Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America's Golden Age of Print

Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America's Golden Age of Print

by Ronald Weber


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780821412053
Publisher: Ohio University Press
Publication date: 12/31/1997
Edition description: 1
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 6.06(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.84(d)

About the Author

Ronald Weber is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and the author of many books, both fiction and nonfiction. He is the editor of The Reporter as Artist: A Look at the New Journalism Controversy.

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The Emergence of the Versatile Magazinists

Through joy and through sorrow, I--wrote. Through hunger and through thirst, I--wrote. Through good report and through ill report, I--wrote. Through sunshine and through moonshine, I--wrote. What I wrote it is unnecessary to say
--Edgar A. Poe


The series of sketches with the imposing title "The Literati of New York City" began appearing in May 1846 in an unlikely place for peevish literary warfare, Godey's Lady's Book of Philadelphia. It was the kind of magazine for which Edgar A. Poe had only disdain, given as it was to sentimental fiction and verse and prized for its hand-colored fashion plates and fine engravings, but it was also the most successful periodical of the day and paid its contributors liberal fees. Although Poe remarked that Louis Godey, the magazine's publisher, had as many ladies in his pay as the Grand Turk, male writers had equal entry to his pages, among them such New England luminaries as Emerson, Longfellow, and Hawthorne. The magazine's scope was national and readership had reached a hundred thousand, a dazzling figure for an American magazine of the period, by the time Poe's series was launched.

Godey puffed the series with the prediction that it would "raise some commotion in the literary emporium." In New York anticipation ran high in the wake of a tumultuous two years Poe had just spent in the city, one newspaper speculating that "the uproar which attended Pope's Dunciad was nothing to the stormy confusion of the literary elements which will war and rage." And in fact the thirty-eight personal sketches that ran through October turned out to be Godey's greatest sensation. In New York, Horace Greeley reported that every copy of the first "Literati" issue had been bought up. Unable to meet demand in the city and in Boston, the magazine had to reprint the first installment of the series in the same issue as the second. Poe himself took note of the "unexpected circulation of the series" with plans to expand it into a book on American letters in general, and so "make a hit and some profit, as well as proper fame." The book never materialized and proper fame and profit remained always just beyond his grasp.

A reading of the sketches today offers instruction in the time-bound nature of literary sensations. Most of the New York writers Poe included in the series are long forgotten; those still recalled exist on the dim fringes of literary memory, with only the author himself a looming presence. Some of his subjects were literary dabblers and academic scholars, but others were professional editors and writers--Charles Fenno Hoffman, Ann S. Stephens, Catherine M. Sedgwick, Epes Sargent--who labored in a variety of forms but made their mark largely in the periodicals and literary weeklies of the time. Chief among the writers of this sort was Nathaniel Parker Willis, one of the best-known and highest-paid authors of the day and now generally ranked as the first successful magazine writer in America.

Taken together, the magazine careers of Poe and Willis illustrate the first significant period of independent professional writing in the country. In addition, their early work set out many of the popular genres in which later writers would find their livelihood: impressionistic sketch, journalistic expose, travel account, essay, book review, fictional story, poem. It was an age of the "magazinist," a term Poe coined for Willis's most notable arena of work, when a rising tide of periodicals and literary reviews first made it possible for writers to survive by the pen alone. The relative lack of opportunity in book publishing, where American authors faced competition with pirated reprints of foreign works that cost publishers nothing in royalty payments, added to the appeal of periodical publication. Here, and here nearly alone, was a paying native market for native production.

With the rise of the magazines, writing began the shift from a casual amateur activity to a business in which one could forge a professional career, or at least imagine one. Willis found in the magazines a glittering vein and made a brilliant name for himself. Poe pursued magazine prospects as an editor and writer throughout his short life, but though his name was widely known and respected his financial return was meager. For the six-part series in Godey's he apparently received $5 a page, hardly munificent and far less than Willis's usual fees, but the total amount of $172 was one of his better sales as a writer. It was money for which, as usual, he had a desperate need.


Poe had returned to New York in 1844 and joined the staff of the Evening Mirror, a daily newspaper that also published a weekly edition, the Weekly Mirror. In the latter he published articles on the literary marketplace and contemporary writers as well as "The Raven," his great popular success in verse. The following year he had gone as editor and part owner to the Broadway Journal, a new weekly started by Charles F. Briggs, a young writer who concentrated on New York life. The Journal gave Poe a vehicle for essays, reviews, and reprints of his published stories and poems, and in its pages he obsessively waged what became known as the "Longfellow War," a series of articles campaigning against plagiarism, with the respected poet as chief villain.

