- Pirating Fictions: Ownership and Creativity in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture by Monica F. Cohen
When a colleague suggested that I read Monica F. Cohen's Pirating Fictions to inform my work on unauthorized continuations, I wasn't expecting a book on literal parrot-toting, wooden-legged pirates. In it, Cohen links maritime piracy to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century practices of unauthorized reprinting and adaptation in ways that sometimes strained my credulity but nonetheless impressed me with her ingenuity, entertaining delivery, breadth of knowledge, and unexpectedly captivating interpolations. Pirating Fictions argues that in nineteenth-century pirate fiction "the pirate becomes a vehicle of profound tension between an emergent ideal of intellectual property and a literary culture whose emphatically collective, derivative, citational character tends to confound claims of individual originality and ownership" (2-3). In other words, it argues that nineteenth-century authors employ the figure of the pirate to work through their ambivalent responses to literary piracy: many objected to the reprints and plagiarisms siphoning profits from their own works while simultaneously celebrating collective ownership and authorship in the abstract.
Cohen narrates her own surprise at discovering this ambivalence in the introduction to the book, where she writes,
I expected nineteenth-century pirate fiction to craft allegories that defended personal artistic ownership against literary dishonesty of all sorts….What I found, however, was that many of the same writers who suffered from literary piracy of their fiction also fictionalized maritime pirates…in ways that celebrate them as…figures whose affective energies make a case against a Romantic originality that emphasized individual intellectual ownership.(2)
Cohen devotes the book to making meaning of this disconnect, to explaining why and how authors use maritime piracy as a metaphor for their conflicting views of literary piracy. At first I questioned this impulse, wondering if the disconnect didn't simply indicate a lack of correlation. After all, sometimes isn't a pirate just a pirate? But Cohen assembles evidence from multiple archives and disciplines that cast pirates as "charismatic storytellers and dramatic entertainers," thus positioning them as figures laden with metatextual significance.
While pirates are the central conceit of the book, to my mind they aren't central to its primary payoff, which I understand to be tracing canonical nineteenth-century [End Page 445] authors' conflicted responses to evolving conceptions of authorship and grounding those responses in the interdependence of print and theater. Cohen organizes the book according to "three waves of copyright discussion" (13): the first centers on the personalized model of authorship outlined in the Copyright Act of 1814, the second on the challenges of regulating dramatic performances of published novels as reflected in debates about the 1833 Dramatic Literary Property Act, and the last on the free-trade ideology and role of international copyright regulation discussed in the 1878 Report of the Royal Commission on Copyright. Using an impressive interdisciplinary approach, she weaves theater history, print culture, literary criticism, and maritime history into each chapter. Chapter One establishes Defoe's ambivalent view of commerce as an attractive alternative to property; Chapter Two highlights Byron's use of melodramatic conventions to cultivate his authorial celebrity; Chapter Three outlines Scott's emphasis on depersonalized and collective authorship; Chapter Four reveals Cooper's international fame to be a product of the unregulated stage; Chapter Five juxtaposes Dickens's notorious battles over American reprinting with his devotion to the same theater that appropriated his works; Chapter Six exposes Gilbert and Sullivan's anti-property themes in the very play, The Pirates of Penzance, designed to facilitate their protest of American literary piracy; Chapter Seven suggests that Stevenson's playful representation of literary looting as cliché disguises the anti-property energies of free trade in discussions about copyright; and Chapter Eight depicts Barrie's resistance to proprietary authorship as an aesthetic statement about creativity.
Cohen uses the "staginess" of the nineteenth-century pirate to elucidate some of the complex connections between copyright history and theater history (8). In doing so, she contributes an important voice to...