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Capital Letters: Authorship in the Antebellum Literary Market

Capital Letters: Authorship in the Antebellum Literary Market

by David Dowling

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In the 1840s and 1850s, as the market revolution swept the United States, the world of literature confronted for the first time the gaudy glare of commercial culture. Amid growing technological sophistication and growing artistic rejection of the soullessness of materialism, authorship passed from an era of patronage and entered the clamoring free market. In this


In the 1840s and 1850s, as the market revolution swept the United States, the world of literature confronted for the first time the gaudy glare of commercial culture. Amid growing technological sophistication and growing artistic rejection of the soullessness of materialism, authorship passed from an era of patronage and entered the clamoring free market. In this setting, romantic notions of what it meant to be an author came under attack, and authors became professionals.

In lively and provocative writing, David Dowling moves beyond a study of the emotional toll that this crisis in self-definition had on writers to examine how three sets of authors—in pairings of men and women: Harriet Wilson and Henry David Thoreau, Fanny Fern and Walt Whitman, and Rebecca Harding Davis and Herman Melville—engaged with and transformed the book market. What were their critiques of the capitalism that was transforming the world around them? How did they respond to the changing marketplace that came to define their very success as authors? How was the role of women influenced by these conditions?

Capital Letters concludes with a fascinating and daring transhistorical comparison of how two superstar authors—Herman Melville in the nineteenth century and Stephen King today—have negotiated the shifting terrain of the literary marketplace. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of print culture and literary work.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“What good is an author without readers? But in a market economy, how does the lonely romantic artist find those readers? In this brisk and refreshing book, David Dowling puts into play the range of strategies American authors have used to solve this dilemma, from Thoreau, Whitman, Harriet Wilson, and Fanny Fern to Melville, Rebecca Harding Davis, and even Stephen King. Dowling’s authors rolled up their sleeves and with ink-smudged hands dove into the paradoxes of the modern literary marketplace. In the process careers were made, redefined, and ruined—and the market, too, was changed. By asking important new questions about how high romantic ideals wrestled with the materialities of the book trade, Dowling, too, bids fair to change and reenergize the marketplace of American literary studies today.”—Laura Dassow Walls, author, Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth

“David Dowling has produced a first-rate book. Capital Letters is a thoroughly researched and well-argued analysis of the complicated relationship between ‘capital’—in the economic sense—and ‘letters’—in the literary sense. Dowling goes about his work with an admirable determination to treat each of his writers as an individual case, but always painstakingly hewing to his theme that writing for the market was the inescapable problem that every writer had to resolve, one way or another. This is an excellent book.”—R. Jackson Wilson, author, Figures of Speech: American Writers and the Literary Marketplace, from Benjamin Franklin to Emily Dickinson

Capital Letters not only adds to our historical knowledge of antebellum publishing but also deepens our appreciation of the cultural dialogues maintained by some of the nineteenth century’s most significant writers.”—David Haven Blake, author, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

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University of Iowa Press
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Authorship in the Antebellum Literary Market
By David Dowling


Copyright © 2009 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-784-7

Chapter One


Anticapitalist Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson's Our Nig and Proslavery Propaganda

Zora Neale Hurston once said, "slavery is the price I paid for civilization" (216). Hurston honors rather than degrades the slave labor of her ancestors by refiguring work's relation to race. She finds dignity in labor, not for its own sake, but for the ennobling and enlightening dimensions of the "civilization" it helps build. Yet a resonance, and thus a sense of uneasiness for today's readers, remains between Hurston and antebellum southern defenses of slavery as essential for the construction of civilization. The challenge is to see how she replicates their argument while not only maintaining racial dignity, but also asserting robust pride diametrically opposed to southern ideology.

