Hawthorne and the "Scribbling Women": publishing The Scarlet Letter in the nineteenth- century United States. by Michael Winship Besides, America is now wholly given over to a d--d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash--and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of the Lamplighter, and other books neither better nor worse?--worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by 100,000. It may well be that no single passage written by Nathaniel Hawthorne is better known than this or, at least over the past few decades, more widely quoted. (1) An extraordinary possibility, especially as the passage comes from the middle of a rather long private letter, written to his publisher and friend William D. Ticknor on January 19, 1855, and first published only in 1910. (2) Nevertheless, this passage has resonated through recent discussions of American literary history, for it raises questions that are key to our understandings of that tradition: What is the relationship between popular success and literary quality? What role do gender politics play in our assessment of a work? In what ways have the economic factors facing authors and publishers fostered or discouraged authorship in the United States? And how is it that during the 1850s, a decade that came to be dubbed the "American Renaissance," sentimental novels could have enjoyed such popular success, while the "classics" by Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Whitman did not? Although he could hardly have thought in such terms, clearly these issues bothered Hawthorne as he pondered in what direction to continue his literary career. He returned to the subject in his very next letter to Ticknor, written two weeks later, but here at least he selects one of that "scribbling mob," Fanny Fern, for praise. (3) His original outburst had been directed specifically at the work of another, Maria Susannah Cummins, whose best-selling novel The Lamplighter was making a tremendous success. Published in early March 1854, this work is reported to have sold 20,000 copies in twenty days, and 40,000 copies in eight weeks. By year's end, nearly 75,000 copies had been produced; by the end of the decade, total sales in the United States were somewhere around 90,000. (4) Nevertheless, Hawthorne clearly exaggerated when in his exasperation he claimed that books written by women were selling by the hundred thousand. Although sales of The Lamplighter approached that figure, its success was exceptional, and its sales were not matched by other novels of the decade. The exception, of course, was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which indeed did sell in the hundred thousands--around 310,000 copies during the 1850s. (5) Hawthorne's frustration is understandable. Consider his most popular work, The Scarlet Letter, which was published in March 1850: only 11,800 copies had been produced by 1860. For the short term at least, sales of his works had to be reckoned in the thousands instead of tens of thousands, much less hundreds of thousands. But as we pass the sesquicentennial of the original publication of The Scarlet Letter, it pays to look at the longer term. What was the publication history of the work for the remainder of the nineteenth century? And how does this history compare to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin? What can the comparison tell us about these works' subsequent histories and reputations? The story of the composition and original publication of The Scarlet Letter is well known. (6) Hawthorne, who was an established writer of short stories and sketches, began work on the manuscript sometime--probably late summer--during 1849, the same year that he was dismissed from his job at the Salem Custom House. Before year's end, the Boston publisher James T. Fields called on Hawthorne in Salem and came away with a draft of "The Scarlet Letter," which Hawthorne imagined as one of several stories in a collection to be called Old- Time Legends (or possibly The Custom-House). Fields encouraged Hawthorne to consider expanding the work for separate publication, and Hawthorne eventually agreed. On January 15, 1850 Hawthorne sent the revised manuscript to Fields, including the introductory "Custom-House" sketch but missing three chapters, which were sent on to Boston on February 3. In the meanwhile, Fields had gone ahead with production, putting typesetters to work, and by February 18 he was able to include the sheets "as far as printed" in a parcel sent to the London publisher Richard Bentley. On March 16 the first edition of 2,500 copies appeared at a retail price of 75 cents and bound in the characteristic Ticknor and Fields binding of brown ribbed T cloth. As Fields had hoped but to Hawthorne's apparent surprise, the work was both well received and a moderate success. (7) A second edition of 2,500 copies was issued on April 22, containing a new preface by Hawthorne dated "March 30, 1850," and a third edition of 1,000 copies, for the first time printed from stereotype plates, followed on September 9. By year's end, Hawthorne had earned $663.75 in royalties--his royalty was reckoned at fifteen percent of the retail price--while the publisher's profits came to roughly $900, even after paying for the cost of the stereotype plates. These results were in part due to Fields's talents as a publisher, for he was skilled at managing