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  • "An Entire New Work"?:Abridgment and Plagiarism in Early U.S. Print Culture
  • Marion Rust (bio)

In his 1870 memoir of Mrs. Susanna Rowson, Elias Nason includes a passage from her early work The Inquisitor: or Invisible Rambler (1788), which he argues describes the author's own first experience trying to get published. "The rambler at the printing office in volume 1," Nason states, "is undoubtedly Miss Haswell with the manuscript of Victoria, at J.B. Cooke's in Tavistock street in 1786."1 The excerpt begins:

"I have brought you my manuscript, Mr. C__ke," said she; "the story is founded on fact, and I hope will be so lucky as to please those who shall hereafter peruse it."

"Is it original, Miss?"

"Entirely so."

"Lord bless me, that was quite unnecessary."

"Why, sir, how could I think of offering to the public a story which has appeared in print before?"

"Nothing more common, I assure you." He was a thin, pale looking man, dressed in a shabby green coat. He never looked in her face the whole time he was speaking; but standing half sideways towards her, fixed his eyes askance upon the ground. I never like a man that is ashamed to look one in the face; it argues a consciousness of not having always acted with integrity.

"Nothing can be more common, Miss," continued he, "than for an author to get a quantity of old magazines, the older the better, and having picked and culled those stories best adapted to his purpose, he places them in a little regular order, writes a line here and there, and so offers them to the public as an entire new work. [End Page 139]

"See here, now, I have published this work on my own account; these few first pages are original; but I assure you the scissors did the rest. I have entitled it The Moralist, and sell these two volumes at seven shillings and sixpence."

"I should rather call that compiling," said the young author.2

It is well known that the mercenary tendencies of late eighteenth-century print culture chafed particularly upon women authors expected to write merely at their "leisure." In this passage from an early novel, Susanna Rowson turns this expectation on its head by representing her "young author"'s lack of professional savvy as crucial to her ability to imagine an alternate print culture. In its wise naïf's simultaneous attempt to enter the literary marketplace and pronounce upon its vicissitudes, this semi-autobiographical passage declares Rowson's enduring commitment to flourishing as a professional author precisely by claiming the ethical imperative that Mr. Cooke mocks. Such authorial integrity, moreover, is equated with the refusal to present other people's printed words as one's own.

Indeed, to do so is to lay claim to Mr. Cooke's moral bankruptcy in all its glory. His sickly appearance, well-worn attire, and indirect gaze all serve as visual elaborations of his signal impropriety: an unrepentant willingness to present stolen property as moral pedagogy and to profit from the deception. Cooke's brazen admission of plagiarism (defined by Samuel Johnson as "theft; literary adoption of the thoughts or works of another"), to say nothing of his ironic didacticism in the face of such hypocrisy (titling his piece "The Moralist"), critiques the print market composed of such imposters for making profit, rather than truth, its reigning mechanism.3 Mr. Cooke, in short, is not a likely role model, and the industry he represents is correspondingly corrupt. Saddest of all, the sacrifice of veracity to mendacity that he considers essential to success is in fact unnecessary. Rather, as this prescient young woman foretells and as Rowson's future career makes evident, a wide, appreciative readership and a self-righteously moralistic authorial persona can go hand in hand.

To argue that Rowson represented authorship as original invention tempered by respect for both the reader's improvement and the market's demands, however, is not to say that she consistently practiced the art. In fact, sixteen years after the London publication of The Inquisitor, she could well have stood in her despicable publisher's shoes. Using metaphorical "scissors" of...


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