The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 8. A New Publisher
On his return to New York in 1846, he met with a serious disappointment. His books were out of print, at least in the United States, and his Philadelphia publishers assured him that, as there was no longer any public demand for has writings, it would be an unprofitable venture to put new editions upon the market. They explained that the public taste had changed, and that a new style of authorship was now in vogue. The books had in fact been out of print since 1845, but at that time Irving, still absent in Spain, had concluded that the plan for revised editions might await his return. To be told now by publishers of experience that The Sketch Book, Knickerbocker, Columbus, and the other books, notwithstanding their original prestige, had had their day and were not wanted by the new generation, was a serious shock to Irving not only on the ground of the blow to his confidence in himself as an author, but because his savings were inconsiderable, and he needed the continued income that he had hoped to secure from his pen.
His personal wants were few, but he had always used his resources generously among his large circle of relatives, and having neither wife nor child he had made a home at Sunnyside for an aged brother Ebenezer, and at one time for no less than five nieces. Some western land investments, which in later years became profitable, were at this time liabilities instead of resources, and his immediate financial prospects were discouraging. He had taken a desk in the office of his brother John Treat Irving, and to John he now spoke, possibly half jestingly, of the necessity of resuming the practice of the law. He was at this time sixty-five years of age, and as it was forty years since he had touched a law book, it is hardly likely that he could have made himself of much value as a counsellor.
One morning early in 1848, he came into the office in a joyful frame of mind. He tossed a letter over to his brother saying: “John, here is a fool of a pubsliher willing to give me $2000 a year to go on scribbling.” The “fool of a publisher” was the late George P. Putnam, who had recently returned from London where he had for eight years been engaged in the attempt to induce the English public to buy American books. Mr. Putnam now proposed to issue a uniform revised edition of all of Irving’s writings, with which should be associted the books that he might later bring to completion, and to pay to the author a royalty on each copy sold, guaranteeing against such royalty for a term of three years a sum increasing with each year. It may be mentioned as evidence of the accuracy of the publisher’s judgment that the payments during the years in which this guaranty continued were always substantially in excess of the amounts contracted for.
In 1849, the London publisher Bohn began to print unauthorized editions of the various books of Irving. A series of litigations ensued, as a result of which the authorized publishers, Murray and Bentley, discouraged with a long fight and with the great expense incurred in securing protection under the existing copyright regulations, accepted the offer of the priate for the use, at a purely norminal price, of their publishing rights, and Irving’s works came thus to be included in Bohn’s Library Series. Copyright in Great Britain, as in the United States, was in 1850 in a very unsatisfactory condition, and it was not easy to ascertain from the provisions of the British statute just what rights could be maintained by alien authors. So far as American authors were concerned, this uncertainty continued until, through the enactment of the statue of 1891, an international copyright relation was secured.
As one result of the transfer to Bohn of the control of the English editions of Irving’s earlier volumes, the author found that he could not depend upon any material English receipts for his later works. For the right to publish the English edition of the Life of Washington (a work comprised in five volumes) Bentley paid the sum of £50, which was a sad reduction from the £3000 that Murray had given him for the Columbus,
In December, 1852, Irving wrote to his American publisher a letter of thanks, which is notable as an expression both of the sense of fairness and of the modest nature of the man. That this expression of friendship was not a mere empty courtesy, he had opportunity of making clear a few years later. In 1857, partly because of the mismanagement of his financial partner and partly because of the general financial disasters of the year, Mr. Putnam was compelled to make an assignment of his business. Irving received propositions from a number of other publishers for the transfer of his books, the commercial value of which was now fully appreciated. From some of these propositions he could have secured more satisfactory returs than were coming to him under the existing arrangement. He declined them all, however, writing to his publisher to the effect that as long as a Putnam remained in the publishing business, he proposed to retain for his books the Putnam imprint. He purchased from the assignee the plates and the publishing agreements; he held these plates for a year or more until Mr. Putnam was in a positon to resume the control of the publication, and he then restored them to his publisher. He waived the larger proceeds to which, as the owner of the plates, he would have been entitled, and insisted that the old publishing arrangement should be resumed. Such an epiosde is interesting in the long and somewhat troubled history of the relations of authors with publishers, and it may be considered equally creditable to both parties.