the publicity of announcements, advertisements, and a network of sympathetic reviewers to push his firm's publications. (8) In one regard, though, Fields fell short, for in rushing the work into publication, he failed to allow time for arrangements for an authorized English edition. British copyright law required that such an edition appear before or simultaneously with the American edition, but by the time that Bentley, the London publisher that Fields had approached, received the entire text, it had already been published in Boston. Bentley reported that two other firms were preparing unauthorized editions and declined to publish the work. In the event the work was not reprinted in England until May 1851, though imported copies of the American sheets had been available earlier. The wish to rush the work into publication may also explain in part why the firm printed the first two editions from type instead of from stereotype plates, although this is not as surprising as it may at first appear. Only a few years later, the firm's standard practice would become to print most of its new publications from plates; in 1850, however, only four of its eighteen new works were stereotyped for the first printing. The reason may have been financial, as the firm was in the process of expanding its list and may have wished to avoid the extra investment that plates entailed. The cost of producing stereotype plates nearly doubled the cost of composition: in the case of The Scarlet Letter composition for the first two editions came to $130.11 and $121.57, respectively, whereas the cost of composition and stereotyping for the third was $233.39. Clearly it would have been more economical to produce the plates immediately, though the firm may not have expected the work to have such success. (9) Despite these oversights, Hawthorne was surely pleased with Fields's handling of the work's publication, for over the next several years Fields's firm, Ticknor and Fields, was to reissue many of Hawthorne's earlier works and to publish his new works as they were finished. Hawthorne himself was to form close personal ties with both partners, and Ticknor and Fields and its successor firms remained Hawthorne's primary publisher for the rest of the century. Thus, Hawthorne's works formed a key part of the core list of canonical American literary works--including those of Emerson and Thoreau--that modern scholars have come to associate with Houghton, Mifflin & Co., the firm into which Ticknor and Fields evolved. Harriet Beecher Stowe was less fortunate in her original choice of publisher for Uncle Tom's Cabin, Boston's John P. Jewett. Despite the work's tremendous initial success, and despite the skillful promotional efforts of its publisher, demand fell off markedly after little over a year. Shortly thereafter Stowe fell out with Jewett over contract terms, and for future works she turned for a second time to another Boston publisher, Phillips, Sampson & Co., a firm that had originally declined to publish her anti-slavery masterpiece. After the break with Stowe, Jewett remained the publisher of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but it cannot have brought him much profit: he nearly failed during the Panic of 1857 and finally dissolved his publishing business in 1860. In 1859 Stowe's chief publishers, Phillips, Sampson & Co., also went out of business, and in consequence she approached Fields to act as her publisher. When Stowe's works joined those of Hawthorne on the list of Ticknor and Fields in 1860, Uncle Tom's Cabin had been, for all intents and purposes, out of print for many years. (10) In the meanwhile Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter had remained happily in print with steady sales, which declined only slightly as time passed. The investment in stereotype plates for the third edition of September 1850 allowed the firm to produce small impressions over time as demand required. A second printing from these plates--the fourth printing of the work over all--of 800 copies was produced in June 1851, and between then and Hawthorne's death on May 19, 1864, the plates were used for thirteen impressions of 500 copies each, a total of 6,500 copies at an average of one impression per year. (11) Hawthorne's death occurred a little over a month after that of William D. Ticknor, the senior partner of Ticknor and Fields, which had occurred on April 10, 1864, while Hawthorne and Ticknor were on a vacation trip to the South that, it was hoped, would revive Hawthorne's failing health. Inevitably, these deaths had an effect on the publication of Hawthorne's works, including The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's business relations with Ticknor and Fields had been complicated, based on a series of verbal agreements that stipulated that the royalties on his works were set at varying terms, at ten percent of the retail price for some and fifteen percent for others. Once the firm was reorganized and Fields firmly in charge as senior partner, he arranged to regularize matters, and it was agreed that the firm would in future pay a flat sum of 12 cents for each copy sold of any of Hawthorne's works. (12) The fairness of this new arrangement is difficult to assess. At the time, it certainly seemed generous, for 12 cents a copy represented an increase in royalty on The Scarlet Letter, from 11 1/4 cents to 12 