Amateurism and Self-Publishing

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About halfway through Moby-Dick (1851), Ishmael pauses to describe a beggar on the London docks. A one-legged man holds up a picture "representing the tragic scene in which he lost his leg" (p. 312). Not everyone believes this beggar's story, but, says Ishmael, "the time of his justification has now come" (p. 312). It is not that his story is true, but rather that "his three whales are as good whales as were ever published in Wapping" (p. 312). In one sense this self-published artist is a perfect amateur—a man whose works of art would never be printed in the modest commercial establishments found in the dockside neighborhood of Wapping. But he is also a professional—an artist with commercial aspirations, trying to live by selling his works.

As this scene suggests, it was not always easy to separate the amateur from the professional in the literary worlds of the first half of the nineteenth century. According to the literary historian William Charvat, the figure of the professional author in the United States emerged in the 1820s and 1830s, when for the first time it became possible to imagine writing as a full-time occupation. Professional writing, Charvat suggested, "provides a living for the author, like any other job; . . . it is a main and prolonged, rather than intermittent or sporadic, resource for the writer; . . . it is produced with the hope of extended sale in the open market, like any article of commerce; and . . . it is written with reference to buyers' tastes and reading habits" (p. 3).


Charvat defined the professional author, but what did it mean to be an amateur author? Was an amateur a part-time author, a one-time author, a poor, incompetent, or unpaid author, or merely a gentleman whose wealth freed him from the need to sell his work? Was an amateur an aspiring professional author? Or was an amateur one who was outside an emerging literary establishment—a woman, an African American, a former slave, a Native American, or a working person with experience and a few ideas who found a friendly printer willing to set words in type? Some amateurs surely wrote because they loved the craft; other were self-published writers; and still others occupied the low ranks of a literary establishment.

Many who commented on amateur authorship in the early years of the nineteenth century viewed amateurism with the disdain of aspiring professionals. In the summer of 1845, an author calling himself "Mimin" described for readers of United States Magazine and Democratic Review "the various divisions and subdivisions into which the trade of authorship is divided." "We recognize two classes," he wrote, "authors by profession, and amateur writers: those who regard study and composition as the business of their lives, and those who look upon them merely as incidental occupations." Amateurs, Mimin argued, plagued professionals, distorting the literary marketplace by selling their works on the cheap. The flood of cheap works undermined the value of good literature and, worse, stalled the development of a national culture sure to grow when all readers read great art. "An amateur in almost every walk is regarded as much inferior to the working member of the craft," he concluded (pp. 62–63).

Mimin's description makes clear that by the mid-1840s, those calling themselves amateurs were neither above nor outside the market. As magazine publishing expanded in the 1840s and 1850s, editors picked up cheap materials both from foreign periodicals and from homegrown amateurs. Proprietors took advantage of the aspirations of amateurs who were happy just to appear in print and paid very little for the poems and essays they published. As one would expect, editors often had kind words for amateur contributors. The Southern Literary Messenger, for example, boasted that its "contributors are numerous, embracing Professional and Amateur Writers of the First Distinction." In a column assessing contemporary liter-ary production, the editors of the Cincinnati-based Ladies' Repository praised the "literary ability displayed" in several works of history and biography, "written all of them by amateur authors," evidence, according to the editors, that "there is still a vast amount of undeveloped history in every part of the country, inviting the appreciative labors of our writers, while the fields of biography are alike extensive and rich in the most interesting forms of historical matter. Into these it is hoped our non-professional writers will freely enter" ("New York Literary Correspondence," p. 634).

And enter they did. Writers calling themselves amateurs found opportunities in the expanding world of early-nineteenth-century publishing and began developing the stylistic markers that set off their works as the products of amateurs. The South Carolina poet William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870) imagined the amateur as a "gentleman in night-gown and slippers." But he also noted that amateurs presented their tales as told "by one who apologized . . . for this wandering into forbidden grounds—possibly alleging a vacant mind, or an erring mood, for the solitary trespass; and promising if forgiven for this, never, in like manner, to offend again" (p. 14).

Apologies proved useful to amateur and self-published authors, offering an opening gambit that led them before the public. Consider, for example, the preface a writer calling herself Hannah Crafts attached to her unpublished novel, The Bondwoman's Narrative (c. 1850s), perhaps the first novel written by an African American woman. "In presenting this record of plain unvarnished facts to a generous public I feel a certain degree of diffidence and self-distrust. I ask myself for the hundredth time How will such a literary venture, coming from a sphere so humble be received?" (p. 3). Crafts uses the few lines of her preface to accomplish several things. She apologizes for coming before the public, but at the same time, she enlists her public's generosity, praising her readers' virtues before they have even begun to read her tale. She also calls attention to her own humble social position and pledges, as do most mid-century amateurs, to confine herself to the facts, to those things about which she can claim a special, experiential knowledge. Experiential knowledge became another mark of the amateur.


