Victorian Bestsellers (Exhibit/NYC)

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“I hate publishing!” Alfred Tennyson complained as he assembled his poems for London publication in 1842. Among his gripes was having to chase down pirated American versions of his verse, while trying to earn his keep from books and magazines. But those earnings came far more easily to him than to today’s poets. “In Memoriam” sold 25,000 copies in England in less than two years; in 1864 “Enoch Arden” sold 40,000 copies in just a few weeks.

None of the other authors represented in “Victorian Bestsellers,” a new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum, had much reason for complaint, either. Organized by John Bidwell, who oversees the Morgan’s department of printed books and bindings, this exhibition of manuscripts, first editions, drawings, posters and prints is not a typical bibliophilic display of rare esoterica. Indeed, its focus is rare exoterica: these books publicly erupted onto the 19th-century English scene. Apart from the Bible’s privileged monopoly as a must-read, these best sellers were among the first cultural products for a broad public, breaking down boundaries of class and caste; they also created new audiences, inspiring spinoffs and extravagant commercial enterprise.

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