Serial Series, Part 4

Picture 8




Above, from top: Franklin the pirate (from The First/Last Newspaper); the cover of Poor Richard’s Almanac by Richard Saunders; Dickens gives a public reading during his second visit to America in 1867; Twain the young author and journalist.

One of America’s first pirates was a Philadelphia printer named Benjamin Franklin, who was born in Boston three years before England’s passage of copyright protection with the Statute of Anne in 1709. At 15, Franklin watched his brother James establish the colonies’ first independent newspaper, The New-England Courant. Franklin ran away two years later and soon found himself in London as an apprentice typesetter. By 1726, he had returned to America and found employment in Thomas Denham’s print shop.

For Franklin, piracy was a win-win: money for him, along with revolutionary ideas for a young republic. The scarcity of books in the colonies led Franklin to establish a book-sharing conversation group known as the Junto (or Leather Apron Club), and, later, the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731. According to the US State Department’s Outline of American Literature, which is available as a free PDF from, “The unauthorized printing of foreign books was originally seen as a service to the colonies as well as a source of profit for printers like Franklin, who reprinted the works of the classics and great European books to educate the American public.”

Soon after establishing the Library Company, Franklin published the first edition of his famous Poor Richard’s Almanack without copyright protection, and he continued serially updating the book until 1758. At its height, print runs of the Almanack swelled to 10,000 copies a year. It attracted that kind of mass attention, in part, because it began with a literary stunt that Franklin had poached from Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift. During 1708–9, Swift’s fictional character Isaac Bickerstaff had predicted the date of quack author John Partridge’s death and then convinced the public to believe he’d died on that date despite Partridge’s rather vital assertions otherwise. Franklin’s fictional alter ego Richard Saunders, for whom the Almanack is named, did the same to Franklin’s rival publisher Titan Leeds. Swift, who published in Dublin, was, of course, not under copyright. Later, in the 1739 edition of the Almanack, Franklin “borrowed” heavily from an English translation of François Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. In essence, Franklin pirated material even in works he actually authored.

"Printers everywhere followed [Franklin’s] lead," The Outline of American Literature continues. “Matthew Carey, an important American publisher, paid a London agent—a sort of literary spy—to send copies of unbound pages, or even proofs, to him in fast ships that could sail to America in a month. […] Such a pirated English book could be reprinted in a day and placed on the shelves for sale in American bookstores almost as fast as England.” More than 80 years after the Statute of Anne, the great lexicographer Noah Webster would finally draft America’s first copyright law in 1790, but its protections extended only to American authors, and piracy spread further and faster through the colonies than ever before. “The high point of piracy, in 1815,” according to the Outline, “corresponds with the low point of American writing.”

By 1842, when Charles Dickens had published his fifth novel, Barnaby Rudge, the British had strengthened the protections created by the Statute of Anne to better protect it and novels like it from piracy. Dickens—with the help of his friend, the dramatist Thomas Noon Talford—had been lobbying Parliament for copyright reform since the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836. (The Pickwick Papers is dedicated to Talford.) Though their first effort at reform had failed, the two finally succeeded in 1842. The current statutes were amended to forbid anyone from importing foreign reprints of any British copyrighted work to Britain or any of its colonies. Further, the British government began actively working with other governments to cultivate reciprocal agreements. With that, Dickens set sail to America.

As Prof. Phillip V. Allingham recounts in his article Dickens’s 1842 Reading Tour: Launching the Copyright Question in Tempestuous Seas, Dickens’s crusade to inspire Americans to embrace copyright reform did not go well:

Americans, expecting him to be grateful for their warm reception, were staggered when this young British goodwill ambassador at the beginning of 1842, at a dinner held in his honor in Boston, dared to criticize them as pirates while urging the merits of international copyright, which at that point in American history would have seen vast amounts of Yankee capital heading overseas with little reciprocation. He did not back down. A week later, in Hartford, he argued that a native American literature would flourish only when American publishers were compelled by law to pay all writers their due.

Between visits with author Washington Irving and President John Tyler, Dickens assailed Americans eager to meet their literary hero with the wrongheadedness of their ways. Allingham continues, “That he had not mentioned this issue in advance meant that his adoring audiences, taken by surprise, felt chagrined by the criticisms of this obviously mercenary young upstart who had come to their shores to take their money at the theatre door and again in the bookshop.” Dickens visited America again in 1867–8, at the end of his life. Though seriously ill—he complained of catching a “true American catarrh”—he nevertheless managed to solicit the support of writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for his cause and give 22 readings at Steinway Hall in New York through the dead of winter.

In the audience one cold January night was a 33-year old journalist and budding author named Mark Twain, who’d worked as a printer in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati while educating himself at public libraries in the evenings. After making a comfortable living as a steamboat captain, Twain had found his way westward and reviewed Dickens’s reading for the San Francisco newspaper Alta California, writing of his idol that “Somehow this puissant god seemed to be only a man, after all. How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.” Around the same time, Twain’s first book The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County appeared in print, though many of its 27 stories had, like Dickens’s, been previously published in newspapers and magazines throughout the country. A travel collection, The Innocents Abroad, was published the following year. It would become Twain’s best-selling book during his own lifetime.

But while his literary stardom would soon rival Dickens’s, he would not enjoy much of his idol’s financial success. Twain squandered his immense fortune on a string of bad investments, sinking the equivalent of millions into a frequently malfunctioning invention called the Paige typesetting machine, a rival and eventual casualty to Ottmar Mergenthaler’s far superior Linotype. Anxious to recoup his losses, Twain penned a letter to Columbia Professor of Dramatic Literature Brander Matthews in 1888 on the subject of copyright reform. Later published as a pamphlet called American Authors and British Pirates by the American Copyright League, the letter concludes,

I think we are not in a good position to throw bricks at the English pirate. We haven’t got any to spare. We need them to throw at the American Congress; and at the American author, who neglects his great privileges and then tries to hunt up some way to throw the blame upon the only nation in the world that is magnanimous enough to say to him, “While you are the guest of our laws and our flag, you shall not be robbed.” All the books which I have published in the last 15 years are protected by English copyright. In that time I have suffered pretty heavily in temper and pocket from imperfect copyright laws: but they were American, not English. I have no quarrel over there. Yours sincerely, Mark Twain.

Three years after Twain’s letter was published, The Chace Act—the first to introduce copyright protection to the works of foreign authors in the United States—would pass in 1891. Americans, who had enjoyed copyright protection on their own works for more than a century, had finally joined the rest of the world.

Serial Series is a six-part meditation on the production of text from the text’s point-of-view. It was written serially and published serially during the three-week run of Dexter Sinister’s The First/Last Newspaper, a project for Performa 09. The fourth broadsheet, including this piece (titled “PUISSANT GOD” REVIEWED; “MAN, AFTER ALL”) can be downloaded here. New installments will be posted each Tuesday through 5 January 2010.

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