When Simms assessed the state of American authorship in 1844, he singled out the War of 1812 as central to the development of professional writing in the United States. It was no accident, he said, that James Fenimore Cooper's career followed "closely upon the footsteps of war!" (p. 12). The war cut off the supply of British books, and just as the embargo on British goods encouraged domestic manufacture, so the embargo on British ideas encouraged American authors. In some ways, the Civil War played a similar role in the history of amateur authorship, creating a demand for the unvarnished accounts of soldiers' wartime experiences. Books and stories by Union soldiers who were captured and confined in Confederate prisons offer particularly instructive examples of midcentury amateur authorship. Prisoner writers apologized, testifying that they appeared in print only at the urgent "solicitation of friends." "Without any aspirations whatever, to literary notoriety, I have endeavored to give a plain, unvarnished narrative of facts and incidents of prison life, as they occurred, under my observation, during twenty-two months in various rebel prisons," one typical account, written by A. C. Roach, a former prisoner, begins (p. 4).

"I had no thoughts of publishing a book until several weeks after my escape," Willard Glazier confessed. "I kept a diary, or journal, from the time of my capture. After reading portions of it to some of my friends, they persuaded me to amplify and put it in a readable form" (p. vii). To reassure readers that his amplifications had not gone beyond the bounds of his experience, Glazier, like many of his fellow amateurs, made sure to offer a provenance for his literary production. "The rough manuscript was, for the most part, written during my imprisonment at Columbia, sitting on the ground, and writing on my knee. Captain Kelly, 1st Kentucky Cavalry, brought a part of that manuscript through the lines by concealing it in the crown of an old regulation hat. I escaped with the remainder concealed in the lining of my jacket" (pp. vii–viii). He also gave his manuscript an aura of authenticity by describing the nearly heroic measures behind the simplest acts of composition. "I had no pencil of my own," he notes in the middle of an account of a night spent in a swamp. But his companion "had a short piece which he kindly lent me. Having no knife, I was obliged to sharpen it by picking the wood away from the lead with my finger nails" (p. 251). Such details often give immediacy to amateur accounts. And immediacy, not literary polish or philosophical insight, was the chief selling point of amateur tales. As good amateurs, these writers pledged to confine themselves to things they had seen, heard, or felt, leaving the work of describing the war's larger meanings to professional writers.

Working within the bounds of a carefully constructed modesty, former prisoners took their accounts of experience into the postwar literary marketplace. A few prisoners' stories appeared with the imprint of such New York houses as Harper & Brothers, but more were the work of hometown presses and newspaper printing offices—outfits such as the Methodist Book Concern of Cincinnati, the Railroad City Publishing House of Indianapolis, or the Daily Wisconsin Printing House in Milwaukee. Narratives by former prisoners appeared in congressional reports and popular magazines; they appeared as straightforward commercial publications with commissioned illustrations, as bound journalism, as subscription volumes, and as self-published books and cheap pamphlets that former soldiers hawked themselves on street corners and in railroad stations. As Melville's Ishmael might have remarked, their stories were often just as good as those published in the big commercial houses.

Although some differences between amateurs and professionals may have been clear by the end of the century, questions about the relations between the two remained. Writing in Scribner's Magazine in 1893, the novelist William Dean Howells (1837–1920) described the "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business." He called up that older vision of the amateur as the artist outside the market. "People feel that there is something profane, something impious, in taking money for a picture, or a poem, or a statue," he wrote. "Most of all, the artist himself feels this" (p. 429). Business had taken over the arts, Howells wrote. In a better world, artists—even professional artists—retained an amateur's love for their work. It was as amateurs that artists had access to the muses who had been chased from America's noisy commercial culture. The literary world Howells surveyed had not been made to suit the professionals, as Mimin imagined them. Howells looked at a world dominated by hacks and proposed that the best defense of the profession might just be to make peace with its amateurs.

See alsoAutobiography; Book Publishing; Journals and Diaries; Literary Marketplace; Slave Narratives


Primary Works

Crafts, Hannah. The Bondwoman's Narrative. c. 1850s. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Warner Books, 2002.

Glazier, Willard W. The Capture, the Prison Pen, and theEscape; Giving a Complete History of Prison Life in the South. New York: United States Publishing Company, 1868.

Howells, William Dean. "The Man of Letters as a Man of Business." Scribner's Magazine 14 (1893): 429.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. In Moby-Dick, BillyBudd, and Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 2000.

Mimin. "Amateur Authors and Small Critics." United States Magazine and Democratic Review 17 (1845): 62–63.

"New York Literary Correspondence." Ladies' Repository:A Monthly Periodical Devoted to Literature, Arts and Religion 19 (1859): 634.

Roach, A. C. The Prisoner of War and How Treated. Indianapolis, Ind.: Railroad City Publishing House, 1865.

Simms, William Gilmore. "International Copyright Law." Southern Literary Messenger 10 (1844): 12–14.

Secondary Works

Charvat, William. The Profession of Authorship in America,1800–1870. 1968. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business: AmericanWomen Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Fabian, Ann. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives inNineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

McGill, Meredith L. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Newbury, Michael. Figuring Authorship in Antebellum America. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Ann Fabian