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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXIX. Book Publishers and Publishing

§ 10. Rise of Native Authors

Thus American scholarship began to assert itself during the opening decades of the nineteenth century with more real vigour than did American belles-lettres, for against the popularity of Mackenzie, Mrs. Radcliffe, Mrs. Roche, Hannah More, Jane Porter, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Chapone, Miss Williams, Mrs. Rowson (in part, however, to be claimed as American), and later of Scott, 500,000 volumes of whose novels were issued from the American press in the nine years ending with 1823, the struggle was desperate. There were no restraints, either legal or ethical, at this period to prohibit the publication of these authors; and the publishers issued them in large numbers, sometimes in chap-books as low as five cents. Moreover, during the three decades before Scott’s novels appeared, there were frequent republications or importations of, especially, Bunyan, Milton, Defoe, Pope, Addison, Thomson, Young, Darwin, Lewis, Johnson, and Goldsmith. The publishers of Trumbull, Barlow, Dwight, and Brown, while receiving apparently fair returns from these men of popularity or near popularity, must have been, as a whole, keenly aware what a tiny rill was flowing into their coffers from their publications by American authors of belles-lettres.

Simms, in 1844, thought that American literature really began with the War of 1812; and viewing the matter, as he appears temporarily to be doing, in the light of the publisher, there is some truth in his argument. He overstates his side of the question, however, when he says that prior to 1815 the issues from American presses were not only reprints wholly from foreign sources but were confined chiefly to works of science and education. There were too many reprints of belles-lettres, too much cultural striving, for the latter part of this to hold good. He is, however, quite correct when he calls attention to the small chance the American poet had in publishing in those days, and equally correct when he notes an awakening in the publication of “school and classical books.” American intellectual freedom was voicing itself through its publications, and soon it was to become pathetically and perennially vocal in its cry for an American literature.

In 1820 about thirty per cent. of our publications were by our own authors; by 1840 it was approximately half, though the large increase in school books during the thirties had much to do with the rise. In 1856 the proportion had risen to about eighty per cent. The vast bulk of the remaining portion is, in each case, composed of British productions. If to this be added the fact that sometime in the late forties the rage for Americana became pronounced, the middle of the nineteenth century may be taken as the turning point of nationalism in our publishing history.