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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
As to Willis’s opinion of the writing life in America, an article entitled “To Callow Chicksters of Our Feather” appeared in The New Mirror on November 15,1843: “We get from literary fledglings, at least one letter per diem , requesting detailed advice on the quo modo of a first flight in prose or poetry.…We like to economise time. So we publish a letter, which we once had occasion to write, and which must serve as a circular.” It was a long, long letter to a young man who wanted to become a writer. His mother had calculated that it would be much more profitable for him to stay at home on the farm and raise corn and pigs. Willis said Mother was definitely right. To this he added a picture of the life of an aspiring writer in New York in the 184Os. “Giving up the expectation of finding employment suited to your taste, you will, of course, be ‘open to offers,’ and I should counsel you to take any that would pay, which did not positively shut the door upon literature.”
In addition to the trouble caused by the effusions of incompetent poets, the editors and publishers of the time had technical problems. In Godey’s for October 1840, the editor wrote: “Since publishing the Lady’s Book [about ten years at that time], we never have had a duty so unpleasant as that which we now are about to perform. It is beyond a doubt that the whole of our southern mail, containing the August number of the Lady’s Book, was lost in the unfortunate steamboat North Carolina .” It was a bad month at Godey’s .
The ebullient “go ahead” of American business, which resulted in so many steamboat and railroad accidents, provided still more headaches in that luckless October. It had come to the editor’s attention that “some scoundrel,” an agent for a rival magazine, had been spreading the rumor that Godey’s had been discontinued as a result of the accident. “We know him and will find a way to requite him,” a spokesman for the magazine promised.
There were other difficulties in the editorial offices at Godey’s as well. Under “To Our Correspondents” in January 1855, for example, there was rejected as illegible “a story in nine chapters. (The first chapter is sufficient; the writer need not forward the remainder; we have not been able to make out half of the one before us.)”
And always there were more of those poetasters where the last ones came from. On February 17, 1844, Willis gave editorial vent to his exasperation, and Willis, on the whole, was reputed to be a good-natured man. He began softly, and possibly with just a bit of sarcasm, as was appropriate to the New York manabout-town in the 184Os. He was troubled and touched by the “first timid offerings to fame of the youthful and sanguine poet.” Ah, but more in sorrow than in anger, Willis felt he must tell the young poet: “We mourn more over his fatuous imperviousness to counsel—over his haste to print, his slowness to correct—over his belief that the airy bridges he builds over the chasms in his logic and rhythm are passable, by avoirdupois on foot, as well as by Poesy on Pegasus.”
Poor writers! Poor editors! For in addition to all these editorial aggravations, many of the pre-Civil War periodicals were in perilous financial condition most of the time. The writer and perhaps even the editor of the 1980s should count his or her blessings, such as they are.