In speaking of the literature of any country we are, I think, too much inclined to regard the question as one appertaining exclusively to the writers of books — not acknowledging as we should do that the literary character of a people will depend much more upon what it reads than upon what it writes. If we can suppose any people to have an intimate acquaintance with the best literary efforts of other countries, we should hardly be correct in saying that such a people had no literary history of their own because it had itself produced nothing in literature. And, with reference to those countries which have been most fertile in the production of good books, I doubt whether their literary histories should not have more to tell of those ages in which much has been read than of those in which much has been written.
The United States have been by no means barren in the production of literature. The truth is so far from this that their literary triumphs are perhaps those which of all their triumphs are the most honorable to them, and which, considering their position as a young nation, are the most permanently satisfactory. But though they have done much in writing, they have done much more in reading. As producers they are more than respectable, but as consumers they are the most conspicuous people on the earth. It is impossible to speak of the subject of literature in America without thinking of the readers rather than of the writers. In this matter their position is different from that of any other great people, seeing that they share the advantages of our language. An American will perhaps consider himself to be as little like an Englishman as he is like a Frenchman. But he reads Shakspeare through the medium of his own vernacular, and has to undergo the penance of a foreign tongue before he can understand Moliere. He separates himself from England in politics and perhaps in affection; but he cannot separate himself from England in mental culture. It may be suggested that an Englishman has the same advantages as regards America; and it is true that he is obtaining much of such advantage. Irving, Prescott, and Longfellow are the same to England as though she herself had produced them. But the balance of advantage must be greatly in favor of America. We gave her the work of four hundred years, and received back in return the work of fifty.
And of this advantage the Americans have not been slow to avail themselves. As consumers of literature they are certainly the most conspicuous people on the earth. Where an English publisher contents himself with thousands of copies, an American publisher deals with ten thousand. The sale of a new book, which in numbers would amount to a considerable success with us, would with them be a lamentable failure. This of course is accounted for, as regards the author and the publisher, by the difference of price at which the book is produced. One thousand in England will give perhaps as good a return as the ten thousand in America. But as regards the readers there can be no such equalization: the thousand copies cannot spread themselves as do the ten thousand. The one book at a guinea cannot multiply itself, let Mr. Mudie do what he will, as do the ten books at a dollar. Ultimately there remain the ten books against the one; and if there be not the ten readers against the one, there are five, or four, or three. Everybody in the States has books about his house. “And so has everybody in England,” will say my English reader, mindful of the libraries, or book-rooms, or book-crowded drawing-rooms of his friends and acquaintances. But has my English reader who so replies examined the libraries of many English cabmen, of ticket porters, of warehousemen, and of agricultural laborers? I cannot take upon myself to say that I have done so with any close search in the States; but when it has been in my power I have done so, and I have always found books in such houses as I have entered. The amount or printed matter which is poured forth in streams from the printing presses of the great American publishers is, however, a better proof of the truth of what I say than anything that I can have seen myself.
But of what class are the books that are so read? There are many who think that reading in itself is not good unless the matter read is excellent. I do not myself quite agree with this, thinking that almost any reading is better than none; but I will of course admit that good matter is better than bad matter. The bulk of the literature consumed in the States is no doubt composed of novels — as it is also, now-a-days, in this country. Whether or no an unlimited supply of novels for young people is or is not advantageous, I will not here pretend to say. The general opinion with ourselves, I take it, is that novels are bad reading if they be bad of their kind. Novels that are not bad are now-a-days accepted generally as indispensable to our households. Whatever may be the weakness of the American literary taste in this respect, it is I think a weakness which we share. There are more novel readers among them than with us, but only I think in the proportion that there are more readers.
I have no hesitation in saying that works by English authors are more popular in the States than those written by Americans; and, among English authors of the present day, readers by no means confine themselves to the novelists. The English names of whom I heard most during my sojourn in the States were perhaps those of Dickens, Tennyson, Buckle, Tom Hughes, Martin Tupper, and Thackeray. As the owners of all these names are still living, I am not going to take upon myself the delicate task of criticising the American taste. I may not perhaps coincide with them in every respect. But if I be right as to the names which I have given, such a selection shows that they do get beyond novels. I have little doubt but that many more copies of Dickens’s novels have been sold, during the last three years, than of the works either of Tennyson or Buckle; but such also has been the case in England. It will probably be admitted that one copy of the “Civilization” should be held as being equal to five and twenty of “Nicholas Nickleby,” and that a single “In Memoriam” may fairly weigh down half a dozen “Pickwicks.” Men and women after their day’s work are not always up to the “Civilization.” As a rule, they are generally up to “Proverbial Philosophy,” and this, perhaps, may have had something to do with the great popularity of that very popular work.
