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  • Embedded Authorship: Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nineteenth-Century “Transatlantic Bibliopoly”
  • Tim Sommer (bio)

I. Transatlantic Circulation between the “Two Englands”

In 1870, Thomas Carlyle donated a large part of his private library to Harvard University in an effort to demonstrate his “gratitude to New England” for its encouraging reception of his writings over the previous three and a half decades.1 Carlyle’s American friend and one-time de facto literary agent Ralph Waldo Emerson had emphatically urged that Harvard, his own alma mater, would be “the right beneficiary, as being the mother real or adoptive of a great number of” Carlyle’s “lovers & readers in America.”2 The role of the intermediary in the scheme fell to Charles Eliot Norton, a fellow Harvard graduate and transatlantic man of letters who subsequently became the first editor of the Carlyle–Emerson correspondence. As a gesture at once material and diplomatic, the gift, Norton suggested, would further consolidate a “bond between the people of the two Englands.”3 Through this public recognition of the support of his American “lovers & readers,” Carlyle was paying back his debt in the form of books, the same currency in which he had originally incurred it. When the volumes from his shelves arrived in Cambridge, this transatlantic migration of material objects provided the concluding chapter to a long history of exchanges that had seen the circulation of manuscripts, proof sheets, individual copies, and whole cargoes of Carlyle’s and Emerson’s books between Britain and the United States. This sustained Anglo-American interaction had not only established a lasting bond between the two writers, but also contributed to the emergence of the interconnected print market of what Norton described as “the two Englands.”

While the study of transatlantic literary relations has burgeoned over the past two decades, only a fraction of the critical output this scholarship has [End Page 352] generated is concerned with such specifically book historical contexts and with tackling the archival evidence required to answer the questions they raise.4 Still largely dominated by a history of ideas approach, the field has for a long time “neglected the material exchanges of transatlantic culture” in favor of inquiries into transnational influences and conceptual transfer.5 A simultaneous flourishing of research in the history of the book has, on the other hand, yielded similarly few instances of scholarship devoted to topics that genuinely cut across the boundaries of national book markets and regionally specific print cultures.6 In a recent survey of the nexus between these two scholarly traditions, Emily Todd has accordingly called for new work that engages both paradigms at the same time. “Transatlantic studies needs book history,” she argues, just as much as the latter needs the former.7 A subfield in which the history of the book has already made a contribution to our understanding of transatlantic literary culture is the study of nineteenth-century practices and discourses of reprinting. Catalyzed by Meredith McGill’s pioneering American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834–1853 (2003), research in this area has retraced in rich historical detail the manifold “routes” that texts were traveling in a complex international system of book and periodical publishing.8 Described as subject to decontextualization, reformatting, and decentralized dissemination, writing here tends to take precedence over authors, who often figure as the hapless victims of impersonal market structures that extend far beyond single individuals. Where reprinting is read as a practice that “disrupted the connections of books as human transmissions and de-valued the author’s text,” publication emerges “as an independently signifying act”—independent, that is, from authors as historical agents and participants in the publishing process.9

Looking at the close collaboration between Carlyle and Emerson and recovering the extent of their involvement with the print market reveals a different picture of the place of authors in nineteenth-century reprint culture. Confronted with a vibrant transatlantic market environment in which their writings from the late 1830s onwards were increasingly targeted by unauthorized reprinters, the two entered the fray and took up the roles of agents and editors to reassert their intellectual, legal, and economic authority over their texts. The transatlantic culture of print in...


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