Poe also took up the cause of magazines against charges that they debased literary and intellectual taste. In fact, he argued, a golden age of American periodicals was at hand, with articles rapidly becoming one of the most influential forms of letters. Unlike the leisurely quarterlies of the past, the new magazines conveyed thoughts in a manner that fit with the rapid pace of contemporary life. Especially as they had developed in England and France, magazines offered writers a wide range of subjects and real artistic possibilities. In America, it was true, writers still were hindered by the "paltry prices offered them by our periodical publishers," with the result that native magazinists found themselves "behind the age in a very important branch of literature--a branch which, moreover, is daily growing in importance--and which, in the end (not far distant) will be the most influential of all the departments of Letters."

The main reason American writers lagged behind their European counterparts was the lack of an international copyright law. American publishers were required to pay American writers for their books and articles but not foreign writers, with the result that new foreign works were rapidly pirated in cheap reprint editions ("we unblushingly," said Poe, "pick the pocket of all Europe") and American authors put at a competitive disadvantage. Poe campaigned in the Journal for an international copyright law and aligned himself with other writers in the American Copyright Club, organized in New York in 1843 under the presidency of William Cullen Bryant, in resisting the self-serving view of publishers that literary piracy had the benefit of providing American readers with a vast flow of inexpensive reading matter.

Through a crisis in the Journal's financial affairs, Poe suddenly found himself its sole proprietor. It was a situation he had long coveted, a magazine of his own in which he could print the finest American writing while critically exposing all that was shabby and overvalued. But the shaky financial state of the paper and the pressing demands of personally handling all editorial, business, and printing matters came at time when his life was in greater turmoil than usual. Even his literary allies were alienated by the notoriety of the Longfellow War; Poe was ill and depressed and had returned to heavy drinking; his young wife was dying; he could barely scrape up enough money for food and rent, On January 3, 1846, some two months after he had achieved his dream of ownership, the Broadway Journal closed.

From the city Poe retreated with his family to the nearby village of Fordham, and here, despite his bleak circumstances, he managed to publish his tale "The Cask of Amontillado" in Godey's and to vent the frustration of his New York failure through the Literati sketches. The series was intended as an expose in which, as Poe explained at the beginning, the public view of successful writers would be set against the view of "private literary society." Hawthorne and Longfellow were cases in point. Scarcely noticed by the press or the public, Hawthorne was nonetheless held in high esteem by the literary world; Longfellow, on the other hand, was considered a "poetical phenomenon" by the public but by private literary society a "determined imitator and a dexterous adopter of the ideas of other people." Poe's sketches, through giving his own "unbiased opinion" in a seemingly detached manner, would disclose what had hitherto been held in private. The particular subject, New York writers, provided a representative sampling of American letters as a whole because of their numbers and influence on the rest of the country.

The printed sketches were brief, hasty, and reportorial, little more than Poe's description of them as critical gossip. They were stitched together from a blend of tribute and attack, an occasion both for repaying personal debts with praise and for pricking inflated reputations, while continuing his jibes at Longfellow and, Hawthorne excepted, at the New Englanders in general. Although the majority of Poe's notices were favorable, what attracted most attention were thumbnail portraits of the character and physique of each author. Here in particular Poe used the series to score hits on the New York literary scene from which he seemed cruelly excluded. Otherwise attractive, Margaret Fuller's visage is marred by the unfortunate fact that her "upper lip, as if impelled by the action of involuntary muscles, habitually uplifts itself, conveying the impression of a sneer." William Gillespie "walks irregularly, mutters to himself, and, in general, appears in a state of profound abstraction." Thomas Dunn English provides the pitiable spectacle of a man "without the commonest school education busying himself in attempts to instruct mankind on topics of polite literature." Charles Briggs, Poe's former partner on the Broadway Journal, "has never composed in his life three consecutive sentences of grammatical English. He is grossly uneducated."

As with Briggs and several other subjects of the sketches, Poe had a personal connection with Willis. When he joined the staff of the Mirror in 1844 its editors were George Pope Morris, a poet and popular song writer, and Willis, then at the height of his celebrity as an author and New York dandy. Poe and Willis had corresponded in the past, Poe had reviewed Willis's work, and the two writers had developed a genuine friendship. Poe's assignment on the journal was routine newsroom drudgery, and though he performed dutifully, Willis knew his friend's accomplishments as a writer and editor qualified him for higher station than a "mechanical paragraphist" with the task of "announcing news, condensing statements, answering correspondents, noticing amusements--everything but the writing of a `leader,' or constructing any article upon which his peculiar idiosyncrasy of mind could be impressed." But for Poe the regular salary of $15 a week was a necessity, and while he kept to his editorial work he was turning out hack journalism and popular fiction for the freelance market, netting himself an estimated $425 in 1844 as against Willis's probable annual freelance earnings in the same period of some $5,000. When he came to write his Literati sketch of Willis, Poe indirectly acknowledged the gap between their earnings with the opening remark that there was no doubt that Willis had "made a good deal of noise in the world--at least for an American."

