Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sex and the single doorknob

When I heard that the legendary editor of Cosmopolitan had died, I thought, "Old news! William Dean Howells has been dead for decades!"

But of course the news reports were about a different legendary editor of Cosmopolitan, Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote Sex and the Single Girl. Howells, who died in 1920, edited the magazine briefly in 1892 during its previous incarnation as a literary magazine, back when the title had a definite article: The Cosmopolitan

Howells is remembered for insisting that writers should shelter young ladies from exposure to impure thoughts (read: any thought that reminds them that they have bodies), and the sexiest scene he ever penned featured an unmarried woman kneeling to kiss a doorknob. (I'm not making this up! Read A Modern Instance (1882), the first American novel to attempt a realistic portrayal of divorce.)

Howells left the helm of The Cosmopolitan fairly quickly, although I don't now remember why. I'm sure Cosmo covers have kept him rolling in his grave at least since the 1960s, which is not necessarily a bad thing. At least he's certain of getting plenty of exercise.  

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