Such surprising convergences of thought on black labor and its honorability are as important to understanding Hurston's bold claim as they are to Harriet Wilson's fictionalized autobiography, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In A Two-Story White House, North. Showing that Slavery's Shadows Fall even There (1859). Framed in the context of the prominent anticapitalistarguments of its time, Our Nig shocks much in the way Hurston's quote does, and not just for the rare glimpse it offers into the northern "free" black experience. Much more than a straightforward document supporting black uplift and condemning northern racism, showing "that slavery's shadows fall even there," the novel replicates the anticapitalist rhetoric common to proslavery propaganda of the era. This chapter examines the uncanny continuities between Wilson and the peculiar institution's most prominent apologists, who depict northern economic conditions, especially for free blacks and women, as cruel and uninhabitable. Certainly, Wilson never intended to defend southern slavery and never embraced the presumed domestic warmth of its purported benevolent paternalism. Yet when placed next to such proslavery works as George Fitzhugh's Sociology for the South (1854) and Cannibals All! Or, Slaves without Masters (1857) and Caroline E. Rush's The North and South; Or Slavery and Its Contrasts (1852), Our Nig's antimarket tropes stand out, particularly those that attack capitalism's excessive individualism, which prioritizes exploitation and domination over human sympathy. This rhetorical pattern, in both Wilson and proslavery writing, depicts such savage self-interest as yielding to godlessness, neglect, physical abuse, and-the biggest threat-severe poverty and death by starvation.

This chapter aims to answer the difficult question of why the abolitionist press failed to promote Harriet Wilson's autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Abolitionists did not overlook her, as many critics have assumed, simply because her story did not fit the parameters of the slave narrative and thus failed to fuel their propaganda factory. Her anticapitalist sentiment in the novel about her life as an indentured servant in Milford, New Hampshire, would have appeared particularly repellant to abolitionists given their appropriation of tropes common to proslavery writings at the time. I examine Wilson's exposition of the evils of capitalism, its coldness, cruelty, excessive individualism, and willingness to sacrifice the values of sympathy and warmth so commonly associated with domesticity. Her attack on capitalism, I argue, is part of her larger goal of locating northern racism precisely in the gross inequalities of its industrial system, and its unfair labor practices that make a mockery of "freedom" for northern blacks. Such tactics were common to proslavery rhetoricians like George Fitzhugh and Caroline E. Rush. Wilson writes for her own survival-her novel is a solicitation of charity to save her dying son-and for her "black brethren," exposing the limitations of individualism and the rampant corruption of the northern market (41).

My aim is not to discredit Wilson, but to cast her in a realistic light by showing how resourceful she was in appropriating for her own antiracist polemical purpose the most potent argument the South had against the North at the time. I situate Our Nig in the history of economic commentary beside-paradoxically enough-figures racially and politically averse to Wilson's plight who nonetheless wielded the same rhetorical weapons against capitalism. (Wilson even overlaps with profeudalist arguments that resonate with socialists and communitarians like Orestes Brownson and even the transcendentalists, whom I discuss later.) Arguments with repellent racist or hierarchical components can contain highly persuasive analyses about the limitations of capitalism and individualism. Such arguments highlight aspects of the United States that more mainstream narratives were afraid to recognize; Our Nig provides a window into the constellation of anticapitalist thought in the antebellum United States.

The main rhetorical modes available for a New England mulatta indentured servant like Wilson to discuss the issue of northern racism in antebellum America were the slave narrative, proslavery/anticapitalist writing, and the domestic novel. Significantly, these three genres treated race at the time almost exclusively in terms of the system of organized slavery in the South; Wilson's preface to Our Nig attempts to situate itself with respect to slavery by claiming "my mistress was wholly imbued with southern principles" but quickly allows that her attack on racist northern labor conditions may potentially play into the hands of proslavery arguments (3). Her grisly portrait of free life in the North, she admits, could appear "unfavorable in comparison," thus reflecting "shame in our good anti-slavery friends at home" that might "palliate slavery at the South"-words so clearly confessing to the pattern of proslavery argumentation that they are heartbreaking in their attempt to distance themselves from it (H. Wilson 3). George Fitzhugh would have relished the opportunity to exploit Wilson's testimony for his propaganda in this regard (carefully avoiding, as one might imagine, the novel's evidence of black educational and spiritual potential in the process). Thankfully enough, the book remained mainly in the hands of schoolchildren and others in and around Milford, New Hampshire, safe from southern exploitation.