Poe's explanation for Willis's success pointed to his friend's affinity for fashion and society rather than to an outstanding literary talent. This affinity, which Poe attributed to "physical temperament," accounted for two-thirds of Willis's success, with "mental ability" providing the rest. According to Poe, early in life Willis had realized that to forge ahead as a man of letters required more than a flow of words, so he had formed friendships with influential women, traveled, and involved himself in attention-getting quarrels. The result--whether calculated or simply the result of temperament--was that his personal renown "greatly advanced, if it did not altogether establish his literary fame." With Willis's success thus explained, and from a literary standpoint narrowly circumscribed, Poe went on to develop a brief but judicious view of his former employer.

Willis was best understood as a versatile magazinist--meaning that his "compositions have invariably the species of effect, with the brevity which the magazine demands." Particularly as the author of sketches of society, rather than of poems and stories, had Willis made his mark, though his play Tortesa, the Usurer ranked as the best yet written by an American. (In an article in the Broadway Journal year before, Poe had ranked Willis with Hawthorne and William Gilmore Simms as the most important American authors of short tales.) In the form of the magazine sketch Willis could fully indulge a style that was naturally extravagant and given to the bizarre and the whimsical. The closing lines of Poe's account were devoted to Willis's appearance, which escaped the scalpel no better than that of the other Literati. Although tall and well formed and with an air of good society about him, "neither his nose nor his forehead can be defended; the latter would puzzle phrenology."


Neither Willis's career as a professional writer nor Poe's can be understood apart from the explosive rise of the periodical press in the first half of the nineteenth century. In the previous century, the field of play for writers had been largely confined to newspapers. Lacking the patronage and government sinecures that offered support to a professional writing class in England, native authors had little choice but to turn to the topical writing favored by the press. The papers produced in most towns of New England and the Middle Atlantic states, modeled on the English press and closely tied to local political events, accepted communications from readers bent on getting a point across in newsprint rather than in the pamphlets and broadsides that had previously dominated public discourse. Soon the offerings of poets, essayists, and clergymen, all of them amateur scribblers, became familiar newspaper features, printed without remuneration from publishers since supply was plentiful. A few writers attempted to earn a livelihood as professional men of letters through books of prose or verse and through newspaper and magazine ownership and editing--among them Joel Barlow, Philip Freneau, and Charles Brockden Brown--but the marketplace was small, publishers were little more than local job printers, advertising and distribution were difficult, and readers were still in thrall to printed matter imported from the mother country. Joseph Dennie's disenchanted view was that to become "an author by profession in America is a prospect of no more flattering promise than to publish among the Eskimos an essay on delicacy of taste or to found an academy of sciences in Lapland."

Dennie's own career illustrates the hard fate of native writers in the colonial and revolutionary periods. Harvard educated and eager for literary laurels, he tried to cast his writing life in the mold of sophisticated English literary journalism. But as he grew bitterly aware, the American situation did not yet provide the necessary ground for a writing career, let alone one so narrowly focused. "Had not the Revolution happened," he wrote in a letter in 1800, the year before he founded a notable weekly journal of politics and literature the Port Folio, in Philadelphia, "had I continued a subject to the King, had I been fortunately born in England or resided in the City of London for the last 7 years, my fame would have been enhanced; and as to fortune I feel a moral certainty that I should have acquired by my writings 3 or 4 thousand pounds. But in this Republic ... what can men of liberality and letters expect but such polar icy treatment as I have experienced?"

A lively and acute critic well regarded by other writers, Dennie clung to the American scene, supporting himself through the practice of law and political jobs together with writing and editing, rather than transplant himself to the richer literary soil of England. He clung as well to a notion of writing as the domain of a privileged few. He viewed Benjamin Franklin as the dark architect of a new literary situation in which print culture was increasingly available and thus certain to be degraded. In Poor Richard, the almanac initiated by Franklin in 1733 that had made him famous throughout the colonies, as well as in other published writings, he addressed a common reader with a literary credo that held that good prose ought to be smooth, clear, and brief. In this, Dennie fulminated, Franklin "was the founder of that Grubstreet sect, who have professedly attempted to degrade literature to the level of vulgar capacities, and debase the polished and current language of books by the vile alloy of provincial idioms, and colloquial barbarisms, the shame of grammar and akin to any language rather than English."

