Henry Johnson as Publisher

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Image 38

One of the leaders in the new gift-book industry was the publishing concern of Johnson, Fry and Company, a New York City firm that produced dozens of fancy picture books from the 1850s to the 1870s. The moving spirit of the enterprise was Henry Johnson, an art collector and entrepreneur who thought of publishing as a highbrow intellectual pursuit even in its most popular forms. Johnson made a living in the 1850s reproducing lavish steel engravings of famous Americans from his two-volume National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans, a work that presented “civic” portraits of august figures Johnson hoped to immortalize. [47]  To the extent that Johnson had a business philosophy it was that middle-class readers should be protected from the lowbrow sensibilities of promoters of popular literature. “Whatever popularizes vulgarizes,” was the operative saying against which he worked. [48]  Johnson was in search of a more highbrow popular idiom that emphasized an idealized vision of the past as a nostrum for the dangers of the present. Since the early 1850s, Johnson had been at work on a series of grandiloquent illustrated volumes providing readers with historical analysis characterized by lofty truths and allegorical meanings. One of his pet projects was a pictorial History of the United States [Image 38] for which he began pursuing an author and an illustrator in earnest at mid-decade. Johnson wanted collaborators who shared his desire to elevate the popular mind by creating highly ambitious (if sometimes too sentimentalized) books that emphasized the dramatic content of the past.

[47] Evert A. Duyckinck, National Portrait Gallery of Eminent Americans, 2 vols. (New York: Johnson, Fry, 1862).
[48] Sir Edward Fry, cited in Lawrence Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 218.