I would not have it supposed that American readers despise their own authors. The Americans are very proud of having a literature of their own, and among the literary names which they honor, there are none more honorable than those of Cooper and Irving. They like to know that their modern historians are acknowledged as great authors, and as regards their own poets, will sometimes demand your admiration for strains with which you hardly find yourself to be familiar. But English books are, I think, the better loved: even the English books of the present day. And even beyond this — with those who choose to indulge in the luxuries of literature — books printed in England are more popular than those which are printed in their own country; and yet the manner in which the American publishers put out their work is very good. The book sold there at a dollar, or a dollar and a quarter, quite equals our ordinary five shilling volume. Nevertheless, English books are preferred, almost as strongly as are French bonnets. Of books absolutely printed and produced in England, the supply in the States is of course small. They must necessarily be costly, and as regards new books, are always subjected to the rivalry of a cheaper American copy. But of the reprinted works of English authors the supply is unlimited, and the sale very great. Almost everything is reprinted: certainly everything which can be said to attain any home popularity. I do not know how far English authors may be aware of the fact; but it is undoubtedly a fact that their influence as authors is greater on the other side of the Atlantic than on this one. It is there that they have their most numerous school of pupils. It is there that they are recognized as teachers by hundreds of thousands. It is of these thirty millions that they should think, at any rate in part, when they discuss within their own hearts that question which all authors do discuss, whether that which they write shall in itself be good or bad, be true or false. A writer in England may not, perhaps, think very much of this with reference to some trifle of which his English publisher proposes to sell some seven or eight hundred copies. But he begins to feel that he should have thought of it when he learns that twenty or thirty thousand copies of the same have been scattered through the length and breadth of the United States. The English author should feel that he writes for the widest circle of readers ever yet obtained by the literature of any country. He provides not only for his own country and for the States, but for the readers who are rising by millions in the British colonies. Canada is supplied chiefly from the presses of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but she is supplied with the works of the mother country. India, as I take it, gets all her books direct from London, as do the West Indies. Whether or no the Australian colonies have as yet learned to reprint our books I have never learned, but I presume that they cannot do so as cheaply as they can import them. London with us, and the three cities which I have named on the other side of the Atlantic, are the places at which this literature is manufactured; but the demand in the Western hemisphere is becoming more brisk than that which the Old World creates. There are, I have no doubt, more books printed in London than in all America put together. A greater extent of letter-press is put up in London than in the three publishing cities of the States; but the number of copies issued by the American publishers is so much greater than those which ours put forth that the greater bulk of literature is with them. If this be so, the demand with them is of course greater than it is with us.
I have spoken here of the privilege which an English author enjoys by reason of the ever-widening circle of readers to whom he writes. I should have said the writers of English literature, seeing that the privilege is of course shared by the American writer. I profess my belief that in the States an English author has an advantage over one of that country merely in the fact of his being English, as a French milliner has undoubtedly an advantage in her nationality, let her merits or demerits as a milliner be what they may. I think that English books are better liked because they are English. But I do not know that there is any feeling with us either for or against an author because he is American. I believe that Longfellow stands in our judgment exactly where he would have stood had he been a tutor at a college in Oxford instead of a Professor at Cambridge in Massachusetts. Prescott is read among us as a historian without any reference as to his nationality, and by many, as I take it, in absolute ignorance of his nationality. Hawthorne, the novelist, is quite as well known in England as he is in his own country. But I do not know that to either of these three is awarded any favor or is denied any justice because he is an American. Washington Irving published many of his works in this country, receiving very large sums for them from Mr. Murray, and I fancy that in dealing with his publisher he found neither advantage nor disadvantage in his nationality; that is, of course, advantage or disadvantage as respected the light in which his works would be regarded. It must be admitted that there is no jealousy in the States against English authors. I think that there is a feeling in their favor, but no one can at any rate allege that there is a feeling against them: I think I may also assert on the part of my own country that there is no jealousy here against American authors. As regards the tastes of the people, the works of each country flow freely through the other. That is as it should be. But when we come to the mode of supply, things are not exactly as they should be; and I do not believe that any one will contradict me when I say that the fault is with the Americans.
