Arts & Culture

When Boston was the hub of the literary world

4 min read

Scholar traces emergence of uniquely American writing

Matthew Pearl, author of “The Dante Club” and “The Poe Shadow,” wove an engaging tale of Boston’s literary legacy — one significantly and curiously shaped by 19th century copyright laws — at a talk last week sponsored by the Woodberry Poetry Room and The Wick, a Harvard Divinity School publication. The Feb. 26 presentation took place at the Divinity School.

Pearl’s murder mystery “The Dante Club” is based on an actual group of writers led by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who met regularly to translate Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” It was while researching the lives and works of the club’s real-life poets and authors that Pearl became interested in the importance of place and literary communities in the development of the country’s literary identity.

At the time — and for many years after — Boston was the nation’s publishing center, said Pearl, the home to publishing powerhouses like Ticknor and Fields, Houghton, and Little, Brown. But while the concentration of publishers yielded a strong community of writers, the region — and, indeed, the country as a whole — was constantly struggling to emerge from the shadow of revered European authors.

“In the 19th century, there was not yet what was considered an American literature. We were still fighting for that; we were still striving for that. And Boston was the center of that attempt, that goal of creating a national literature that was separate from Europe.”

A main drawback for American writers, noted Pearl, was the very thing designed to safeguard them. At the time, copyright law protected only American authors, meaning works by foreign writers could be copied and distributed at will by anyone inclined to reproduce them. Pearl described how representatives from various “pirating” American publishing houses, mainly based out of New York, would rush to the docks of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York eager to pounce on the newest Charles Dickens manuscript arriving from overseas.

“There’s this really interesting pirate culture. Now, the problem with the word ‘pirating’ is that actually this was all legal.”

The result, offered the one-time visiting lecturer in law and literature at Harvard Law School, was a simple matter of economics. The copyright law meant the works of foreign writers were available much more cheaply than those of their American counterparts.

“In their own country, [American authors] couldn’t compete with the British authors who were much more established. … This was a real crisis.”

But the situation had a surprising effect. Forced to earn money in other ways, American authors turned to writing short stories and poems for the popular magazines of the day, a much more lucrative activity. In the end, said Pearl, the trend created another type of American literary identity.

“It meant that American authors were entering a different type of writing, and in fact many of the genres that are so important to us culturally and pop culturally: mystery, science fiction, horror — all were generated because they had no choice. They had to figure out how to create novel short stories in very small spaces.”

The gradual decline of the publishing houses of Boston and the rise of those in New York was inevitable, said Pearl, as more and more upstart publishers who specialized in printing cheap editions established themselves in Manhattan. The shift was fueled in part by the rise of the public library, which meant a move away from creating expensive books for private collections toward creating inexpensive versions that could be mass-produced. And authors, who began to see Boston as “stuck in an old groove,” started to relocate to New York.

Though focusing mostly on the 19th century, Pearl also talked about today’s publishing industry. He referenced the current controversy over Amazon’s electronic reader the Kindle 2, which lets users not only read a book themselves, but also hear their downloaded book read aloud by a computer-generated voice. Publishers and authors who had sold Amazon the rights to the books protested that they had not sold the audio rights.

“The problem is that … no one is getting money for the Kindle reading it out loud,” said Pearl, who admitted to being uncertain about where he falls in the debate.

Ultimately, the Authors Guild vehemently objected to the device and Amazon relented, allowing publishers to disable the feature at their discretion.

The Kindle question, observed the author, is indicative of future copyright issues but also relates directly back to the copyright battles of the past.

“My sense of what’s ahead is that it will become more and more complicated who controls the text — just like it was in the 19th century.”