The Blighted Life Of The Writer, Circa 1840


How does the writing life in preCivil War America compare with that of the 1980s? If you had picked up the New York literary newspaper The New Mirror on Saturday, January 6, 1844, you would have read: “The prices paid now to acceptable magazine-writers are very high, though the number of writers has increased so much that there are thousands who can get no article accepted. There are so many people, too, who, like the Ancient Mariner, are under dire compulsion to tell their tale—paid or not paid—that any periodical, with a good furbisher and mender, may fill its pages, for nothing, with very excellent reading. A wellknown editor once told me that he could make a very good living by the sums people were willing to pay to see themselves in print. The cacoethes scribendi [writing itch] would doubtless support — does doubtless support—a good many periodicals.”

One of the periodicals so supported was The New Mirror itself, as the probable author of the above paragraph, Nathaniel P. Willis, well knew; he was the writing half of the editorial combination that produced the newspaper (his partner, George P. Morris, was a writer of popular songs and poems, notably that old-time favorite “O Woodman, Spare That Tree!”). Willis, a once well-known American journalist, short-story writer, gossip columnist, and poet, had, over a period of years, a good deal to say about how writers fared in America in the 184Os and 185Os. One of his perennial complaints was the lack of an international copyright law, which bothered other writers also.

In the absence of such a law, book publishing was largely dominated by pirated English works, so that the principal market left for American writers was in periodicals. There were hundreds of them: newspapers, religious magazines, scholarly journals, political journals, popular magazines. Most of those that survive today have been bound into books. Their brown-spotted pages are tall and narrow and densely set with minute type, because postal rates were high then too. A short column here, a paragraph there, describe the relations between the writers and the magazines they wrote for; and the picture that emerges should have made any prospective author take up coal hauling or mantua making instead. Not only did most writers of the time have all the problems that 1980s writers do (flooded markets, poor or late pay), they had a few extra ones. For one thing, many of the most popular magazines were publicly acerbic about their would-be contributors. Graham’s Magazine had this to say in July 1848:

“If an idea, or part of an idea, chances to stray into the brain of an American gentleman, he quickly apparels it in an old coat from his wardrobe of worn phrases, and rushes off in mad haste to the first magazine or newspaper, in order that the public may enjoy its delectable beauty at once. We have on hand enough MSS. of this kind, which we never intend to print, to freight the navy of Great Britain.”

Worse yet, some magazines, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book , which, along with Graham’s , was among the most prominent and prosperous of the popular American magazines, had items called “Notices to Correspondents,” or something similar. These were short columns in each month’s issue informing contributors whether their submissions had been accepted or rejected (the day of the self-addressed, stamped envelope not yet having arrived). In May 1840 the editor of Godey’s had this to say “To Correspondents,” following a short list of items accepted: “We are sorry to say, that we have a much longer list of rejected articles to give. And loth as we always are to wound the feelings of the sensitive, or crush the hopes of the aspiring, we still think that the writers will suffer less to know the fate of their communications [submitted manuscripts] with as little delay as possible.”

In spite of these claims to tenderheartedness, the editor’s remarks were followed by several crisp rejection notices, the most dismissive of which was: “‘Parting.’ Very poor—Simon had better learn to ‘make the paper that he spoils’ with his rhymes.…” But this, in the idiom of the 1840s, was only “a little severe.” Here is what The American Lady’s Wreath and Literary Gatherer had to say to a hapless physician/writer in 1844: “We do hope, for the sake of the good people where he resides, and especially our subscribers in that region, that he is a much better physician than poet . Hear him:

Come on dull care, come unto me, You and I will now surely agree; I have lost my love, and my heart is full, And who has a better right than me to be dull?

“Nobody, certainly, dear Doctor; you can make so many people laugh , that you have the best right in the world to be dull yourself.”