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  • The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America
  • Phillip Howerton
The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America. By Leon Jackson . Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. 331 pp. $60.

Leon Jackson notes in his introduction that "there is no shortage of books" perpetuating the view that during the mid-nineteenth century, American authorship underwent an "inevitable and irreversible" transformation from amateurship to a professionalism measured by "such indices as income, press runs ... publisher longevity ... and, especially, statements of authorial self-satisfaction." He then flatly states that The Business of Letters: Authorial Economies in Antebellum America "is not one of those books" (1). As Elizabeth Hewitt acknowledged in American Periodicals 19.1 (2009), Jackson challenges the traditional narrative of authorship by arguing that antebellum literary culture involved numerous economies other than the monetary and that the crucial transformation of authorship was not a movement toward professionalization but rather the disembedding of social bonds between authors, publishers, and readers.

Jackson states that the traditional paradigm of literary professional authorship "was fundamentally flawed in conception" and that it has "outlasted any heuristic or collateral value it might once have had" (1-2). His primary target is the work of William Charvat, and Jackson asserts that Charvat's approach fails to provide insights into antebellum authorship both because it defines authorship anachronistically and because it focuses upon explaining why professional authorship did not evolve rather than acknowledging the aspects of antebellum authorship that did exist. Jackson hopes "to do justice to the complex and manifold ways in which writing and payment were intertwined" (37) and to "offer ... a history of literature as it was experienced by authors in the early national and antebellum periods" (52). He suggests that antebellum authors valued various forms of payment other than the monetary, such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital and that these forms of compensation were made meaningful due to their embeddedness; that is, these forms of exchange were valued because they [End Page 189] "functioned to create and sustain powerful social bonds" (2). He argues that many of these economies disembedded during the course of the nineteenth century as personal connections between authors, editors, and the public unraveled.

After laying his theoretical groundwork in chapter one, Jackson turns to demonstrating the effectiveness of his approach by exploring antebellum attitudes toward various forms of compensation. In chapter two, he analyzes the career of George Mason Horton, an illiterate slave of North Carolina, to illustrate the patronage and charity economies. In chapter three, Jackson studies the gift economy and explores the various ways that editors of periodicals used gifts to establish relationships with authors and other editors. In chapter four, Jackson studies the credit and debt economy and points out that, due to folk debt ways and to the use of currencies other than cash, the limited monetary payment for literary production did not diminish antebellum authors' views of themselves as professional writers. In chapter five, Jackson analyzes the world of literary competitions to reiterate the fact that authors did not always define success by monetary gain, and he highlights such authorial motivations as the challenge to equal or surpass other authors and the desire to receive congratulations and recognition. In his epilogue, Jackson discusses how William Charvat operated within various economies and how those economies are still influential today.

Scholars of periodicals will find Jackson's analysis of editors' participation in the gift economy of special interest. Jackson uses Thomas Willis White, editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, as an example of an editor who successfully engaged in the gift economy. Jackson explains that White used various gifts to "coerce" authors to submit work and to prompt other editors to promote his periodical (131-32). Jackson challenges historians' condescending view of White as an "example of the editor-as-amateur" (128) by pointing out that although White operated on an extremely limited budget throughout his nine years at the helm of the Messenger, he maintained amicable and productive relationships with most of his authors and adroitly used gifts as charity, payment, and leverage to attract submissions and to promote his journal. But as Jackson explains in the final pages of this chapter, this...


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