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The Phenomenal St. Elmo

St. Elmo reached the public in early 1867 and William Perry Fidler reports that its popularity was almost instantaneous.   “We are perfectly inundated with orders, -- it is physically impossible to manufacture the books as rapidly as they are called for,” declared the publisher, who later boasted that within four months of its publication, a million people had read the book.   According to Fidler, along with all the babies, towns, houses, streets and steamboats that would be named “St. Elmo,” there was a “St. Elmo” punch, a very strong cigar and several blue-ribboned dogs named “St. Elmo.”

Fidler reports that “there is very little realism in the book, and yet few novels have so much in common with the prejudices and emotions of their time. . . The age was not ashamed of sentiment – it even gloried in it.”    It was a time of extravagance in art, architecture, theater and fiction; Augusta’s florid language and lofty speeches did not seem out of place.   As for why the novel was so popular, Fidler conjectures that Augusta had created in St. Elmo Murray a rake so fascinating he “bowled over a whole generation of romantic schoolgirls,” as one critic put it.    Diane Roberts calls him “Byron on steroids.”   Fidler wonders “if such mildly rakish novels appealed to feminine tastes because Victorian women were so carefully sheltered from rational discussion of sex and sin.”

Nina Baym thinks that St. Elmo’s romantic tale filled a void left by the Civil War.  Many women both North and South faced the real possibility of never being married because so many young men were dead.   Whatever the explanation, St. Elmo was one of the three top-selling novels of the nineteenth century along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur.