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

§ 7. The Revolution

The Revolutionary period was quite different from any that had preceded it. Before the war, although the issues of the American press showed, as noted, a sprinkling of non-theological works, they were nevertheless overwhelmingly religious in character. But now politics becomes of first importance, and we pass from dominant figures to the frequent anonymity of dangerous discussion. There was great difficulty in obtaining paper during and just before the war, and as pamphlets were too expensive, not to say books, broadsides became the prevailing form of publication. Rags were regularly advertised for by the publishers. Yet although American publishing bears eloquent witness to the all-obsessing nature of the stern struggle, coming as it did at a time when our publishing facilities were not materially far enough advanced to absorb the blow, nevertheless the love of literature was not dead. The opening years of the Revolution saw, in addition to Brackenridge, Trumbull, Freneau, and Hopkinson, who of course would be issued regardless of conditions, works issued of Alsop, Defoe, Falconer, Garrick, Milton, Pope, Sterne, Thomson, Voltaire, and Young.

Back of all publication, and in the final analysis dominating it, stands of course the psychology of the reading public. And especially as we approach the present century does it become more and more evident that the great publisher must be a psychological expert in public literary tastes and interests. Somewhere, then, about the fourth quarter of the eighteenth century American publishers began to sense the fact that the people of the country, having won some slight measure of victory over the imperious necessities of mere material existence, and having to some degree slowly broadened down to a mellowness where life was no longer solely a struggle with the flesh and the devil, were beginning to demand real literature.

After the Revolution, which had temporarily dammed back this current of our culture, the recovery, considering the prostration of our material resources, was little short of marvellous. Now for the first time in our bibliographies it becomes necessary to divide our literary output into genres. Evans, for instance, for the period from 1786 to 1789 gives drama, 38; fables, 8; fiction, 43; juvenile, 104; poetry, 130; and miscellany, 12.

Probably the best domestic seller of 1786 was James Buckland’s An Account of the Discovery of a Hermit, Who Lived about 200 Years in a Cave at the Foot of a Hill, 73 Days Journey Westward of the Great Alleghany Mountains, which appeared in that year at Pittsburg, Portsmouth, Middletown, New Haven, Norwich, and Boston, and which went through several myth-adding editions in the next few years. Its vogue is noted here merely to emphasize the fact that the American public was becoming prepared for that literary enfranchisement noticeable in the last years of the eighteenth century. True enough, until within the days of Hay and Eggleston the publishers could have noted an opposition to the novel, but it was even after the beginning of the nineteenth century one that, save in some districts, they need not note as prohibitive. The South, even before the Revolution, was obtaining by direct importation, through book dealers, and from American publishers large quantities of belles-lettres, especially novels.