Why Are Were Artists Poor?

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

Reading Jeremy Hatch’s post on Andrew Keen and starving artists, I couldn’t help but think of Joel Barlow (1754-1812). Barlow was a poet, one of the Connecticut Wits, to be precise, so my mental leap probably owes more to the fact that I was reading Barlow right before I clicked over to The Rumpus than to anything else.

Still, there is a connection. In 1783, Barlow wrote a letter to Elias Boudinot, the president of the Continental Congress: “As we have few Gentlemen of fortune sufficient to enable them to spend a whole life in study, or enduce others to do it by their patronage, it is more necessary, in this country than in any other, that the rights of authors be secured by law.”

At this point, America didn’t have anything resembling modern copyright law—England had just finalized its pioneering policy in 1774—and Barlow outlined how this was hampering artists like Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale and current author of The Conquest of Canaan. The Conquest of Canaan was perhaps the first American epic poem, “a work of great merit,” according to Barlow, though it’s probably better described as “ambitious.” Dwight had been sitting on his creation for six years because, in Barlow’s words, “the Author cannot risque the expences of the publication, sensible that some ungenerous Printer will immediately seize upon his labors, making a mean & cheap impression [i.e., an edition], in order to undersell the Author & defraud him of his property.”

In what now seems like a rather silly instance of “states’ rights,” Connecticut passed its own copyright law in 1783. Slowly, the other states followed, with national copyright coming in 1790. But copyright was only the first step to solving Barlow’s problems—authors still had to find a way to earn a living, as William Charvat argues in his Profession of Authorship in America: 1800-1870, where I first encountered Barlow’s story.

Charvat’s book is now an academic classic—the library copy I’m reading has more pencil in it than a third-grade classroom—even though he never finished it. Charvat died at 61, leaving behind a jumble of papers and notes and a preliminary table of contents. His colleagues at Ohio State came together and forged a fitting tribute. Matthew Bruccoli, a young professor who would become the world’s top Fitzgerald scholar, edited the text as best he could, using a system of brackets to mark materials Charvat “may have intended to delete or shift or rewrite,” as Howard Mumford Jones explained in his “Foreword” to the book.[1]

Anyway, Charvat shows how early American authors, far from receiving advances, actually had to pay to publish their works. Authors fronted the money, publishers distributed the product, and nobody made a livable wage. Barlow ended up working as a chaplain in the Continental Army and writing The Vision of Columbus, his own ambitious epic, on the side. The best an author could hope for was to sell subscriptions to his potential masterpiece based on a prospectus. (Here, the military bailed Barlow out again: 117 of his 769 subscribers for The Vision of Columbus were officers.)

Barlow was one of those unfortunate souls who outlive their art. But he deserves credit for being perhaps the first American to talk about the financial realities of writing—and at a time when his gentleman friends considered such talk tawdry and cheap.

Today, of course, we talk (and tweet) about little else. I find it reassuring to remember that people—thinking, breathing, 3-D people—have worried about protecting copyright, finding an audience, and getting paid for a long time.


[1] Jones’s “Foreword” is a fascinating document in the history of academic criticism, if you’re in to that sort of thing. The Profession of Authorship in America came out in 1968, two years after the game-changing “Languages of Criticism and Sciences of Man” conference. Jones does praise Charvat’s “rational scholarship” and “objective research,” but, when it comes time to attack the opposition, he still goes after the New Criticism and the Northropean archetypes. Either way, Jones was right to play the underdog; he mentions “a famous [contemporary] American publishing company which, on moving from its old location to its new one, dumped its back records without regard to their historical worth for scholarship,” and Charvat’s methodology and concerns didn’t get their due until more recently. Thankfully, we’re now seeing something of a Charvat renaissance; Ohio State even named its special collection of American fiction after him.


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