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The Blighted Life Of The Writer, Circa 1840

May 2024
8min read

The urge to create literature was as strong in the mid-1800s as it is today, but rejections were brutal and the pay was even worse

How does the writing life in preCivil War America compare with that of the 1980s? If you had picked up the New York literary newspaper The New Mirror on Saturday, January 6, 1844, you would have read: “The prices paid now to acceptable magazine-writers are very high, though the number of writers has increased so much that there are thousands who can get no article accepted. There are so many people, too, who, like the Ancient Mariner, are under dire compulsion to tell their tale—paid or not paid—that any periodical, with a good furbisher and mender, may fill its pages, for nothing, with very excellent reading. A wellknown editor once told me that he could make a very good living by the sums people were willing to pay to see themselves in print. The cacoethes scribendi [writing itch] would doubtless support — does doubtless support—a good many periodicals.”

One of the periodicals so supported was The New Mirror itself, as the probable author of the above paragraph, Nathaniel P. Willis, well knew; he was the writing half of the editorial combination that produced the newspaper (his partner, George P. Morris, was a writer of popular songs and poems, notably that old-time favorite “O Woodman, Spare That Tree!”). Willis, a once well-known American journalist, short-story writer, gossip columnist, and poet, had, over a period of years, a good deal to say about how writers fared in America in the 184Os and 185Os. One of his perennial complaints was the lack of an international copyright law, which bothered other writers also.

In the absence of such a law, book publishing was largely dominated by pirated English works, so that the principal market left for American writers was in periodicals. There were hundreds of them: newspapers, religious magazines, scholarly journals, political journals, popular magazines. Most of those that survive today have been bound into books. Their brown-spotted pages are tall and narrow and densely set with minute type, because postal rates were high then too. A short column here, a paragraph there, describe the relations between the writers and the magazines they wrote for; and the picture that emerges should have made any prospective author take up coal hauling or mantua making instead. Not only did most writers of the time have all the problems that 1980s writers do (flooded markets, poor or late pay), they had a few extra ones. For one thing, many of the most popular magazines were publicly acerbic about their would-be contributors. Graham’s Magazine had this to say in July 1848:

“If an idea, or part of an idea, chances to stray into the brain of an American gentleman, he quickly apparels it in an old coat from his wardrobe of worn phrases, and rushes off in mad haste to the first magazine or newspaper, in order that the public may enjoy its delectable beauty at once. We have on hand enough MSS. of this kind, which we never intend to print, to freight the navy of Great Britain.”

Worse yet, some magazines, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book , which, along with Graham’s , was among the most prominent and prosperous of the popular American magazines, had items called “Notices to Correspondents,” or something similar. These were short columns in each month’s issue informing contributors whether their submissions had been accepted or rejected (the day of the self-addressed, stamped envelope not yet having arrived). In May 1840 the editor of Godey’s had this to say “To Correspondents,” following a short list of items accepted: “We are sorry to say, that we have a much longer list of rejected articles to give. And loth as we always are to wound the feelings of the sensitive, or crush the hopes of the aspiring, we still think that the writers will suffer less to know the fate of their communications [submitted manuscripts] with as little delay as possible.”

In spite of these claims to tenderheartedness, the editor’s remarks were followed by several crisp rejection notices, the most dismissive of which was: “‘Parting.’ Very poor—Simon had better learn to ‘make the paper that he spoils’ with his rhymes.…” But this, in the idiom of the 1840s, was only “a little severe.” Here is what The American Lady’s Wreath and Literary Gatherer had to say to a hapless physician/writer in 1844: “We do hope, for the sake of the good people where he resides, and especially our subscribers in that region, that he is a much better physician than poet . Hear him:

Come on dull care, come unto me, You and I will now surely agree; I have lost my love, and my heart is full, And who has a better right than me to be dull?

“Nobody, certainly, dear Doctor; you can make so many people laugh , that you have the best right in the world to be dull yourself.”

Perhaps contemporary writers who complain about lack of editorial feedback don’t perceive what they’re risking.

Most magazines also reviewed new books. In April 1855, Godey’s made merry with the efforts of one young novelist who used the popular idiom of her day a little too unwarily, entitling her novel The Young Artist; or, Light and Shade . The reviewer suggested that, when she had leisure, she should try other titles: “Milk and Water; or, the Young Novelist,” for example, or “Hearts and Livers; or, the Butcher Boy’s Oath,” or perhaps “Animal Instinct; or, the Suspected Sausages.”

All this, however, was not the worst of what new writers had to face. In April 1840 the editor of Godey’s wrote under “A Few Words to Our Correspondents”: “The foregoing notices [of rejection] regard only anonymous or voluntary contributors. We need make no allusion to the articles of our regularly engaged and paid writers—these we use or return according to agreement.” Now, what this creamily smooth announcement meant was that unsolicited manuscripts, if printed, were not paid for.

