Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 16. The Rewards of Authorship

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

§ 16. The Rewards of Authorship

Against such an adverse current, American authorship was slowly winning its way. In 1829, it is asserted, no author of belles-letters was living by his pen in New York. The lives of Richard Dabney, Percival, and Halleck throw a strong light upon the rewards of authorship during the first four decades of the century. The first two men, though possessed of a thin strain of genius, were constantly in desperate straits on Grub Street. Halleck, in spite of some aspects of popularity, received for the entire labours of a literary lifetime but $17,500, or approximately $364 a year. Irving and Cooper had other financial resources than authorship, but according to Longfellow, Professor Ingraham’s bad novels were rewarding him richly in the thirties.

Simms affirms that up to the year 1834 American literature was with a few exceptions the diversion of the amateur but that about that time it began to assume the aspect of a business; while as late as 1842 Channing ventured the (mistaken) opinion that Hawthorne was the only American who supported himself by authorship. Yet the remark of such a man shows how few were our temerarious professional authors. By 1842 a man of great ability, unless divided against himself like Poe, could find support in literature in most fields of prose, for one must always remember Bryant’s remark implying that poetry and a full stomach did not go together. In a large measure both Longfellow and Whittier must have felt likewise, for the latter, who had little to fall back upon, was in straitened circumstances until the publication of Snow-Bound. Lowell had to superintend his own publications for a time, but in 1870 he was able to say that he had lately declined $4000 a year to write four pages monthly for a magazine. One striking exception to poor pay for poetry is, however, found in Willis, but even his magazine receipts of $4800 a year about 1842 were largely from prose.

The magazines were indeed a saving influence in the life of the hard-pressed American author. “The burst on authorland of Graham’s and Godey’s liberal prices,” Willis said, “was like a sunrise without a dawn.” Graham’s Magazine, established in 1841, was especially liberal in its payments, particularly to Cooper and Hawthorne. It must have been largely of the aid of the magazines that Goodrich was thinking when he said in 1856 that nothing was more remarkable than good writing, though he truly adds that authorship does not rank financially with other professions.

History of good quality has apparently always paid. Before Mrs. Stowe’s great success in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Prescott was probably the best rewarded of our classic writers. As early as 1846 he says that his copyrights were considered by his publishers as worth $25,000 each, and that on his two histories he had already received about $30,000; and even better things could be reported of the next two histories. Against this must be balanced the fact that the proceeds of Emerson’s literary life were little more than $30,000.

Since 1891 both the playwright and the novelist have flourished. While there are striking instances of financial success for both before that period, the former was especially hard hit by the constant stream of plays flowing in, copyright free, from Europe. Kotzebue and Scribe especially figured constantly in this retarding of the American playwright. But as a class the novelists have won the most spectacular monetary rewards of our time. Just what these returns are, it is not possible to ascertain nor perhaps advisable to reveal if it were. In attempting to find them out, one becomes hopelessly involved in guesses and in interested gossip. However, one prominent publisher of our century has committed himself to the assertion that Mary Johnston must have made from $60,000 to $70,000 on To Have and to Hold, which statement may be taken as some fair gauge of the returns of a modern best seller.