April 13, 2010
 

Charles Dickens, Henry James, and James Joyce, MadAve's First Startups.

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Surely you remember Charles Dickens, Henry James, and James Joyce.

You slogged through their unbelievably long and sometimes unbelievably boring novels in college, or at home watching revivals on Masterpiece Theater, or at the multiplex viewing other revivals up on the big screen with half of England's knighted actors chattering away at each other.

What doesn't come across in the movie and television versions, but is easily found in many of their best-known novels, is a fascination with advertising and a love of the advertising business. I know this not because I teach literature courses and advertising courses at the college level, but because of one academic study I stumbled upon quite by accident. This essay salutes and celebrates that book, a landmark probing of turn-of-the-century advertising in real life and in the lives of characters created by Dickens, James and Joyce.

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It's titled "Advertising Fictions: Literature, Advertisement and Social Reading," by Jennifer Wicke (1988, Columbia University Press). At the writing Ms. Wicke was an Associate Professor of English at Yale. The takeaway of her erudite and thoughtful analyses of a slew of historical fiction, is that the advertising folks created by Dickens, James and Joyce got it--they understood the persuasive potentials of their leading-edge media like street-corner handbills, coffeehouse newspapers, circus posters, display ads in pulp and slick paper magazines, and the first neon signs.

Ms. Wicke has chosen these three authors because they form a continuum in the formal development of the media marketplace. As she notes, Charles Dickens was present at the creation of advertising as a system, and both his work and his own career in the 1830s and 40s helped shape that system. Henry James' characters populate a late 19th century society of growing advertising awareness and emerging psychological content. James Joyce and the Dublin described in "Ulysses" takes place in a more sophisticated 20th century culture coming under the influence of newspapers, magazines and other major media. Dickens, James and Joyce were the first literary start-ups in the advertising industry.

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Charles Dickens' initial entry-level job was sitting in the street-level window of Warren's Blacking, pasting labels on containers of shoe polish. Like so many young people today who toil away today at similar, dull routines, Dickens felt stuck--but was able to write his way into a copywriter slot. In early works like "Sketches by Boz" and "Pickwick" in the 1830s, Dickens describes London largely through its shop windows, tavern signs and product displays. These are among the first fusions of advertising and literature. They worked, too: His first characters, Weller and Pickwick, became popular enough to be adapted by advertisers into the Weller cab and the Pickwick cigar, Toby mug and candy tin.

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"The Old Curiosity Shop," "Martin Chuzzlewit," and "Bleak House" are more central Dickens' works with ad themes, and they continue his preoccupation with stores, store facades, the presentation of merchandise and evolving marketing techniques. One visitor to the Curiosity Shop is a waxworks show owner, Mrs. Jarley, a sort of pre-Mary Wellsian figure. She understands the need to build mass-market appeal into her traveling show, she arranges the figures to segment and maximize audience appeal, and she knows how to pitch on her feet: "Every expectation held out in the handbill is realized to the utmost, and the whole forms an effect of imposing brilliancy hitherto unrivalled in this kingdom. Remember that the price of admission is only six-pence, an opportunity which may never occur again!" Mrs. Jarley boosts her waxworks better than most of Madison Avenue slings the upfront market.

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Dickens wrote the advertisements for his own books, set up his own reading tours, and helped cross-promote many of his characters into umbrellas, aprons, tobacco, pens, canes, hats and even corduroy trousers. Ms. Wicke calls all this "a corporealization of Dickens' texts," but we've shortened that to branding. A close friend of Dickens who owned a coffeehouse, Edward Mitchell, founded the first advertising agency in 1847. Dickens himself launched one of the earliest advertising inserts, a set of pages sewn directly into every copy of his book "Pickwick." (You might recall the education entrepreneur Christopher Whittle tried the same thing some years ago with a 'sponsored' series of non-fiction books.) Professor Wicke puts it well when she writes that both Dickens and Mitchell were "giving voice to the competing voices of modernity."

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Henry James' work is more fun to contemplate, because it's in a more "contemporary" mode, and thus sexier. You may not remember Chad Newsome, his ad copywriter from "The Ambassadors," but chances are you've remarked on one or more of James' heroines--Daisy Miller, Isabel Archer, Verena Tarrant, Milly Theale and Maggie Verver. They're all innocent, beautiful, white-bread darlings, much like the iconic Gibson girl. If Dickens' sees the world as an ever-changing store display window, Henry James widens the view to a more sexualized stage or screen image. James' vision is bigger.