cents. Similarly, it meant an increase in royalty for all of Hawthorne's other works save two--The House of the Seven Gables and Our Old Home--that were earning 15 cents per copy under the old arrangement. The problem, however, arises from the shift in the method of determining royalties from a percentage basis to a flat fee. Retail prices for books had remained remarkably stable throughout the 1840s and 1850s, but the Civil War had brought about a period of inflation and a consequent increase in book production costs, which in turn inevitably led to an increase in retail prices, a result that Fields must have foreseen. By the late 1860s, retail prices on all of Hawthorne's works had risen to $1.50 or $2.00, which meant that the royalty on The Scarlet Letter, for example, would have risen under the old agreement to 30 cents a copy. From this perspective, Fields had struck a very hard bargain indeed. Conflict was inevitable. Hawthorne's widow, Sophia, raising three children alone, found herself strapped financially and sensed that perhaps Hawthorne's royalties were less than they should be. Her suspicions seemed confirmed in 1868, when Gail Hamilton, another Ticknor and Fields author whose royalty terms had been changed in 1864 in a manner similar to Hawthorne's, began to raise questions. Upset, Sophia Hawthorne even went so far as to threaten to transfer future rights in her husband's works to another firm. Fields reacted quickly: he prepared an explanation, backed by figures, and offered to submit the matter to arbitration. Eventually Sophia Hawthorne's sister Elizabeth Peabody intervened. After examining the firm's accounts, she came to the conclusion that, despite several clerical errors and other carelessness, the firm's records were consistent with each other, but she also noted that demand had been such that neither author nor firm had received as much as $1000 per year on average in income from Hawthorne's books. Ticknor and Fields was technically vindicated, but relations were soured. In an attempt to placate Sophia Hawthorne, Fields offered to pay in future a royalty of ten percent on all of Hawthorne's works. These terms were agreed to and remained in force until 1875, when Hawthorne's heirs accepted the firm's offer of a regular annuity of $2,000 in lieu of royalties. (13) Hawthorne's death in 1864 was to have another important impact on the publication of The Scarlet Letter, for in the fall of that year the firm issued the first collected edition of Hawthorne's works. The Scarlet Letter, printed from the 1850 plates, appeared as volume six of fourteen in this so-called "Tinted Edition" (A16.3.q; B1). A second collected edition was issued in 1871, and the same plates were used for The Scarlet Letter, which appeared bound with The Blithedale Romance as volume four in a twelve-volume "Illustrated Library Edition" (A16.3.w; B2). This trend continued, for when new plates for The Scarlet Letter were finally cast in 1875, they were for use in the twenty-three-volume "Little Classic Edition" of Hawthorne's collected works (A 16.8.a; B5). A third set of plates, cast in 1883, was prepared for the "Riverside Edition" (A 16.13.a; B9), where The Scarlet Letter appeared, again bound with The Blithedale Romance, as volume five of twelve. These sets of Hawthorne's collected works were expanded as posthumous works appeared and, over the years, were repackaged and reissued in a variety of formats and bindings at a range of prices, but for the rest of the century The Scarlet Letter was generally speaking marketed as part of his collected works, and not singly as Hawthorne's greatest masterpiece. (14) Hawthorne and Stowe shared the same publisher from 1860, but the pattern of publication of their works was quite different. Uncle Tom's Cabin clearly stood out among Stowe's works, not just in terms of importance but also income: by the end of the 1880s her earnings from Uncle Tom's Cabin equaled nearly two and a half times the combined royalty on all her other books. Unlike The Scarlet Letter, which had been chiefly available as part of a set of Hawthorne's collected works since his death in 1864, Uncle Tom's Cabin was chiefly sold by itself. Stowe, who survived Hawthorne by over thirty years, continued to produce new works through the 1870s, and there was no collected edition of Stowe's works until after her death in 1896. And what of the sales of the two works? The Scarlet Letter started out at considerable disadvantage, but as time passed and sales increased, the difference grew less striking. During the 1860s, roughly 6,500 copies of The Scarlet Letter were produced, compared to 8,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin; during the 1870s, roughly 20,000 copies, compared to 26,000 copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin. (15) In 1878, with the formation of a new business partnership, the stereotype plates of the two works were inventoried and valued, a figure that served as a guide to estimating the worth of the rights to their publication: the plates of The Scarlet Letter were valued at $4,792.38; those for Uncle Tom's Cabin at $4,524.60. (16) Although The Scarlet Letter was chiefly marketed as part of Hawthorne's collected works, it was also issued from time to time in separate editions. In late 1877, as the end of the original copyright term of twenty-eight years approached, James R. Osgood & Co., a