Professional Imaginative Writing in England, 1670-1740: Hackney for Bread

By Brean S. Hammond | Go to book overview
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2
Marketing the Literary Imagination

The cloak-and-dagger story of the way in which the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels was conveyed to the publisher Benjamin Motte is well known. The package was 'dropp'd at his house in the dark, from a Hackney-coach' and contained a covering letter written by one ' Richard Sympson', the supposed cousin of Lemuel Gulliver.1 Even the handwriting was disguised: it has been attributed to John Gay. Sympson wrote:

As the printing these Travels will probably be of great value to you, so as a Manager for my Friend and Cousin I expect you will give a due consideration for it, because I know the Author intends the Profit for the use of Poor Sea-men, and I am advised to say that two Hundred pounds is the least Summ I will receive on his account, but if it shall happen that the Sale will not answer as I expect and believe, then whatever shall be thought too much even upon your own word shall be duly repaid.2

Not the least audacious element in that story is the fact that Swift had the confidence in the value of his own literary product to ask no less than £200 for the copyright, even if he had to hedge the price around with badinage about poor seamen. For a work of prose fiction, that was a demand without precedent. In the wake of the Drapier campaign, Swift was, of course, an extremely famous writer; but the sum of money involved still suggests that he perceived Gulliver's Travels to be in a category altogether apart from the standard prose romance or travel book routinely offered to the trade. An important source of information on writers' earnings in the period is the collection made by William Upcott in 1825 of 'Original Assignments of MS between Authors and Publishers principally for Dramatic Works, from the year 1703 to

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1
The Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. Harold Williams, 5 vols. ( Oxford University Press, 1965), iii. 181.

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