Academic journal article Early American Literature

Corporate Ties: Arthur Mervyn's Serial Economics

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Corporate Ties: Arthur Mervyn's Serial Economics

Article excerpt

In July 1798, an editorial note to correspondents appeared in the pages of Philadelphia's Weekly Magazine of Original Essays, Fugitive Pieces, and Interesting Intelligence. Announcing that the serial publication of Arthur Mervyn had to be suspended, the editor took great pains to explain the delay: "The distance at which some of our Correspondents reside, or their indisposition, necessarily subjects us to the hazard of a pause in publication. This is the only excuse we have to offer for a temporary suspension of Arthur Mervyn" ("To Correspondents"). Weeks later, the Weekly Magazine and Arthur Mervyn suffered an even greater setback: yellow fever took the editor's life, thereby causing the magazine to be suspended indefinitely. The serialization of Arthur Mervyn was never again resumed in magazine form, though Charles Brockden Brown continued his vision of the novel as a serialized work by issuing the book in two separate volumes in 1799 and 1800.

These events illuminate a crucial aspect of serial publication: it was a risky venture for writers and readers alike. In early national magazines, there were no guarantees that serially published stories or novels would ever see completion. When the Weekly Magazine's editor speaks of the "hazard" of disrupting readers' expectations, he references the precarious nature of magazine writing, which could be disrupted by financial problems, shifting politics, geographical distances, or even natural disaster. Like Arthur Mervyn, many serialized fictional narratives were delayed or abandoned. Authors and editors were acutely aware that if they failed to generate interest in their work--or if they experienced the kind of setback suffered by the Weekly Magazine--they might not procure enough subscription money to continue publishing. For readers too, serials must have also seemed risky. If reading a novel was like "investing in a speculative venture" (Ingrassia 2), then reading a serialized novel was even more literally speculative, as readers must have wondered not only about the narrative's events but also the material terms of its delivery. Serials, more than integrated and completed texts, made transparent a relationship between writers and readers that was both contractual and speculative in ways that were both metaphorical and concrete. They required that writers continually satisfy readers' desires by delivering textual wares across a period of time, and they demanded that readers make repeated emotional and financial investments by purchasing pieces of stories.

This essay explains how Brown used the serial form to offer an economic model that could harness risk, capitalizing on the "hazards" of publication rather than shrinking from their potentially devastating consequences. Though serial publication was risky, its riskiest aspect--the deferral of its conclusion--paradoxically offered Brown a solution: by delaying the answers to the questions that his readers sought, he could secure their long-term investment. Seriality, I argue here, signified for Brown a new type of author-reader relations--one that understood the contract between readers and writers as unfolding over a period of time and without a preordained ending. We might appropriately describe this type of relationship as "corporate." To understand what I mean by this term, we must recall that the "corporation" is a fairly modern invention--an "artificial being" as Supreme Court justice John Marshall would later write--that functioned as a "person" under the law, enabling individuals to form financial relationships that transcended the limits of the human life span. (1) Crucially, the corporation allowed businesses to extend credit and pool risk, insulating individuals from the consequences of market fluctuations. After the Revolution, corporations became a tool for safeguarding economic development, and the unprecedented 317 new corporations that sprang up in the 1780s and 1790s evinced the need to establish financial mastery of the future. …

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