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Poe, Authorship, and the Literary Marketplace

Publication Date
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Nineteenth-Century Ameircan Literature
  • Authorship
  • Literary Marketplace
  • Publishing Industry
  • Magzine Market
  • New Historicism
  • "Hop-Frog
  • " "Some Secrets Of The Magazine Prison-House
  • " "Anastatic Printing"
  • Communication
  • Design
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Literature
  • Philosophy
  • Political Science


In The Profession of Authorship in America, William Charvat has investigated the American author's progress from early amateurism at the turn of the nineteenth century to a more socially and politically sensitive professionalism in the 1820s. According to Charvat, the aristocratic gentleman author who wrote for a small group of intellectuals gave way to the professional or commercial author who depended for a livelihood on sales of his writings to the impersonal mass audience. During the period from the 1830s to the 1860s, a time span that marked the publication of all major works of American Renaissance, dramatic changes occurred in the production, circulation, promotion, and status of literature. The relatively isolated, regional, class-based American markets gradually converged into a national, secular, middle-class marketplace. Primary factors in the rapid growth of literary writing and publishing were an increase in population, education, and literacy that accompanied advances in economic growth, democratic tendencies, as well as technological innovations in the machinery for printing and paper production. The railroad transportation also contributed to boosting the American book trade, by considerably speeding up marketing and dissemination of the printed material. Prior to 1820, writers often invested in, or even totally financed, their books. They usually hired publishers and paid them a percentage of the profits. But, by the 1830s, there was no place an author could stand outside the literary marketplace. The work of people who had come to be called "men of letters" or "authors by profession" had become a specialized career. People who had once only read became the reading public, and that public was transformed into a market by an increasingly organized and aggressively entrepreneurial industry of publishers and booksellers. Even though authors were liberated from their dependence on patrons, they had to contend with money-oriented publishers and popular tastes. Authors lost most of their earlier control over publication, and the value of literature was increasingly determined by a marketplace economics rather than by aesthetic criteria. Although Poe highly regarded his own profession, his lifelong career was dominated by low pay, editorial drudgery, financial hardship, and lack of literary appreciation. Poe was deeply frustrated by the customary practice of the contemporary publishing culture. As a professional author, he was required to follow the rules dictated by business-minded editors and publishers, who controlled the reading public's opinions and could make forms of literary value both appear and disappear. Until recently, critics have portrayed Poe as a solitary aesthete separated from commercial and professional pressures of the antebellum literary market. With the rise of the New Historicism in the early 1980s, a renewed effort began to place readings of literary texts in a specific social, economic, and historical context. Critics claim that authors produce their work in a very specific historical context, and that artistic work, like any other, is molded by the social and economic relations that are part of the context in which it is made. The focus of the recent Poe Scholarship also tends to move beyond the rigid textual interpretation of his tales and seeks to locate the author within the culture of his time. In this paper, I intent to explore Poe's authorial anxiety, distress, and predicament permeated in his fiction and essays published in his later career, such as "Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House", "Anastatic Printing" , and "Hop-Frog", within the context of the antebellum publishing culture and literary marketplace. In so doing, this study will demonstrate that Poe's writings were conditioned not only by the artistic imagination alone, but also by a constant and lively conflicts with the burgeoning mass market.

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