Who was the greatest American author of the 19th century? Well, these days, one might consider Mark Twain. There's also Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe was candidates, as well as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (certainly the writer of the most influential book of the 19th century).
But if you asked the question back in 1870, there would be no debate. Both critics and readers would have agreed that the greatest US writer of the time was Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth.
Southworth was the master of the best selling novel of the time, the sentimental novel. She was born Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte, her father's dying wish giving her the two middle names. She was trained as a teacher until she married Frederick Southworth and went with him to raise a family.
Alas, Fred skipped town to seek his fortune in South America, leaving Mrs. Southworth and her two children to fend for themselves.* Mrs. Southworth went back into teaching and tried her hand at writing.
She was an enormous success. By 1857, she was earning over $10,000 a year from her writing, a pretty good sum even today from writing fiction, and even better back then.
I can't say if The Curse of Clifton is one of her best; it's just one I happened to read (I have another stashed away for a rainy day). What is most memorable to me was a scene that nowadays would be considered horribly contrived.
The situation: Archer Clifton, a soldier fighting the Indians, is returning to his old home to marry, bringing his comrade Frank Fairfax to be the best man. Frank meets Zuleime, the bride's younger sister, and sparks fly (quite proper sparks, of course; this was during the Victorian era). She wishes they could get married right away.
"Wait a minute," says Frank (I'm paraphrasing here). "It just so happens that I have an extra copy of Archer's marriage license here. I wasn't sure which name he and his bride wanted to use, so I had the clerk sign it and leave the names blank. All we have to do is fill in our names and we can be married. But we'll need a minister."
"Well," says Zuleime, pointing at a small cabin they happen to be passing, "it just so happens that that cabin is the home of an old minister whose lost his congregation. But he still has all the powers of a minister. Let's get married there."
So they get married. And about an hour later, news comes from the west: the Indians are attacking and Frank and Archer must return to their unit.
Nine months later -- yup, Zuleime is pregnant.
She is kicked out of the house, a fallen woman (she doesn't seem to have the marriage certificate with her, and I believe the minister died). So she has to take the most degrading of all work a woman can fall to.
She becomes an actress. On the stage!
I'm having some fun here, of course; these sort of things tell a lot about the assumptions of the audience in the 1850s (no sex without marriage, etc.). But, in a way, it's kind of charming.
And it is fun to read. Even the stuff that doesn't seem ridiculously dated is entertaining. Mrs. Southworth stuck to the conventions of her time (though her own marital history caused her to have a slight cynical eye when gazing upon "happily ever after"). But (once you get used to the 19th century prose), the books move along nicely, with plots and characters that make you understand why she was so popular.
Mrs. Southworth wrote over 60 novels all together, all forgotten now. Feminist scholars occasionally stumble upon her as an example for their theories, but no one is likely to read her work for fun. The sentimental novel died by the turn of the century; what it was lives on in romance novels. She died in 1899, still an important writer even then.
Such is fame.
*This was not uncommon in the 19th century and isn't quite what it seems. With divorce unthinkable, many men just lit out for the frontier if they wanted out of a marriage, keeping the divorce rate low, but having the same effect on those they left behind.