Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"A Trade, like Anything Else": 'Martin Eden' and the Literary Marketplace

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

"A Trade, like Anything Else": 'Martin Eden' and the Literary Marketplace

Article excerpt

The main thing is that a written text of the sort we care about is originally the result of some immediate contact between author and medium. Thereafter it can be reproduced for the benefit of the world; however much the author demurs at the publicity he receives, once he lets the text go into more than one copy his work is in the world.(1)

Edward W. Said

In The Labor of Words (1985) Christopher P. Wilson explores the transformation and growth of the American publishing industry at the end of the nineteenth century. He explains the ways in which market forces produced a new professional breed of writers, whose "merits and defects, though they had many causes, were often traceable to the power and contradictions of the market itself." Wilson argues that developments such as the growth of newspapers and magazines, and the passage of International Copyright, have only been a "distant backdrop" to previous studies of the period, and suggests that: "We have consequently overlooked how the literary marketplace shaped this era's naturalism . . . and yet ultimately undercut some of its most cherished ideals." (2)

Wilson does not claim that literary professionalism had not existed before the late-Victorian age. As Raymond Williams demonstrated in Culture and Society (1958), the "subjection of art to the laws of the market, and its consideration as a specialized form of production subject to much the same conditions as other forms of production, had been prefigured in much late-eighteenth-century thinking." Adam Smith saw thinking and reasoning as "like every other employment, a particular business," and the commodification of the novel had its roots in the English Industrial Revolution. (3)

Interestingly, Wilson also claims an American ancestry for the literary professionals whom he examines, citing the "female scribblers" scorned by Hawthorne and others as "our most potentially professional writers of the nineteenth century." (4) However, his point about the changed market conditions facing writers like Jack London is clear: at the turn of the century, a new combination of market forces had come into operation, and the literature produced for that market was directly shape by it.

It would seem from his fiction that London was well aware of the contradictions inherent in the role of literary professional. In his short story "Brown Wolf" (1906/1907), one of the protagonists is a poet named Walt Irvine, who sees his art in terms of its commercial value in the marketplace. Sparing even the pretence of art for art's sake, Irvine tells his wife:

Mine is no squalor of song that cannot transmute itself, with proper exchange value, into a flower-crowned cottage, a sweet mountain-meadow, a grove of redwoods, an orchard of thirty-seven trees, one long row of blackberries and two short rows of strawberries, to say nothing of a quarter mile of gurgling brook. I am a beauty-merchant, a trader in song, and I pursue utility, dear Madge. I sing a song, and thanks to the magazine editors I transmute my song into a waft of the west wind sighing through our redwoods, into a murmur of waters over mossy stones that sings back to me another song than the one I sang and yet the same song wonderfully--er--transmuted.(5)

Clearly, "beauty" is no different from any other commodity, and the artist takes his place in the market alongside the rest of the business community. For Walt Irvine, poetry, traditionally the least marketable of art forms, loses all "value" bar that of "transmutation." In a process in which the sign as sign is replaced by the sign as signified, even this term seems to be something of a misnomer. For Walt, the poem in his pocket is a "nice beautiful new cow, the best milker in California,"(6) in a transformation wherein the actual verse written on a piece of paper is invisible, or, at best, a property deed. By writing poems about the landscape, Walt gains titular ownership of that landscape. …

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