successor firm to Ticknor and Fields, issued the first new separate edition of The Scarlet Letter (A16.10). With rather lavish illustrations by Mary Hallock Foote, this was an expensive volume at $4 in cloth, $9 in leather. The illustrations may have been intended to support the firm's claim in the work, though the copyright in the text could be and was renewed and protected for a further fourteen years. In 1879 Houghton, Osgood & Co., another successor firm, issued for $10 F. O. C. Darley's Compositions in Outline from Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, a series of 12 illustrated prints, each accompanied by a page of text extracted from Hawthorne's work. (17) During the 1880s, both Hawthorne's works and Uncle Tom's Cabin continued as steady sellers, although developments in the book trade were troubling. Throughout the decade the market for books was bedeviled by pirates and undersellers, an emerging group of publishers and booksellers who took advantage of the lack of international copyright on British works and the increasing use of trade sales as a means of dumping surplus or out-of-date stock to flood the market with cheap books. As an established trade publisher, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., the final inheritor of the rights to the works of both authors, was well aware of the losses caused by these practices. The threat was exacerbated by the fact that early in the 1890s the copyrights on both The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom's Cabin were due to expire, and these works were destined to enter the public domain. (18) During fall 1891, the editors at Houghton, Mifflin discussed strategies for the continued publication of both works while they planned new and cheap editions that they hoped would maintain their control of the market. The main issue under discussion was the timing for issuing these new editions, but things came to a head in spring 1892, when the firm learned that new plates of both works were already being prepared for sale to the publishers of cheap publications. Legal advice was sought, and although the copyright technicalities were obscure, the firm put up a bold front and succeeded in driving off the competition, but only for the time being. (19) By early 1892, Houghton, Mifflin had prepared and issued new and cheap separate editions of both The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom's Cabin, for the most part printed from plates that were already in use. In its spring announcement of March, the firm listed two new separate editions of The Scarlet Letter: the "Universal Edition" (printed from plates of the "Riverside Edition"), (20) which cost 50 cents in cloth, 25 cents in paper, and an even cheaper "Salem Edition" (A16.8.d; printed from the plates of the "Little Classic Edition"), at 30 cents in cloth, 15 cents in paper. These were followed in May by an expensive edition, illustrated with photogravures based on Darley's outline drawings: the "trade edition" cost $2.50 (A16.13.g; printed from plates of the "Riverside Edition"), and also issued in a special "Large Paper Edition," limited to 200 numbered copies and bound in vellum, $7.50 (A16.13.h). These joined the "Popular Edition" of The Scarlet Letter (A16.13.d; printed from the plates of the "Riverside Edition"), the only other separate edition that had been issued, which had been in print since 1885 and was priced at $1 in cloth, 50 cents in paper. When the work entered the public domain, its authorized publisher Houghton, Mifflin & Co. made sure it was available separately in a range of formats and prices that appealed to as broad a market as possible. The copyright on Uncle Tom's Cabin expired in May 1893. As with The Scarlet Letter, the firm had already issued a range of new editions, both cheap and expensive, in an attempt to maintain their hold over the market. After both works entered the public domain, however, they were quickly reprinted in unauthorized editions. By century's end, separate editions of The Scarlet Letter were available from many of the firms that specialized in cheap publishing-- Altemus, Bay View, Butt, Caldwell, Coates, Crowell, Donohue, Hill, Hurst, Lupton, McKay, Mershon, Ogilvie, Page, Rand, Stokes, Truslove, Warne, Ziegler--a list that closely matches that for Uncle Tom's Cabin. (21) Houghton, Mifflin & Co. continued as an important publisher of both works, but was no longer able to control the ways in which they were packaged and marketed. For much of the twentieth century, critical opinion of the two works followed different paths. Uncle Tom's Cabin came to be viewed as flawed, overly sentimental, and frankly racist, in fact an embarrassment--an assessment that has only recently been revised. In the meanwhile, The Scarlet Letter emerged, along with Melville's Moby-Dick, as one of the "two most nearly undisputed classics of American fiction." (22) Clearly, reception history cannot be explained only by a work's publication and marketing, but it is interesting to speculate on the extent to which they have influenced the critical understanding of the importance of The Scarlet Letter in Hawthorne's oeuvre, for as the twentieth century dawned it was for the first time readily and widely available to readers not as one volume from his collected works, but as a distinct and separate work.
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