Nevertheless, new authors maintained the stubborn notion that their labors ought to be worth something. In March 1855 Godey’s became thoroughly irritated about this assumption and reprinted some remarks by the editor of another magazine: “We are much obliged to the Saturday Post for the following plain-spoken language; it suits us as well as it does them: ‘We are constantly annoyed by young beginners sending us poetry and asking us to remit our usual price. We may add that we do not return poetry; those sending must keep a copy. One thing more while we are upon the subject. It is all folly for writers who have made no name to think of receiving payment, especially heavy payment, for their productions. An article may be fit to publish, without being entitled to compensation. A young writer should have a little modesty, and be thankful that he has the opportunity of displaying his talents before some halfmillion of readers, without asking more or less pay in addition. If he write with unusual ability, he will be sought out, and his contributions solicited; and then will be time to put a price upon the productions of his brain.…”

In June of that year, Godey’s advised “Olive” in “To Correspondents”: “We know of no magazine which pays poetical contributors. Verses are a drug on the market at present.”

Alas! as they used to say in those days, perhaps Edgar Allan Poe’s attack on the magazine world in “The Literary Life of Thingum Bob, Esq.” wasn’t as exaggerated as it might seem. It was only four or five years after Poe’s service as editor of The Southern Literary Messenger that the Messenger printed a long, angry tirade on the injustice of the era’s publishing customs. “The rights of authors—who cares for them?” begins this anonymous explosion. Part of the complaint stemmed from the discovery that the writer in America, under the internal copyright law, did not have an absolute property right in his literary works.

The real problem, however, was the lack of an international copyright law. English authors were generally more highly regarded than American; in addition, new press equipment made it possible to quickly reproduce pirated English works, which could be sold by greedy publishers for a fraction of what it cost to produce an American work.

According to the article in the Messenger , American authors were “almost driven out of what should be their own market. The American volume may be good in every sense, but then it costs a dollar; while the British (stolen) one is so manufactured as to sell for a few shillings. The consequence is precisely what might be expected. The latter may be a miserable farrago of inane absurdity about Lord Zany and the Countess of Frippery, and so forth, which few can care to read and none ought to—but then, it is wondrous cheap! … If a single copy were stolen from the English publisher , our laws would mete out summary justice to the culprit; but the English author is stripped naked, so far as America is concerned, and the law stands tamely by and winks at the robbery.—Shame! Shame!”

The late 1830s saw a drive, approved by no less a personage than Henry Clay, to get an international copyright law through Congress; it failed. The large book publishers were against it. Nathaniel P. Willis, writing in The New Mirror , February 10,1844, thought he saw a way out of the American plight: “Any author, now, can publish his own book, and get all the profits!” Apparently, however, selfpublishing didn’t work any better then than it does now.

As to Willis’s opinion of the writing life in America, an article entitled “To Callow Chicksters of Our Feather” appeared in The New Mirror on November 15,1843: “We get from literary fledglings, at least one letter per diem , requesting detailed advice on the quo modo of a first flight in prose or poetry.…We like to economise time. So we publish a letter, which we once had occasion to write, and which must serve as a circular.” It was a long, long letter to a young man who wanted to become a writer. His mother had calculated that it would be much more profitable for him to stay at home on the farm and raise corn and pigs. Willis said Mother was definitely right. To this he added a picture of the life of an aspiring writer in New York in the 184Os. “Giving up the expectation of finding employment suited to your taste, you will, of course, be ‘open to offers,’ and I should counsel you to take any that would pay, which did not positively shut the door upon literature.”

In addition to the trouble caused by the effusions of incompetent poets, the editors and publishers of the time had technical problems. In Godey’s for October 1840, the editor wrote: “Since publishing the Lady’s Book [about ten years at that time], we never have had a duty so unpleasant as that which we now are about to perform. It is beyond a doubt that the whole of our southern mail, containing the August number of the Lady’s Book, was lost in the unfortunate steamboat North Carolina .” It was a bad month at Godey’s .

The ebullient “go ahead” of American business, which resulted in so many steamboat and railroad accidents, provided still more headaches in that luckless October. It had come to the editor’s attention that “some scoundrel,” an agent for a rival magazine, had been spreading the rumor that Godey’s had been discontinued as a result of the accident. “We know him and will find a way to requite him,” a spokesman for the magazine promised.

There were other difficulties in the editorial offices at Godey’s as well. Under “To Our Correspondents” in January 1855, for example, there was rejected as illegible “a story in nine chapters. (The first chapter is sufficient; the writer need not forward the remainder; we have not been able to make out half of the one before us.)”

And always there were more of those poetasters where the last ones came from. On February 17, 1844, Willis gave editorial vent to his exasperation, and Willis, on the whole, was reputed to be a good-natured man. He began softly, and possibly with just a bit of sarcasm, as was appropriate to the New York manabout-town in the 184Os. He was troubled and touched by the “first timid offerings to fame of the youthful and sanguine poet.” Ah, but more in sorrow than in anger, Willis felt he must tell the young poet: “We mourn more over his fatuous imperviousness to counsel—over his haste to print, his slowness to correct—over his belief that the airy bridges he builds over the chasms in his logic and rhythm are passable, by avoirdupois on foot, as well as by Poesy on Pegasus.”

Poor writers! Poor editors! For in addition to all these editorial aggravations, many of the pre-Civil War periodicals were in perilous financial condition most of the time. The writer and perhaps even the editor of the 1980s should count his or her blessings, such as they are.

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