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Criticism 45.4 (2003) 532-539

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The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright, by Joseph Loewenstein. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. x + 349. $45.00 cloth.
Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship, by Joseph Loewenstein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xii + 221. $75.00 cloth.

The result of unusually sustained research and careful reflection, these books offer a fresh approach to older problems, and establish an interesting set of newer ones. The Author's Due is especially concerned to explain the emergence of a modern notion of authorship, linked as this was with modern concepts of literary and intellectual property. Ben Jonson and Possessive Authorship is more trained on the much less discussed matter of what early modern authorship felt like to writers and how those feelings contributed to the thematics and texture of their works. Taken together, the books make a brilliant contribution to the burgeoning, and in Loewenstein's view coterminous, early modern fields of bibliography and book culture.

The Author's Due locates the formative period of modern authorship in a long stretch of time. It begins with early Continental presses' struggles over copyright (most especially with Aldus Manutius's securing of patents on the use of his italic type and on the publication of certain classical authors). The period closes with a mid-eighteenth-century judicial misreading of the 1710 Statute of Anne, whereby an act originally intended to limit and clarify stationer's copyright was understood to suppose that an author's production of a literary work entailed that author's original and exclusive right to exchange said work. One might say, though Loewenstein never puts it quite this way, that the 1710 statute was supposed to have made the literary work a commodity from its very inception, or at least upon its composition, and thus to have placed a new effective stress on a work's novelty, in the sense of its distinguishability from preexisting works. Roughly speaking, then, the notion that an author's work, if it is indeed hers (i.e., if she can indeed be said to have composed it independently), is hers to sell (or not to sell, if she chooses to use it in other ways)—that is the modern notion of authorship; and modern authorship actually exists when the notion receives institutional and general [End Page 532] ideological sanction, which is to say when social relationships are such as to make it seem natural. So Loewenstein argues, to my mind uncontroversially. During the period of early modern authorship, he understands and argues, this modern notion is available and indeed insistent—it is pressed by a number of people and tends to become more pressing; but it fails of general social currency for lack of an institutional basis.

Insofar as Loewenstein's aim is to tell the story of how modern authorship came to be, not the more strictly historicist aim of sketching the shape of an earlier period to demonstrate its difference from our own, he develops two narrative strands. One concerns the pressure for authorship and features the efforts of what might be called a social group, the "class" of authors themselves. Here the agitation of a number of individual writers is assiduously recorded and analyzed. In parts of The Author's Due that were mostly news to me, Samuel Daniel, Sir John Harington, and George Wither stand out for their cunning perseverance, preternatural insight, and angry lucidity, respectively, with respect to the early modern author's position and the possibilities of print. Less surprisingly, Jonson, Milton, and Pope assume salient roles in claiming the author's due. But there are unexpected twists. Milton accomplishes his role so unconsciously, and to such an extent by virtue of what he came to stand for rather than by purposive commitment to authors' rights, that the credit reflected on him seems less deserved than that accorded here to lesser-known writers who did know what they were about; while Pope is presented as so canny a player where his...


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