- Bartley Hubbard’s Sunday Work
Accused of violating the ethics of his employment as a professional journalist by selling one of his pieces to a competing journal, Bartley Hubbard invokes the defense that what he writes on Sundays, his day off from his regular job, is his own business and as such he can do what he wants with the writing. He has sold it to another journal and in doing so, he argues, he has done nothing unethical or illegal. Here I draw on the scene in chapter 29 of A Modern Instance in which Bartley converses with Witherby, his employer at the Events.
“There is quite an interesting article in yesterday’s Chronicle-Abstract,” Witherby starts out, entitled “The Confessions of an Average American.” He holds out the paper, where Bartley’s article, “vividly head-lined and sub-headed,” fills half a page. “Have you any idea who wrote this?” he asks, disingenuously. When Bartleby confesses that he wrote it, Howells returns to the aggrieved party. “Witherby had the task before him of transmuting an expression of rather low cunning into one of wounded confidence, mingled with high-minded surprise. ‘I thought it had your ear-marks, Mr. Hubbard, but I preferred not to believe it till I heard the fact from your own lips. I supposed that our contract covered such contributions as this.’” Bartleby is ready for him.
“I wrote it out of time, and on Sunday night. You pay me by the week, and all that I do throughout the week belongs to you. The next day after that Sunday I did a full day’s work on the Events. I don’t see what you have to complain of. You told me when I began that you would not expect more than a certain amount of work from me. Have I ever done less? . . . Haven’t I always done more?” [End Page 183]
Now on the defensive, Bartley’s employer argues: “Yes, I have never complained of the amount of work. But upon this theory of yours, what you did in your summer vacation would not belong to the Events, or what you did on legal holidays.” But Bartley has an answer for this: “I never have any summer vacation or holidays, legal or illegal. Even when I was down at Equity last summer I sent you something for the paper every day.” Witherby concedes that while this is true, he nevertheless now wishes to revise their contract.
“You can tear it up if you like,” returned Bartley. “I dare say Ricker would jump at a little study of the true inwardness of counting-room journalism. Unless you insist upon having it for the Events.” Bartley gave a chuckle of enjoyment as he sat down at his desk; Witherby rose and stalked away.
He returned in half an hour and said, with an air of frank concession, touched with personal grief: “Mr. Hubbard, I can see how, from your point of view, you were perfectly justifiable in selling your article to the Chronicle-Abstract. My point of view is different, but I shall not insist upon it; and I wish to withdraw—and—and apologize for—any hasty expressions I may have used.”
Bartley has triumphed. He has won the battle with his employer, but, writes Howells, “his triumph was one to leave some men with an uneasy feeling, and there was not altogether a pleasant taste in Bartley’s mouth.”
Interestingly, in the midst of writing A Modern Instance, Howells was confronted with, mutatis mutandi, an uncannily similar charge regarding his recent and current literary work. It centered on the forthcoming book publication of Dr. Breen’s Practice, a novel then serialized in the Atlantic Monthly, a journal owned and run by the Houghton Mifflin publishing house. Howells had chosen to give the novel to James R. Osgood, a relatively new firm, for book publication. (Osgood had for some time succeeded in enticing writers with offers of up to twenty percent royalties.) H. O. Houghton, whose firm owned and published the Atlantic Monthly at the time, had owned it when Howells was employed as its editor until the early weeks of...