The Authority Effect: Poe and the Politics of Reputation in the Pre-Industry of American Publishing
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- University of Arizona
- Volume 49, Number 3, Autumn 1993
- pp. 1-19
- Additional Information
TIMOTHY H. SCHERMAN The Authority Effect: Poe and the Politics of Reputation in the Pre-Industry of American Publishing After all, what is it?—this indescribable something men will petsist in terming "genius?" I agree with Buffon—with Hogarth—it is but diligence after all. Edgar Allan Poe "The Literary Life ofThingum Bob, Esq." We are perpetually misled in our judgement by the impossibility of identifying ourselves with the writers—of inducing a full sympathy with the circumstances that impelled them, and thus with the objects for which they wrote. Edgar Allan Poe to George Lippard s Donald pease has noted recently, around the turn of the nine- .teenth centuty "the concept of the 'author' underwent a fundamental change."1 Previously designating if not the equal of other cultural members, at least a figure who "developed within the culture he helped to develop," the authot at this juncture was singled out, renamed , and enlisted as a concept in a new rhetorical field which existed apatt from the rest of culture. The name he was given (and as Nina Baym has made clear, this author was nearly always a "he")2 was "genius ," and the new field he occupied an imaginary one variously called "The Republic of Letters," "the literary world," or simply "the cultural sphere," presumably distinct from the political and economic spheres. Arizona Quarterly Volume 49 Number 3, Autumn 1993 Copyright © 1993 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-161 Timothy H. Scherman I add the term imaginary to Pease's description not to reveal such a separation of cultural, political and economic spheres as impossible or unreal, but more to focus on the structure of the field created at this historical juncture and the cultural work it would do. For once "culture" was separated phenomenologically or rhetorically from the broader cultural forces that gave it the shape and meaning it had for subjects standing in the broader culture, it became subject to a new politics, where the projection of images (genius, a work of genius) into the mirror of the culture's collective memory began to act on the broader culture and produce real effects by posing as the future of a cultural past. The figures produced within this imaginary field are no longer originating "authors" but recognized producers of "works of genius"; its negotiations constitute not authorship but what I will call an "authority effect. " The cause of this development was native and economic. As William Charvat has observed, the profession ofauthorship in the United States only became possible when the author's product came to be treated "as a commodity, like any other."3 In this view, without the commodity form no profits could be realized from books, without profits there was little incentive to venture into the industry, and without the industry and the technology attendant to its success, writers could scarcely hope to make authorship more than an honorable (and rarely honorific) avocation . Historically accurate as his supply-side literary economic scenario may be, however, Charvat's record of the American author's progress from early amateurism at the turn of the nineteenth century to a mote socially responsive, if not responsible, professionalism in the 1820s draws up short of the cultural consequences of such a development upon his now more properly historical subject, the American author. Whether or not they were ever authorized by the ideals ofdemocracy to write "as they pleased," as Kenneth Dauber would have it in his study of authorship in America, as the publishing industry developed in the 1 820s and '30s writers recognized a need not only to tailor their products to the literary tastes publishers had popularized by controlling supply, but also to project themselves as products in the form of critical reputation that might equally be bought or sold.4 As authorship itself was thus incorporated5 into the burgeoning publishing industry, the right of public, printed address, and hence the right to institute or originate a change in the cultural status quo through rhetorical appeal to "the people," came to depend less on "the people's" patronage (the "faith" Poe and the Politics of Reputation of Dauber's "democratic poetics") than on the patronage of a...