I presume that all my readers know the meaning of the word copyright. A man’s copyright is right in his copy; is that amount of legal possession in the production of his brains which has been secured to him by the law of his own country and of others. Unless an author were secured by such law, his writings would be of but little pecuniary value to him, as the right of printing and selling them would be open to all the world. In England and in America, and as I conceive in all countries possessing a literature, there is such a law, securing to authors and to their heirs, for a term of years, the exclusive right over their own productions. That this should be so in England, as regards English authors, appears to be so much a matter of course that the copyright of an author seems to be as naturally his own as a gentleman’s deposit at his bank, or his little investment in the three per cents. The right of an author to the value of his own productions in other countries than his own is not so much a matter of course; but nevertheless, if such productions have any value in other countries, that value should belong to him. This has been felt to be the case between England and France, and an international copyright now exists. The fact that the languages of England and France are different, makes the matter one of comparatively small moment. But it has been found to be for the honor and profit of the two countries that there should be such a law, and an international copyright does exist. But if such an arrangement be needed between two such countries as France and England — between two countries which do not speak the same language, or share the same literature — how much more necessary must it be between England and the United States! The literature of the one country is the literature of the other. The poem that is popular in London will certainly be popular in New York. The novel that is effective among American ladies will be equally so with those of England. There can be no doubt as to the importance of having or of not having a law of copyright between the two countries. The only question can be as to the expediency and the justice. At present there is no international copyright between England and the United States, and there is none because the States have declined to sanction any such law. It is known by all who are concerned in the matter on either side of the water that as far as Great Britain is concerned such a law would meet with no impediment.
Therefore it is to be presumed that the legislators of the States think it expedient and just to dispense with any such law. I have said that there can be no doubt as to the importance of the question, seeing that the price of English literature in the States must be most materially affected by it. Without such law the Americans are enabled to import English literature without paying for it. It is open to any American publisher to reprint any work from an English copy, and to sell his reprints without any permission obtained from the English author or from the English publisher. The absolute material which the American publisher sells, he takes, or can take, for nothing. The paper, ink, and composition he supplies in the ordinary way of business; but the very matter which he professes to sell — of the book which is the object of his trade — he is enabled to possess himself of for nothing. If you, my reader, be a popular author, an American publisher will take the choicest work of your brain, and make dollars out of it, selling thousands of copies of it in his country, whereas you can perhaps only sell hundreds of it in your own; and will either give you nothing for that he takes, or else will explain to you that he need give you nothing, and that in paying you he subjects himself to the danger of seeing the property which he has bought taken again from him by other persons. If this be so, that question whether or no there shall be a law of international copyright between the two countries cannot be unimportant.
But it may be inexpedient that there shall be such a law. It may be considered well that, as the influx of English books into America is much greater than the influx of American books back to England, the right of obtaining such books for nothing should be reserved, although the country in doing so robs its own authors of the advantage which should accrue to them from the English market. It might perhaps be thought anything but smart to surrender such an advantage by the passing of an international copyright bill. There are not many trades in which the tradesman can get the chief of his goods for nothing; and it may be thought that the advantage arising to the States from such an arrangement of circumstances should not be abandoned. But how then about the justice? It would seem that the less said upon that subject the better. I have heard no one say that an author’s property in his own works should not, in accordance with justice, be insured to him in the one country as well as in the other. I have seen no defense of the present position of affairs, on the score of justice. The price of books would be enhanced by an international copyright law, and it is well that books should be cheap. That is the only argument used. So would mutton be cheap if it could be taken out of a butcher’s shop for nothing.