As far as the few fledgling magazines were concerned, there was hardly a "Grubstreet sect" in America as the eighteenth century drew to a close. Editors who wished to carry original work rather than reprints found it necessary to wheedle contributions from readers by decrying inexperience as a reason for not taking up the pen and by offering prizes for submissions. But change was underway, a path of opportunity beginning to appear for writers; literature was in the process of becoming, as Kenneth Silverman has noted, "if not yet a profession, professionalized. New magazines had sprung up; native-born writers were gaining notice both at home and abroad; and local copyright laws were enacted to protect authors' rights, with the Federal Copyright Act following in 1790.

The heroic figures of the Revolution also offered possibilities for support and patronage hitherto lacking in the country. Washington's name on a new magazine's subscription list or invoked in the dedication of a volume of verse gave immediate credibility. The American Museum of Philadelphia, perhaps the best general periodical in the country before 1800, boasted Franklin, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson as well as Washington on its list of subscribers, and at the end of each volume of six issues printed its entire subscription list. The publisher, Mathew Carey, also developed a flourishing book printing and selling business, with Parson Weems, one of his most zealous road agents, concocting for the firm popular biographies of William Penn, Franklin, and Washington.

With the new century and larger urban audiences, magazines rapidly increased in number--from a dozen in 1800 to nearly a hundred by 1825 and about six hundred by midcentury. Although unsystematically and often grudgingly, postmasters about the country now accepted magazines for transport through the mail, and with improvements in roads, postal routes were lengthened and service improved. Contributions of prose and poetry grew to be common but payment remained rare. In his history of American magazines Frank Luther Mott cites as an early example of payment the Christian Spectators proposal in 1819 to "allow a compensation" to its contributors at the rate of a dollar a page. When the Atlantic Magazine was founded in 1824 it promised payment but the editor felt the need to urge its gentlemen-authors to "accept their honorarium for the principle of the thing.... As to false delicacy, we will obviate its scruples by forwarding every contributor's dues to any address given in his communication." Editors themselves usually worked without salaries and depended for whatever payment they received on the financial health of their periodicals. Like writing, editing was typically an occasional endeavor rather than a full-time career.

In the period before 1825 the circulation of magazines remained small and essentially local, with contributions coming largely from local writers. Franklin's Philadelphia, the new nation's cultural hub, was also its magazine center. Among its several periodicals was the Saturday Evening Post, founded in 1821, and the first general magazine in the country to achieve enduring life. But New York, already twice Philadelphia's size, was hot on its literary heels, attracting most of the country's new mass-market book publishing, including the dominant House of Harper founded in 1817. Six years later, in 1823, two young poets, George Pope Morris and Samuel Woodworth, founded the New York Mirror, a central publication in the development of professional writing in the country. With several permutations, the Mirror would continue to publish almost until the advent of the Civil War.

Distinctively printed and illustrated, the weekly journal featured verse, original tales, biography, reviews, and light but revealing commentary on urban taste and fashion. Its editorial fare was slanted to home-grown American material and especially to the interests of women, the latter concern highlighted in its subtitle, "Ladies' Literary Gazette." Circulation figures are uncertain but by 1836 the Mirror claimed that it was paying out over $5,000 a year to contributors while accepting "not one communication in fifty" of those submitted for publication. Morris also claimed, erroneously, the invention of the literary prize with the offer of cash amounts to aspiring poets, essayists, and fiction writers. Among those who sought a $20 prize for verse was a student at Yale, Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Table of Contents


Prologue  Clever Authors of Acceptable Work:
          Living by Words on America's Grub Street...................1

Chapter One  Light Artillery of the Intellect:
             The Emergence of the Versatile Magazinists.............13

Chapter Two  Cacoethes Scribendi:
             Women Writers among the Paying Periodicals.............38

Chapter Three  Laying Pipes: Fiction Factories at Full Throttle.....62

Chapter Four  That Precious Over-Note: Fictioneers among the
              Pulps, Slicks, and Paperback Originals................85

Chapter Five  Sublime Tramps: Newspaper Journalism and
               the Dream ofthe Writing Life........................111

Chapter Six  Writing for the Millions:
             Newspaper Syndicates Expand the Market................133

Chapter Seven  Sporting Life: Field, Stream,
               and Playing Field as Material.......................152

Chapter Eight  Facts of the Matter: The Vogue of
               Biography, History, and Current Events..............172

Chapter Nine  Brass Tacks: How to Succeed at the Writing Game......195

Chapter Ten  Gatekeepers: Dominant Editors in
             the Glory Days of Magazines...........................217

Epilogue  Sweet Deal: Writing for Hire in a New Age................249

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