- Historic Sites
Internet Piracy and Dickens and Melville
June/July 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 3
In fact, his audiences, and American writers, continued to support him enthusiastically. But the Hartford Times bluntly informed him, “It happens that we want no advice on the subject and it will be better for Mr. Dickens if he refrains from introducing the subject hereafter.” Dickens’s biographer Edgar Johnson writes: “Other newspapers asserted that he was no gentleman, that he was a mercenary scoundrel, that he was abusing the hospitality of the United States.... Anonymous letters echoed all these attacks in every key of scurrility.”
Far from being chastised, American book publishers called on Congress to impose a tariff on foreign books and made the remarkable claim that to let English writers retain control over their own works would make it impossible “for American editors to alter and adapt them to American taste.” Even Dickens began to realize that this was a fight he couldn’t win, and in private he sarcastically mimicked his hosts: “The Americans read him; the free, enlightened, independent Americans; and what more would he have?... As to telling them they will have no literature of their own, the universal answer (out of Boston) is, ‘We don’t want one. Why should we pay for one when we can get it for nothing.'”
The whole fight seemed to jaundice how Dickens viewed the raw young nation, and many Americans were stung by his American Notes , an account of his journey published a few months after his return to England. James Bennett’s New York Herald pilloried the book as the product of “that famous penny-a-liner” with “the most coarse, vulgar, impudent, and superficial” mind. This set new standards in gall, inasmuch as the Herald had been an active pirate of American Notes . Bennett’s pressmen sold 50,000 copies of the book in two days’ time, without so much as a dime going to that famous penny-a-liner.
Yet time, and Americans’ unquenchable thirst for Dickens’s work, would heal all these wounds. Twenty-five years later he returned to these shores—and was treated to another rapturous reception. And by then he had found a way to reap at least some reward for his work: A series of hundreds of lectures and readings netted him around $1.2 million in today’s money from his ecstatic U.S. fans.
Many of his American brethren were not so fortunate. Not until 1891 did the United States finally agree to stop sanctioning literary piracy, and by then Poe had long since tumbled into alcoholism and fatal despair, and Melville too was gone. Surely in the age of the Internet we can come up with some arrangement that will compensate writers for their work. For instance, most of the data about the theft of Harry Potter I took from a New York Times article, by Amy Harmon, that I found online—and for which I paid $2.95. Fair enough?