In a world in which an entire website is dedicated to the cataloging of official and unofficial days of observance, and each day of the Gregorian calendar is shared by several such pseudo-holidays, do we over-emphasize the promotional and the hashtag-able? When our social media coordinator asked me to write about #NationalAuthorsDay, I was curious to know just who created the holiday, when, and for what purpose. Was it to recognize creative writers especially? Did a clever publisher declare the day of observation in a publicity stunt? What exactly was I signing up to chronicle on our Press blog?
A quick Google search brought me to a brief entry in the encyclopedia at the free dictionary which suggests that the history of National Author’s Day is a bit more earnest than I’d have guessed. The idea behind it originated during WWI, when the president of the Women’s Club in Bement, Illinois, a Mrs. Nellie Verne Burt McPherson (1881-1968), wrote a fan letter to the journalist and writer Irving Bacheller to express appreciation for his short story, “Eben Holden’s Last Day A’Fishin” (1907). Mr. Bacheller, who apparently in the early twentieth century not only opened fanmail, but also could be bothered to respond to it, sent back to Mrs. McPherson an autographed copy of another of his stories (which one the encyclopedia doesn’t say). McPherson was so affected by his kindness, she felt she could not adequately repay Bacheller. So in 1928, she lobbied with the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to dedicate a day (November 1) to honoring American writers. In 1949 the U.S. Department of Commerce recognized the day of observance as well.
An historian might draw certain conclusions about the uniquely patriotic American aspect of the holiday, or its roots in the women’s movement, but I want to pay special attention to the exchange that brought National Author’s Day about, namely a conversation. Without knowing the content of McPherson’s letter to Bacheller, we can’t be certain what she appreciated most about “Eben Holden,” whether it was the plot, the characters, Bacheller’s craft as a writer, or how it made her feel when she read it. What we do know is that McPherson was deeply touched by Bacheller taking the time to respond to her letter, and thus her dedication of Author’s Day is an appreciation for authors who engage with their readership.
This dialogue between authors and readers is one we recognize in many forms in scholarly publishing. From peer review to book reviews in academic journals, from conference talks to revised and updated editions of well-regarded works, scholarly authors and their readers participate in an ongoing exchange of ideas. Even down to the very back matter of books, the notes and references, we see scholars putting their own texts in conversation with the works of academics who came before them, responding to and expanding upon existing research. Indeed, no scholarly author creates new work in a void.
As a former student and a scholar, even though I was deeply immersed in a book-driven culture and knew well the “publish or perish” pressure driving graduate students, post-docs, and professors to churn out new journal articles and books, I did not give much thought to the idea of authorship. Scholarship, research, and even #amwriting were common words in my lexicon, and as is custom, I fondly referred to well-known texts solely by the author’s last name (as in The Bevington [edition of Shakespeare’s plays]). Though I grew to understand more and more that each article or book I read spoke to another work I had also (or should have) read, authorship itself did not occupy my mind.
Now, as an editor, I consider proposals and manuscripts and think endlessly about market and audience for each project that passes my desk. But it would be a mistake to conceive of that audience as in any way passive, just as it would be a mistake to understand authorship as a solitary vocation. So, on this National Author’s Day, I’d like to pay as much recognition to the hardworking authors whose books we publish as I would to the active readers who equally participate in this written exchange that keeps our quest for knowledge in motion.
Catherine Goldstead is assistant editor for literary studies at Johns Hopkins University Press. You can follow her on Twitter @cgoldstead.