How popular was Ida May, in its time?
Widely considered to be the successor to the enormously influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Pike’s Ida May was an immediate success, selling 10,500 copies on the first day, 11,500 by the end of the week, and 60,000 copies by the end of the season. A celebratory review of Ida May published in Boston Evening Telegraph and reprinted in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, considered this book capable of bringing a generation of readers to anti-slavery in a national “moment of clarification or illumination”: “We believe that IDA MAY is but one of a series of books which will successively electrify the reading public, and quicken the impulses of all right-thinking men and women.”
So many orders flooded in for Ida May that the printers could not keep up with demand. The book’s release had to be delayed, twice, until it finally hit bookstores on Thanksgiving, 1854. Pike’s book outpaced every other book that Christmas—even an autobiography by circus man P.T. Barnum. The year that Ida May sold 60,000 copies, Charles Dickens serially published Hard Times in his magazine Household Words. He had sold only 70,000 copies by the end of the run. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s biggest hit, sold out its initial print run of 2,500 copies in 10 days. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave sold 27,000 copies in its first year. During his lifetime, Herman Melville sold 35,000 copies of his novels, all together.
The New York Evening Post, under its celebrated editor William Cullen Bryant, received an advance copy of Ida May from Bryant’s friend, publisher and marketing genius J. C. Derby (who also published Twelve Years A Slave). The Evening Post presented—on the front page—four columns of extracts from Ida May and an early review in its November 11, 1854 issue. Bryant made a strong initial claim that the author of Ida May was Harriet Beecher Stowe, saying, “No other living author could have written it.” Days later, the publisher Phillips, Sampson, and Company wrote to the paper, thanking them for compliment, but “Ida May is the production of an author as yet unknown to fame.” The Post retracted, but the debut made Ida May newsworthy, and the hunt for its author continued. They had puffed Ida May onto the bestseller list.