The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society were only two blocks away from the offices of Rand, Avery, which printed Our Nig. These organizations regularly solicited writings for their publications; the Liberator also operated out of this address in 1858. Most of all, Rand himself was an active and committed abolitionist. Instead of broadcasting Wilson's story, Rand chose to produce the book, given its low cost, as a gesture of charity to enable her to overcome the impoverished circumstance to which she alludes in the preface. Either Rand did not exploit the avenues to introduce the text to the abolitionist community he clearly had access to or his attempts failed. The novel appears to have been purchased and read as a children's book, as it treats the individual and spiritual development of Frado, Wilson's protagonist and fictional counterpart (Gardner 232-3, 238).

Wilson's novel received no attention in Boston or elsewhere because, most obviously, abolitionists were focused mainly on the problem of slavery in the distant South; Wilson's free status and the location of her narrative diminished its didactic force; and the wicked Mrs. Bellmont was a mother of the North, as Eric Gardner notes (243-4). While all these factors likely contributed, a more compelling answer to this historical riddle lies in Mrs. Bellmont's role as the ferocious face of the free market, part of the novel's larger anticapitalist rhetorical configuration so repellant to northerners versed in southern sophistry. Not only does this posit a potential answer to abolitionists' glaring neglect of the book, it serves to refine the assumption that the marketplace was Wilson's salvation, when in fact it was a living hell precisely because she was an economic slave in the North.

Economic necessity is Wilson's cross to bear, an evil that continues to plague her, as her diction makes clear: "I am forced to some experiment which shall aid in maintaining myself and child" (3; emphasis mine). The tone is beleaguered and downtrodden, matching the impoverished, desperate condition of Frado's mother, Mag Smith, in chapter 1. Indeed, Wilson does not present herself in the preface of Our Nig as an entrepreneur as much as a solicitor of charitable donations; she does not promote her novel as a highly crafted, appealing product but as a humble attempt at survival. Her apology, for example, to well-educated readers for her aesthetic "inability to minister to the refined and the cultivated" is self-promotion through self-effacement rather than self-aggrandizement (H. Wilson 3). She instead appeals to fellow blacks who might sympathize with her suffering at the hands of a northern racist economy and lend support. An extreme contrast to Wilson's stance here is reflected in Walt Whitman's many prefaces to Leaves of Grass, especially after the 1855 edition, in which he openly courts celebrity status and literary credibility (self-penned glowing reviews, the famous letter from Emerson) in gestures of self-aggrandizing authorial entrepreneurship. Wilson's mere request for money does not make her an entrepreneur; certainly black stories of abuse brought fame along with real political change, as Frederick Douglass's career attests. But the black life story in Our Nig that truly establishes its "status as product for sale" in a commercial sense is Samuel's: "his illiterate harangues were humbugs for hungry abolitionists" (Ernest 424; H. Wilson 128). Samuel's peddling potentially disempowers Wilson's project by fueling the skepticism of her potential supporters. His profit motive, significantly, is a perfect match for the gluttony of "hungry abolitionists," who seem more financially than morally driven, more interested in the show business of lurid fascination than in moral reform.

The corrupting influence of the market on black autobiography is part of the larger antimarket sentiment of Frado/Wilson's life story in Our Nig, designed to show that the brutal northern capitalist system has claimed another victim. This sounds very much like the proslavery accounts of the evils of capitalism employed by Fitzhugh and other southern advocates. Such accounts were pervasive in the antebellum era; the number of northern authors that felt the need to respond to attacks on their economic system indicates the scope of influence this southern argument had. Chapter 37 of Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, chapter 15 of William Wells Brown's Clotel, and chapter 19 of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin all refute the proslavery claim that northern economic conditions were less humane for blacks and whites than the benevolent paternal order of the slaveholding South. St. Claire represents southern sympathies as he argues with Miss Ophelia, the northern advocate, in a scene of Uncle Tom's Cabin. St. Claire argues that "slaves are better off than a large class of the population of England" because a slave owner he knows "takes a sort of pride in having his slaves comfortably fed and accommodated" (Stowe 341). The "vicious" "capitalist and aristocrat of England" become the enemy for St. Claire. He calls "your northern folks cold-blooded; you are cool in everything" (Stowe 333).

