In the new United States the meaning of authorship underwent major changes. Colonial authors had seen themselves as craftsmen and editors, vehicles for preexisting truths, instruments of a muse, a god, or sometimes of the state. They often published their work anonymously or circulated it in private manuscript networks, sometimes to avoid censorship, sometimes to avoid the appearance of arrogance and the social stigma of publication. But by the late eighteenth century, authors began to see themselves instead as writers, individuals with unique voices and original views.
Several factors in the post-Revolutionary United States made it possible, even desirable, for writers to embrace a larger and more public sphere for their work. Most significant among these factors was a relatively high rate of literacy. Partly the result of the growth of common schools, roughly three-quarters of American families included at least one adult reader by the 1820s.
Readers created potential markets, and several economic factors came together to turn authorship into a viable profession by the 1830s. Books and periodicals became increasingly affordable. Technological changes in papermaking reduced the cost of paper significantly in the 1830s and again in the 1850s. A shift from apprentice to wage laborers in the late eighteenth century reduced printing costs. Initially, the development of stereotyping in 1811 allowed for cheaper reprints. As power-driven presses replaced hand presses by the 1830s, larger print runs could be produced more quickly and economically.
Expanded distribution mattered as much as production to the economic viability of authorship. In the late eighteenth century the number of circulating and social libraries in urban areas increased. Further, the Congress made the post office the only nationalized industry, and the federal government built a comprehensive postal network more quickly than any European state. The post office had discount rates for printed materials, and publishers had substantial tax advantages as compared with their peers in Great Britain or France. Growing networks of roads and canals meant books, periodicals, and manuscript materials could find readers throughout the new Republic.
Changes in the law also encouraged writers. The first amendment to the Constitution provided for freedom of speech and of the press. By 1790 an emerging debate on copyright established that an author's words were property entitled to legal protection.
Complementing the economic and legal changes that made it more possible to earn an income as a writer, a series of cultural shifts early in the nineteenth century provided new audiences, both secular and religious, and affirmed new roles for writers. Popular penny papers, lurid pamphlets, and dime novels developed along with a literature of moral reform. Romanticism revolutionized literary aesthetics, challenging writers to express their individuality in new genres rather than imitate classical forms. Growing literary nationalism called for American writers who would rival the best European authors. The new United States came to view authorship as the quintessential expression of the individual.
Rice, Grantland S. The Transformation of Authorship in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Warner, Michael. The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.
au·thor·ship / ˈô[unvoicedth]ərˌship/ • n. the fact or position of someone's having written a book or other written work: an investigation into the authorship of the Gospels. ∎ the occupation of writing: he took to authorship.
- Eden, Martin laborer who becomes a famous writer. [Am. Lit.: Martin Eden ]
Autobiography (See BIOGRAPHY and AUTOBIOGRAPHY .)