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The Blighted Life Of The Writer, Circa 1840
The urge to create literature was as strong in the mid-1800s as it is today, but rejections were brutal and the pay was even worse
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Perhaps contemporary writers who complain about lack of editorial feedback don’t perceive what they’re risking.
Most magazines also reviewed new books. In April 1855, Godey’s made merry with the efforts of one young novelist who used the popular idiom of her day a little too unwarily, entitling her novel The Young Artist; or, Light and Shade . The reviewer suggested that, when she had leisure, she should try other titles: “Milk and Water; or, the Young Novelist,” for example, or “Hearts and Livers; or, the Butcher Boy’s Oath,” or perhaps “Animal Instinct; or, the Suspected Sausages.”
All this, however, was not the worst of what new writers had to face. In April 1840 the editor of Godey’s wrote under “A Few Words to Our Correspondents”: “The foregoing notices [of rejection] regard only anonymous or voluntary contributors. We need make no allusion to the articles of our regularly engaged and paid writers—these we use or return according to agreement.” Now, what this creamily smooth announcement meant was that unsolicited manuscripts, if printed, were not paid for.
Nevertheless, new authors maintained the stubborn notion that their labors ought to be worth something. In March 1855 Godey’s became thoroughly irritated about this assumption and reprinted some remarks by the editor of another magazine: “We are much obliged to the Saturday Post for the following plain-spoken language; it suits us as well as it does them: ‘We are constantly annoyed by young beginners sending us poetry and asking us to remit our usual price. We may add that we do not return poetry; those sending must keep a copy. One thing more while we are upon the subject. It is all folly for writers who have made no name to think of receiving payment, especially heavy payment, for their productions. An article may be fit to publish, without being entitled to compensation. A young writer should have a little modesty, and be thankful that he has the opportunity of displaying his talents before some halfmillion of readers, without asking more or less pay in addition. If he write with unusual ability, he will be sought out, and his contributions solicited; and then will be time to put a price upon the productions of his brain.…”
In June of that year, Godey’s advised “Olive” in “To Correspondents”: “We know of no magazine which pays poetical contributors. Verses are a drug on the market at present.”
Alas! as they used to say in those days, perhaps Edgar Allan Poe’s attack on the magazine world in “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” wasn’t as exaggerated as it might seem. It was only four or five years after Poe’s service as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger that the Messenger printed a long, angry tirade on the injustice of the era’s publishing customs. “The rights of authors—who cares for them?” begins this anonymous explosion. Part of the complaint stemmed from the discovery that the writer in America, under the internal copyright law, did not have an absolute property right in his literary works.
The real problem, however, was the lack of an international copyright law. English authors were generally more highly regarded than American; in addition, new press equipment made it possible to quickly reproduce pirated English works, which could be sold by greedy publishers for a fraction of what it cost to produce an American work.
According to the article in the Messenger , American authors were “almost driven out of what should be their own market. The American volume may be good in every sense, but then it costs a dollar; while the British (stolen) one is so manufactured as to sell for a few shillings. The consequence is precisely what might be expected. The latter may be a miserable farrago of inane absurdity about Lord Zany and the Countess of Frippery, and so forth, which few can care to read and none ought to—but then, it is wondrous cheap! … If a single copy were stolen from the English publisher , our laws would mete out summary justice to the culprit; but the English author is stripped naked, so far as America is concerned, and the law stands tamely by and winks at the robbery.—Shame! Shame!”
The late 1830s saw a drive, approved by no less a personage than Henry Clay, to get an international copyright law through Congress; it failed. The large book publishers were against it. Nathaniel P. Willis, writing in The New Mirror , February 10,1844, thought he saw a way out of the American plight: “Any author, now, can publish his own book, and get all the profits!” Apparently, however, selfpublishing didn’t work any better then than it does now.