Fitzhugh's 1854 Sociology for the South asserts that "the competitive system is a system of antagonism and war; ours of peace and fraternity" (25). The North's advocacy of "separate individual action" in its free-market economy is less productive, preventing "that association of labor without which nothing great can be achieved" (25). It is more barbaric and inhumane because "man isolated and individualized is the most helpless of animals" (Fitzhugh, Sociology 25). Like Wilson, Fitzhugh's appeal against northern industry tries to draw sympathy for the exploited woman worker who "fares worst when thrown into this warfare of competition" (Sociology 24). Wilson herself fits Fitzhugh's image of how the woman "and her children are starving, and the employer is growing rich by giving her half what her work is worth" (Sociology 24). The appropriately named Mrs. Hogg is one such figure of greed, gluttony, and economic domination in Our Nig. Fitzhugh locates the evil of northern capitalism in the exploitative self-promotion of free trade. In such a system, he argues, one "takes advantage of the follies, the improvidence and vices of others, and makes his fortune out of the follies and weaknesses of his fellow-men" (Sociology 24-5). Unlike Wilson, his logic rests on the superiority of slavery by contrast to the northern marketplace. But how he arrives at the conclusion that northern capitalism is inherently predatory and anarchic remains the same as Wilson. Like Fitzhugh, Wilson emphasizes the market's dearth of sympathy throughout Our Nig, showing its direct correlation with Frado's suffering, down to the presence of her dog Fido, which, like her other sympathizers, provides a balm she starves for but is neither consistent nor reliable: all her supporters, James, Mrs. Moore, Jane, Jenny, and even her own mother and husband, habitually abandon her, or circumstances-usually associated with money matters-conspire to separate her from them. The cold northern market conditions prevent most of these sympathizers from realizing the full warmth their portrayals suggest is inherent in them and thus keep them from staying with Frado in any permanent capacity.

Such a savage world of greed run amok at the expense of human sympathy was a theme proslavery commonly developed into apocalyptic scenes of social disorder. The 1822 Refutation of the Calumnies Circulated against the Southern and Western States Respecting the Institution and Existence of Slavery among Them "by a South-Carolinian" laments labor conditions of the North. The author bashes the free market for the way "one grows rich by the labor of the hundred. The hundred human beings like himself, as wonderfully fashioned by Nature, gifted with the like capacities and equally made for immortality, are sacrificed, body and soul" (Refutation 60). Aside from "being deprived in childhood of all instruction," the workers'

health, physical and moral, is alike destroyed. They die of diseases induced by unremitting task work, by confinement in the impure atmosphere of crowded rooms, by the particles of metallic or vegetable dust which they are continually inhaling, or they live to grow up without decency, without comfort, without hope; without morals, without religion, and without shame; and bring forth SLAVES like themselves to tread in the same path of misery. (Refutation 60)

The "hopelessness and despair" of the industrial worker make for a "life of misery" and a "mockery of humanity" (Refutation 60). Without the social order and cooperation brought about by southern slavery, industrial, working-class slaves like the ones characterized above will proliferate and cause economic chaos, the South Carolinian argues: "Our roads would swarm with paupers, and every wood be infested with banditti [sic]" (Refutation 82).

However hyperbolic, such imagery nonetheless shows a concern for the bleak social consequences of capitalism, thus bearing more in common with Wilson than with the other source of prominent anticapitalist rhetoric at the time issuing from New England. New Englanders were mainly assaulting institutions antithetical to romantic notions of the artist, a project not as relevant to Our Nig as that of the proslavery propagandists since, as Xiomara Santamarina reminds us, "Our Nig refused to reinscribe the exceptionality of the individual whose survival was predicated on the romantic exempting of himself or herself from relevant structures" (99). As such, Wilson is trying to "teach" her "black brethren" (whom she appeals to for aid in the preface) that the servility and dependence of menial labor are not inherent to race, and skills can be learned and used by blacks from within the system for upward mobility-race does not permanently fix one's position on the occupational hierarchy. Wilson's belief that the market holds "possibility," despite its ongoing hardships, situates her efforts and sense of identity, both positive and negative, firmly within economies of labor, unlike romantic renunciations thereof. (Continues...)

Excerpted from CAPITAL LETTER by David Dowling Copyright © 2009 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

David Dowling is an assistant professor of English at the University of Iowa.

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