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  • Romances of Real Life; or, the Nineteenth-Century American Business Magazine
  • Elizabeth Hewitt (bio)

We associate Sidney Smith's question, "who in the four corners of the globe reads an American book" with the young nation's cultural inferiority complex, but the larger succession of questions that Smith asked—"who drinks out of American glasses? Or eats from American plates? Or wears American coats or gowns? Or sleeps in American blankets?"—raised a different anxiety about the nation's economic inadequacy. Indeed, Smith's infamous screed from the Edinburgh Review (1820) was located in his review of Adam Seyburt's Statistical Annals of the United States of America (1818), an 800-page book offering an abundance of statistical data and analysis concerning, among other things, population numbers, manufacturing and export income, post-office revenues, public debt funding, and military expenditure. Smith provides a remarkably economical condensation of Seyburt's "very large book," before asserting his primary contention, which is that the United States should be chary about their proclivity towards national aggrandizement: "he must not grow vain and ambitious; or allow himself to be dazzled by that galaxy of epithets by which his orators and newspaper scribblers endeavour to persuade their supporters that they are the greatest, the most refined, the most enlightened, and the most moral people upon earth."1 Perhaps Smith was irritated by the grandiosity of the claim offered at the opening of Seyburt's volume, which was that the "aggregate value of the manufactures, of every description, within the United States, for 1810" was almost 200 million dollars. Hence, he decides to counter Seyburt's statistics and tabulations with lively anecdote about the United States' cultural impoverishment—an export that was notably more difficult to quantify with numeric figures.2

Regardless of his motivations, Smith's reprimand reveals the widely accepted notion that a nation's stature was located in its domestic product—and that this product comprised aesthetic, commercial, [End Page 1] scientific, and agricultural goods. Thus, despite the familiar refrains about business blossoming at the expense of cultural production, antebellum writing largely understood these two fields to be coextensive, even as each industry was growing increasingly specialized.3 This specialization is the topic of Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy, which traces the divergent generic paths of "imaginative" and "fact-based" literature in Britain, arguing that the consequences of this parting of the ways was an increasingly naturalized generic distinction between literary and economic writing.4 We can see evidence of this growing gulf in the United States in an 1839 address offered to a Mercantile Library Association by editor and author, James T. Fields. He notably opens his speech by describing the "prevail[ing]" sentiment "that commerce and literature are at war with each other; that he who is engaged in the one must entirely abandon the pursuit of the other."5 Insisting, however, that a "love of letters and a love of trade may happily exist in unison," Fields asserts that even though "the present is a practical matter-of-fact age," this fixation on facts has not come at the expense of imaginative literary production. And as corroboration of this he offers a poem written by a merchant clerk.6

In many ways, the Mercantile Library Association, which provided a library and reading room for the young merchants of Boston, embodied this dedication to a happy union between letters and commerce. The Association's meetings often included poetry readings and lectures by prominent men of letters, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Mann, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Edward Everett. Referring to Everett's address to the Association (in September of 1839), one reviewer notes that although the orator's subject matter was composed of the "elementary topics of commerce," and therefore should have excited almost no interest in any but the mercantile part of his audience, "his magic pen no sooner touches them than they blaze up like the palaces of Arabian story."7 The Arabian metaphor, in fact, was taken from Everett's text itself: implicitly disputing those arguing against the increasing expansion of capital, Everett points to what he characterizes as the fantastically beautiful factories of Lowell, Massachusetts...


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