The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing

The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing

The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing

The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing


When Lord Byron toasted Napoleon for executing a bookseller, and when American satirist Fitz-Greene Halleck picketed his New York publisher for trying to starve him, both writers were taking part in a time-honored tradition-styling publishers as unregenerate capitalists. However apocryphal, both stories speak to the longstanding feud between writers and publishers over how the book business ought to be conducted. Such grumblings were so constant throughout the nineteenth century that Horace Greeley wearily referred to them collectively as "the grand chorus of complaint."

Ranging from the Revolution to the Civil War,The Grand Chorus of Complaintexplores moral propriety in American literary culture, arguing that debates over the business of authorship and publishing in the United States were simultaneously debates over the ethics and character of capitalism. Michael Everton shows that the moral discourse authors and publishers used in these debates was not intended as a distraction from debates over economics, intellectual property, or gender in American literary culture. Instead, morality was itself at issue. With case studies of the fraught publication experiences of authors including Thomas Paine, Hannah Adams, Herman Melville, Fanny Fern, and Gail Hamilton, Everton argues that in their business correspondence and fiction, in their diaries and essays, authors and publishers talked so much about ethics not to obfuscate their convictions but to clarify them in a commercial world preoccupied by the meanings and efficacy of moral beliefs.The Grand Chorus of Complaintillustrates that ethics should matter as much to book historians as much as it has come to matter-again-to literary critics and theorists.

Through wide-ranging primary-source research backed by a nuanced layering of historical detail,The Grand Chorus of Complaintdissects the role of morality in the print culture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, providing a valuable new perspective on formative forces in the publishing trade.


The moral law lies at the centre of nature and radiates to the circumference.

Ralph waldo emerson, Nature

Beginning a book about the business of early American publishing with a quote from Nature (1836) is not as inappropriate as it might seem. in Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson famously located the moral in the material at a time when, as the United States moved gradually from a mercantile to an industrial capitalism, the material seemed anything but moral. Emerson’s point, however, was that everything, even commerce, even publishing, was subject to moral law. He was far from alone in this belief. Long before the rise of what Henry James called “the new remorseless monopolies” of the late nineteenth century, and long before the inauguration of business ethics as a mode of inquiry in the late twentieth, trade morality was on the minds of Americans. It was certainly on the minds of the nation’s writers, many of whom believed that the business of print systematically broke what Emerson and others thought of as moral law. This book is about that belief.

In May 1865, a writer named William Giles Dix sent a manuscript to Boston’s Ticknor and Fields. the modestly prolific Cambridge author had reason to hope that America’s most respected literary publisher would welcome his work. W. D. Ticknor and Company, the predecessor to Ticknor and Fields, had issued four of Dix’s books in the 1840s, and James T. Fields, the firm’s convivial public face, was himself a poet and a champion of American authorship. He was also a candidate for the most gentlemanly of Gentlemen Publishers, literary tradesmen whose self-styled belief in friendship over profit elevated them above competitors like New York’s Harper and Brothers, men “governed,” in the words of author James K. Paulding, exclusively “by their anticipations of profit or loss.”

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