But I absolutely deny the expediency of the present position of the subject, looking simply to the material advantage of the American people in the matter, and throwing aside altogether that question of justice. I must here, however, explain that I bring no charge whatsoever against the American publishers. The English author is a victim in their hands, but it is by no means their fault that he is so. As a rule, they are willing to pay something for the works of popular English writers; but in arranging as to what payments they can make, they must of course bear in mind the fact that they have no exclusive right whatsoever in the things which they purchase. It is natural also that they should bear in mind, when making their purchases and arranging their prices, that they can have the very thing they are buying without any payment at all, if the price asked do not suit them. It is not of the publishers that I complain, or of any advantage which they take, but of the legislators of the country, and of the advantage which accrues, or is thought by them to accrue, to the American people from the absence of an international copyright law. It is mean on their part to take such advantage if it existed; and it is foolish in them to suppose that any such advantage can accrue. The absence of any law of copyright no doubt gives to the American publisher the power of reprinting the works of English authors without paying for them, seeing that the English author is undefended. But the American publisher who brings out such a reprint is equally undefended in his property; when he shall have produced his book, his rival in the next street may immediately reprint it from him, and destroy the value of his property by underselling him. It is probable that the first American publisher will have made some payment to the English author for the privilege of publishing the book honestly, of publishing it without recurrence to piracy; and in arranging his price with his customers he will be of course obliged to debit the book with the amount so paid. If the author receive ten cents a copy on every copy sold, the publisher must add that ten cents to the price he charges. But he cannot do this with security, because the book can be immediately reprinted and sold without any such addition to the price. The only security which the American publisher has against the injury which may be so done to him is the power of doing other injury in return. The men who stand high in the trade, and who are powerful because of the largeness of their dealings, can, in a certain measure, secure themselves in this way. Such a firm would have the power of crushing a small tradesman who should interfere with him. But if the large firm commits any such act of injustice, the little men in the trade have no power of setting themselves right by counter-injustice. I need hardly point out what must be the effect of such a state of things upon the whole publishing trade; nor need I say more to prove that some law which shall regulate property in foreign copyrights would be as expedient with reference to America as it would be just toward England. But the wrong done by America to herself does not rest here. It is true that more English books are read in the States than American books in England, but it is equally true that the literature of America is daily gaining readers among us. That injury to which English authors are subjected from the want of protection in the States, American authors suffer from the want of protection here. One can hardly believe that the legislators of the States would willingly place the brightest of their own fellow-countrymen in this position, because, in the event of a copyright bill being passed, the balance of advantage would seem to accrue to England.
Of the literature of the United States, speaking of literature in its ordinary sense, I do not know that I need say much more. I regard the literature of a country as its highest produce, believing it to be more powerful in its general effect, and more beneficial in its results, than either statesmanship, professional ability, religious teaching, or commerce. And in no part of its national career have the United States been so successful as in this. I need hardly explain that I should commit a monstrous injustice were I to make a comparison in this matter between England and America. Literature is the child of leisure and wealth. It is the produce of minds which by a happy combination of circumstances have been enabled to dispense with the ordinary cares of the world. It can hardly be expected to come from a young country, or from a new and still struggling people. Looking around at our own magnificent colonies, I hardly remember a considerable name which they have produced, except that of my excellent old friend Sam Slick. Nothing, therefore, I think, shows the settled greatness of the people of the States more significantly than their firm establishment of a national literature. This literature runs over all subjects: American authors have excelled in poetry, in science, in history, in metaphysics, in law, in theology, and in fiction. They have attempted all, and failed in none. What Englishman has devoted a room to books, and devoted no portion of that room to the productions of America?
But I must say a word of literature in which I shall not speak of it in its ordinary sense, and shall yet speak of it in that sense which of all, perhaps, in the present day should be considered the most ordinary; I mean the every-day periodical literature of the press. Most of those who can read, it is to be hoped, read books; but all who can read do read newspapers. Newspapers in this country are so general that men cannot well live without them; but to men and to women also in the United States they may be said to be the one chief necessary of life; and yet in the whole length and breadth of the United States there is not published a single newspaper which seems to me to be worthy of praise.
A really good newspaper — one excellent at all points — would indeed be a triumph of honesty and of art. Not only is such a publication much to be desired in America, but it is still to be desired in Great Britain also. I used, in my younger days, to think of such a newspaper as a possible publication, and in a certain degree to look for it; now I expect it only in my dreams. It should be powerful without tyranny, popular without triumph, political without party passion, critical without personal feeling, right in its statements and just in its judgments, but right and just without pride; it should be all but omniscient, but not conscious of its omnipotence; it should be moral, but never strait-laced; it should be well assured but yet modest; though never humble, it should be free from boastings. Above all these things it should be readable, and above that again it should be true. I used to think that such a newspaper might be produced, but I now sadly acknowledge to myself the fact that humanity is not capable of any work so divine.
