them. Finally, Wells “dabbled” on Broadway, writing or cowriting several musical comedies, at least two of which were reviewed in the New York Times.

It’s that issue of reviews that presents Barry with the greatest obstacle to reviving Wells’ image. While she garnered many accolades and her writing sold well, there emerges a consensus that much of Wells’ work was mediocre at best. One contemporary historian of the mystery genre describes a Wells novel as “ridiculously bad…even by the standards of its time.” In the face of such pans, Barry’s attempt to argue that aesthetic assessments are purely subjective is unconvincing. Wells herself eschewed any claim to literary greatness, admitting in a 1917 interview, “I write because it pays.” One of her obituary writers even predicted the fading of Wells’ fame, observing:

“She wrote prodigiously for her present and never for posterity.”

Nonetheless, Barry argues, when it comes to Wells’ work, quality (or lack thereof) isn’t all that matters. Wells wrote at a time when the conventions of mystery-writing were just being settled on; four books into her 100-book career as a mystery author, she published The Technique of the Mystery Story and, says Barry, “codified the rules of the game.” If her work was formulaic, it must be admitted that she helped invent the formula. Perhaps more persuasive, Wells’ body of work represents a valuable resource for cultural historians, offering a glimpse into the “interests and anxieties of middle-class Americans” of the early 20th century.

And whatever one thinks of her writing, Wells was a fascinating person. Born in Rahway, New Jersey, she carved out a thriving career in a world that was never favorable to women in any profession. She became friends with Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Edison’s family. She socialized with Mark Twain, Winslow Homer, and Rudyard Kipling. Starting out as a librarian, Wells ended her life as a formidable book collector, a Manhattan socialite, and a famous novelist.

Equally key to this book’s success is the fact that its author is an interesting person and an entertaining writer. Barry has made the unusual decision to center the story not only on what she learned about Wells but also on how she went about learning it. We see her searching digitized archives and visiting the homes of Wells’ relatives. We watch her get lost in the basement of the Library of Congress and listen to her justify several antiquarian-book purchases. (In one of her many tongue-in-cheek footnotes, Barry reminds herself that she’s supposed to be researching, not collecting.)

We follow Barry to a number of dead ends, too. She wants to prove her subject knew Herbert Hoover (she didn’t), and that Wells’ husband, Hadwin Houghton, was connected to publisher Houghton Mifflin (he wasn’t). She hopes to find evidence linking Wells to Dorothy Parker and Agatha Christie, and she desperately tries to view one of Wells’ films. She fails in all these quests, but her enthusiasm and intelligence are reason enough for delving alongside her into the life of Carolyn Wells.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn since before it was cool. A collection of his short stories is forthcoming from Cornerstone Press.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus