American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853

American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853

American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853

American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853

Synopsis

The antebellum period has long been identified with the belated emergence of a truly national literature. And yet, as Meredith L. McGill argues, a mass market for books in this period was built and sustained through what we would call rampant literary piracy: a national literature developed not despite but because of the systematic copying of foreign works. Restoring a political dimension to accounts of the economic grounds of antebellum literature, McGill unfolds the legal arguments and political struggles that produced an American "culture of reprinting" and held it in place for two crucial decades.

In this culture of reprinting, the circulation of print outstripped authorial and editorial control. McGill examines the workings of literary culture within this market, shifting her gaze from first and authorized editions to reprints and piracies, from the form of the book to the intersection of book and periodical publishing, and from a national literature to an internally divided and transatlantic literary marketplace. Through readings of the work of Dickens, Poe, and Hawthorne, McGill seeks both to analyze how changes in the conditions of publication influenced literary form and to measure what was lost as literary markets became centralized and literary culture became stratified in the early 1850s. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853 delineates a distinctive literary culture that was regional in articulation and transnational in scope, while questioning the grounds of the startlingly recent but nonetheless powerful equation of the national interest with the extension of authors' rights.

Excerpt

American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting is a case study of the dynamic relationship between conceptions of literary property and American cultural production, focusing on an extraordinarily vibrant period of publishing in the 1830s and ’40s, just prior to what literary critics call the “American Renaissance.” In this period, legal and political resistance to tight controls over intellectual property produced a literary marketplace suffused with unauthorized publications. Not only was the mass-market for literature in America built and sustained by the publication of cheap reprints of foreign books and periodicals, the primary vehicles for the circulation of literature were uncopyrighted newspapers and magazines. I will argue that antebellum ideas about intellectual property helped to produce a distinctive literary culture that cannot adequately be perceived through the optics of national literary study, a paradigm that we have all but naturalized. Although we have come to think of the classic works of mid-nineteenth-century American authors as national property, these texts emerged from a literary culture that was regional in articulation and transnational in scope.

As William Charvat and others have noted, the hallmark of the antebellum literary marketplace was its decentralization. Not only was the national market for books distributed across multiple, loosely affiliated, regional publishing centers, each of the major cities—Philadelphia, New York, and Boston—claimed to be the center of national culture. Cutting across these internal divisions was a flourishing trade in cheap, reprinted British books, which, because unconstrained by copyright, achieved a remarkable national distribution in the form of competing, regionally produced editions. A handful of literary periodicals, which also commonly circulated without the benefit of copyright protection, were able to achieve something like national distribution through the mails. Yet not only did many of these magazines remain unprofitable (subscription payments were notoriously difficulty to collect, due in part to the lack of a national currency), they were freely excerpted by other periodicals, some . . .

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