The newspapers of the States generally may not only be said to have reached none of the virtues here named, but to have fallen into all the opposite vices. In the first place, they are never true. In requiring truth from a newspaper the public should not be anxious to strain at gnats. A statement setting forth that a certain gooseberry was five inches in circumference, whereas in truth its girth was only two and a half, would give me no offense. Nor would I be offended at being told that Lord Derby was appointed to the premiership, while in truth the Queen had only sent to his lordship, having as yet come to no definite arrangement. The demand for truth which may reasonably be made upon a newspaper amounts to this, that nothing should be stated not believed to be true, and that nothing should be stated as to which the truth is important without adequate ground for such belief. If a newspaper accuse me of swindling, it is not sufficient that the writer believe me to be a swindler. He should have ample and sufficient ground for such belief, or else in making such a statement he will write falsely. In our private life we all recognize the fact that this is so. It is understood that a man is not a whit the less a slanderer because he believes the slander which he promulgates. But it seems to me that this is not sufficiently recognized by many who write for the public press. Evil things are said, and are probably believed by the writers; they are said with that special skill for which newspaper writers have in our days become so conspicuous, defying alike redress by law or redress by argument; but they are said too often falsely. The words are not measured when they are written, and they are allowed to go forth without any sufficient inquiry into their truth. But if there is any ground for such complaint here in England, that ground is multiplied ten times — twenty times — in the States. This is not only shown in the abuse of individuals, in abuse which is as violent as it is perpetual, but in the treatment of every subject which is handled. All idea of truth has been thrown overboard. It seems to be admitted that the only object is to produce a sensation, and that it is admitted by both writer and reader that sensation and veracity are incompatible. Falsehood has become so much a matter of course with American newspapers that it has almost ceased to be falsehood. Nobody thinks me a liar because I deny that I am at home when I am in my study. The nature of the arrangement is generally understood. So also is it with the American newspapers.
But American newspapers are also unreadable. It is very bad that they should be false, but it is very surprising that they should be dull. Looking at the general intelligence of the people, one would have thought that a readable newspaper, put out with all pleasant appurtenances of clear type, good paper, and good internal arrangement, would have been a thing specially within their reach. But they have failed in every detail. Though their papers are always loaded with sensation headings, there are seldom sensation paragraphs to follow. The paragraphs do not fit the headings. Either they cannot be found, or if found, they seem to have escaped from their proper column to some distant and remote portion of the sheet. One is led to presume that no American editor has any plan in the composition of his newspaper. I never know whether I have as yet got to the very heart’s core of the daily journal, or whether I am still to go on searching for that heart’s core. Alas! it too often happens that there is no heart’s core. The whole thing seems to have been put out at hap-hazard. And then the very writing is in itself below mediocrity; as though a power of expression in properly arranged language was not required by a newspaper editor, either as regards himself or as regards his subordinates. One is driven to suppose that the writers for the daily press are not chosen with any view to such capability. A man ambitious of being on the staff of an American newspaper should be capable of much work, should be satisfied with small pay, should be indifferent to the world’s good usage, should be rough, ready, and of long sufferance; but, above all, he should be smart. The type of almost all American newspapers is wretched — I think I may say of all — so wretched that that alone forbids one to hope for pleasure in reading them. They are ill written, ill printed, and ill arranged, and in fact are not readable. They are bought, glanced at, and thrown away.
They are full of boastings, not boastings simply as to their country, their town, or their party, but of boastings as to themselves. And yet they possess no self-assurance. It is always evident that they neither trust themselves, nor expect to be trusted. They have made no approach to that omniscience which constitutes the great marvel of our own daily press; but finding it necessary to write as though they possessed it, they fall into blunders which are almost as marvelous. Justice and right judgment are out of the question with them. A political party end is always in view, and political party warfare in America admits of any weapons. No newspaper in America is really powerful or popular; and yet they are tyrannical and overbearing. The New York Herald has, I believe, the largest sale of any daily newspaper; but it is absolutely without political power, and in these times of war has truckled to the government more basely than any other paper. It has an enormous sale, but so far is it from having achieved popularity that no man on any side ever speaks a good word for it. All American newspapers deal in politics as a matter of course; but their politics have ever regard to men and not to measures. Vituperation is their natural political weapon; but since the President’s ministers have assumed the power of stopping newspapers which are offensive to them, they have shown that they can descend below vituperation to eulogy.
I shall be accused of using very strong language against the newspaper press of America. I can only say that I do not know how to make that language too strong. Of course there are newspapers as to which the editors and writers may justly feel that my remarks, if applied to them, are unmerited. In writing on such a subject, I can only deal with the whole as a whole. During my stay in the country, I did my best to make myself acquainted with the nature of its newspapers, knowing in how great a degree its population depends on them for its daily store of information; for newspapers in the States of America have a much wider, or rather closer circulation, than they do with us. Every man and almost every woman sees a newspaper daily. They are very cheap, and are brought to every man’s hand, without trouble to himself, at every turn that he takes in his day’s work. It would be much for the advantage of the country that they should be good of their kind; but, if I am able to form any judgment on the matter, they are not good.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01