Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond, Property Exchange, and the Literary Marketplace in the Early American Republic

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Charles Brockden Brown's Ormond, Property Exchange, and the Literary Marketplace in the Early American Republic

Article excerpt

On the 16th of September 1798, an advertisement for Charles Brockden Brown's novel, Wieland, or the Transformation appeared in Greenleaf's New York Journal & Patriotic Register. According to the advertisement, the novel, available at "H. Caritat's Circulating Library and Book-Store, 153, Broadway," was written by "a citizen of Philadelphia, C. B. B." and "will form a neat volume of about 300 pages, of which the price will be One Dollar handsomely bound." Throughout the newspapers in New York and Philadelphia, readers observed such advertisements for the book in nearly every issue, as book sellers and owners of circulating libraries peddled their wares and competed for the business of urban residents. The book advertisement was commonplace, as books--like any other commodities-existed to be bought and sold. (1)

Nevertheless, this advertisement for Wieland stands out from other such advertisements because of its placement within the Journal & Patriotic Register, as the announcement for the novel appears surrounded by a notice for commercial ship arrivals and an advertisement for "COFFINS," both of which spoke to the unique and unfortunate circumstances of the Journal's readers. At this time, residents of New York and Philadelphia were mired within a yellow fever epidemic, one that completely disrupted economic activities and the lives of most citizens. Brown himself contracted the fever and recovered, but his close friends Elihu Hubbard Smith, the prominent New York doctor and writer, and James Watters, the Philadelphia editor, were not so lucky; both died of the epidemic within two months of each other. Indeed, in the very issue that advertised Wieland, the Journal's printers noted that the newspaper was to cease operations because of a recent loss of patronage and the death of the editor, Thomas Greenleaf, from the epidemic. (2) As yellow fever spread throughout the cities, many citizens--those who could afford it--fled to outlying areas, both a cause and result of the substantial decrease in mercantile, commercial, and trading activity. During this period of turmoil and devastation, an advertisement for a novel seems rather out of place, especially when flanked by notices pointing to the limited economic activity of the city and the deaths of many of its residents. Yet, as its sales suggested, the novel, unlike other products advertised, gave its readers a form of entertainment, a mode of distraction from everyday affairs (such as a yellow fever epidemic), and a method through which writers could communicate principles and values to a large, dispersed audience.

The advertisement's inclusion in Greenleaf's paper speaks to the complex role of the novel in the marketplace at the conclusion of the eighteenth century. On the one hand, the increasing popularity of the novel abroad gradually spread to the United States, as readers could routinely spy announcements in daily newspapers about recent additions to booksellers' stock. However, this expanding reception of the novel did not easily translate into a distinct "cultural" movement in the young republic. The increase of book production coincided with a general increase in domestic manufacturing as a whole, thus diminishing the isolated significance of the book as a marker lot cultural growth. In other words, if we view the expansion of book sales in the United States within the larger context of economic development, we could assume that books simply signify yet another instance of commodity production and circulation.

This is the assertion of many scholars who argue that the novel and authorship were inherently a part of wider economic developments and that our desire to separate them is an anachronism. In his study After the Revolution, for example. John Ellis explains that the scholarly drive to speak about the arts as distinct from the rest of society is "a legacy of the nineteenth century." We must understand, he argues, that eighteenth-century Americans "had yet to create a language that would allow them to refer conveniently to a separate, self-contained sphere of aesthetics and refined taste, because they had no need for such a language. …

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