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The beauties who parade through James' novels are not unlike the blonde goddesses in Alfred Hitchcock's noir capers--Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint. Miss Saint is currently playing Superman's mother up on the big IMAX 3D screen, but half a century ago she was luring the ad man Roger O. Thornhill (played by Cary Grant, whose matchbooks carried his initials "ROT") into her sleeping compartment in the train thriller "North by Northwest." Hitchcock had a knack of discovering and then replicating talent (he found Tippi Hedren in a milk commercial created by the Gardner shop in St. Louis). A century ago Henry James was crafting what Ms. Wicke calls "hyper-charged advertising glamour" in novels like "The Golden Bowl," "Portrait of A Lady," and in the character of Verena Terrant in "The Bostonians."

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James plays the virginal qualities of his heroines--teased by and drawn to advertising appeals--against the growing sophistication and awareness of young men like Chad Newsome, who haven't quite acquired the ROT of a Cary Grant but surely will. In "The Ambassadors," Chad has been mulling around Paris with a male friend when it suddenly hits him:

"He had encountered a revelation. Advertising scientifically worked presented itself as the great new force. 'It really does the thing, you know.' (His friend) looked blank. 'Affects, you mean, the sales of the object advertised?' 'Yes,' (replied Chad)...'it's an art like another, and infinite like all the arts. ...In the hands, naturally, of a master. The right man must take hold.'" Chad should take hold of Verena, who "looks like a walking advertisement." Henry James kept building on the awareness created by Dickens.

James Joyce's "Ulysses" is packed with major brand names of the first two decades of the 20th century--Plumtree's Potted Meats, Epp's Cocoa, Pear's Soap, Crown Derby Porcelain--just as Stephen King's horror novels today sag with product mentions. "Ulysses" is a dense, repetitive narrative of city life in a capitalist era. Ms. Wicke's reading of this novel is key, for she posits advertising as "a new and crucial literature with the power of transforming literary writing."

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Joyce himself was a copywriter, penning and publishing ads for the movie theater he briefly managed in Dublin, repeatedly solving puzzles and entering contests. The central character in "Ulysses," Leopold Bloom, is an advertising agent and canvasser, an updated version of the original sandwich-board man. Canvassers were the freelance liaison between the advertiser and the medium, usually newspapers. They preceded Mitchell's advertising agency which integrated functions and hired specialists. Thus Bloom is rather primitive in his transactions, and somewhat marginalized by both the media and the marketer. He'll never land the Guinness account, which is mentioned often in the novel. He has to hustle.

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With a wife who earns a modest living as a singer, and a daughter who models for ads, Bloom sees himself as a reasonable success. His flow of advertising experience is the basis for his 'stream of consciousness,' the trait that "Ulysses" is most often remembered for. Bloom is aware that advertising is becoming the first entirely public language directed at everyone. Out-of-home media including the public outhouse are on the rise. Newspapers reward advertisers "with a puff in the 'news' column."

Bloom is a witness to advertising's beginnings of literally absorbing the language (including religious language) of a culture. He compares his wife Molly with the Turkish sultana on a cigarette pack. He understands the message and the imagery must be repeated again and again. The canvasser is conscious that many brand names are at heart parity products --that "there was not a scintilla of difference between Woodbury and Lux soaps... and that only narrative techniques could distinguish them." Bloom is perfectly aware, states Professor Wicke, that "advertising is authoritarian, manipulative, enervating and fraudulent." Good grief. And you thought "Ulysses" was banned for its obscenities.

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"Advertising Fictions" is like no other advertising book, fiction or non-fiction, on the shelves of advertising texts, case histories, autobiographies and Madison Avenue novels. Maybe it should be tucked on shelves beside 19th and 20th century world literature. It's a maverick book (which is why it's lost), a deep and accurate and unsettling knitting of how the advertising we all practice in one way or another was being insinuated into the fabric of lives and the plots of novels over a hundred years ago.

We think we're on top of the newest and most innovative practices with the latest technology, but Jennifer Wicke's study of the Little Nells and the Chad Newsomes and the Molly Blooms keeps telling us been there done that. "Literature's power," writes Ms. Wicke, "is discrete and accretive; advertising's power is aggregate, cumulative--almost, one might say, immanent." She tells us evenly and without a trace of distain that advertising once announced fictions--"that was its job, to accompany them into the world of discourse as a mediating shield and a triumphal herald." But no longer.

Advertising's fictions, she concludes, became the book of the modern world.

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