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Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 1-21

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The Courtesies of Authorship:

Hannah Adams and Authorial Ethics in the Early Republic

University of South Florida

In 1814, twenty-five years after Isaiah Thomas printed the first indigenous American novel and five years before Washington Irving proved that professional literary authorship in America was viable, John Lowell published an anonymous review of a text just as significant to the early history of authorship in America, Jedidiah Morse's An Appeal to the Publick (1814). 1 A polemical log of his long-running debate with historian Hannah Adams over publishing rights and authorial ethics, Morse's account prompted Lowell to concede that the "right of authorship is one of those ill-defined properties, which in all countries, leaves room for controversy" (28). It is this nebulous "right of authorship" that particularly interests me here, because even with the recent rich work on women's authorship and on the early printing/publishing industry, significant work remains to be done on non-literary women authors' interactions with early American print culture and the ways in which these authors steered its development. 2

I argue that the authorial career of the colonial and religious historian Hannah Adams (1755- 1831) indicated the ethical problems created by the confluence of the emergent publishing industry and the rise of professional women authors. In doing so, I focus on what Charles Brockden Brown christened the "realm of national transactions," the public print sphere, and the way Adams's name circulated within it (446). 3 Indeed, this "realm" seemed to make the successes and failures of women authors a public issue, an obsession Adams recognized and lamented, so much so that her 1832 memoir, although perhaps one of the most revealing records of the early American authorial consciousness, is deficient in many details concerning her long authorial career. The Ladies Magazine said much the same: "She must have had much more to tell of the history of her mind, its struggles, and trials, and triumphs, and the effect of all these in forming her character—but her humble opinion of herself, induced her to attach less importance to trifling details than her readers would have done" ("Literary Notices" 238). What little Adams did offer was carefully understated and oblique; at her most vituperative she is still vague, as when she writes that her authorship exposed her "to the censure, or ridicule of those, whose ideas on the subject are derived from the varying modes of fashion, and not from the unchanging laws of moral rectitude" (Adams and Lee 33). In viewing Adams through these memoirs but also through prefaces and public records that pertain to her work, we discover an exquisite illustration of an authorial identity at [End Page 1] once independent and dependent, intellectual and popular, gendered and ungendered, righteous and immoral, aggressive and reticent—an early author struggling with the ethical polemics inherent to professional authorship and its relationship to the print market.

At stake in this analysis is not just a glimpse of woman's professional authorship in its formative stages but, more broadly, an awareness of an early version of the authorial self and its relationship to the market famously present in later antebellum literary writers. In the record of Adams's vocational life, we see the ancestor of Fanny Fern's "regular business woman," Ruth Hall, and, in another sense, an early incarnation of Emily Dickinson's lament that "Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man" (Fern 223; Dickinson 544). As one reviewer noted, Adams's career exposed before any other the "peculiar trial of a female presenting herself as the maker of bargains and the assertor [sic] of literary claims" ("Literary Notices" 239). In my first two sections I explore this "peculiar trial" by dividing Adams into the two selves most early professional writers had to occupy: businessperson and writer. The former is practical and measured, dealing with the uncertain business of early American print culture; she is the "maker of bargains" in the print sphere...


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