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How the “Dickens Controversy” Changed American Publishing


“Is it tolerable that besides being robbed and rifled, an author should be forced to appear in any form – in any vulgar dress – in any atrocious company – that he should have no choice of his audience – no controul [sic?] over his distorted text – and that he should be compelled to jostle out of the course, the best men in this country who only ask to live, by writing?”

-Charles Dickens, to Henry Austin (May 1, 1842)

By the time Charles Dickens made his first visit to America, the country was deeply embroiled in a publishing battle with Britain. His repeated pleas for international copyright law would eventually spark the “Dickens Controversy” and bring new accountability to the world of American publishing.

A Legal Loophole

In Dickens’ day, American copyright law provided no protection for non-citizens’ intellectual property. The result hit both British and American authors in the pocketbook: British authors received no royalties on pirated editions of their works, and their authorized editions were hardly appealing at many times to price of the pirated copies. Meanwhile, American authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Washington Irving, and Walt Whitman lost money because American readers would purchase 25-cent pirated British literature instead of one-dollar American books.

While such a publishing problem might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of foreign relations, it actually caused significant tension. American publishers sent employees to scour the docks of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, in hopes of intercepting manuscripts from popular authors that were bound for pirated editions. Meanwhile, British officials frequently confiscated as contraband American pirated copies of British books.

Thus Dickens faced quite a copyright conundrum. The pirated editions severely cut into his profits, but they also increased his circulation and popularity, leading to more demand for his work. But ultimately Dickens knew that more rigorous copyright laws would benefit authors on both sides of the Atlantic. He began openly advocating international copyright law. By the time Dickens arrived in the United States for the first time on January 22, 1842, he already planned to enlist American authors to support his cause.

 A Triumphant Arrival in Boston

Dickens’ fans in Boston greeted him like a rock star. He later wrote to a friend, “there never was a king or Emperor upon the Earth, so cheered, and followed by crowds.” Thanks to all those pirated copies of Dickens’ novels, the author had an incredible fan base in the United States. Dickens clearly loved the attention and adulation. He could also identify with the American ideals of democracy, liberalism, and equality. He’d pulled himself from poverty to become a celebrated author, personifying those ideals. And the American press glommed on to Dickens’ story. One paper called him “Boz, the gay personification of youthful genius on a glorious holiday.”


“Report of the Dinner Given to Charles Dickens in Boston, February 1, 1842”

Dickens was received by preeminent scholars and authors of Boston, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Richard Henry Dana, and Daniel Webster. On February 1, 1842, Dickens was the guest of honor at a “Young Men of Boston” dinner. He used the event to give his first speech to an American audience on the subject of international copyright law. This move proved poorly calculated; while Dickens had expected to receive support from fellow authors, he instead encountered resistance. America’s economy was flagging, and authors were reluctant to come across as demanding more money from the reading public.

Public Opinion Turns for the Worse


This caricature, often attributed to Thomas Nast, illustrates the reaction of the American press.

Dickens had also underestimated the power and priorities of the American press. Countless newspapers filled their pages with free British content, so international copyright law posed a significant threat to their profits. The newspapers immediately accused Dickens of being a “hired agent” for Britain, a mercenary out to fleece the American public. Dickens’ reputation was quickly tarnished.

Even Walt Whitman, who’d always been fascinated with Dickens, got in on the action, publishing “Boz’s Opinion of Us” in the New York Evening Tattler, where he was the editor. The paper ran a forged letter, supposedly from Dickens, outlining the “dark spots of American character.” Even though Whitman actually defended Dickens’ words, praising passages of the letter, the whole episode deeply damaged Dickens’ image. The editor of one New York newspaper reprinted the letter and said, “it will ruin Mr. Dickens’ personal popularity altogether with us.”

Dickens Strikes Back


“American Notes for General Circulation”

Although Dickens was initially quite taken with the United States, his account of the trip, “American Notes,” was relatively dry. He was harsh, however about slavery and the “abject state” of the American press. It was with Martin Chuzzlewit that Dickens really lashed out. The eponymous protagonist, a young man, travels to America to seek his fortune, only to be disappointed with American customs, manners, and publishing. Martin Chuzzlewit was published (unauthorized, of course) by the very papers that Dickens insulted in the novel.

Soon after, Dickens gave up lobbying for international copyright law. He realized it was a lost cause. But he didn’t give up his position entirely. Dickens stopped negotiating with American publishers for advance sheets of his novels, effectively removing their advantage of printing his books first. While this refusal wasn’t controversial, it was extremely unusual for the time period.

Finances Spur a Return

By the 1860’s, Dickens was an established celebrity. By all accounts, he should have been quite comfortable financially. But after much marital strife, Dickens’ wife, Catherine had been removed from the Dickens’ Rochester estate. A divorce would have sullied Dickens’ image, so he settled for relocating his wife to London and giving her a monthly stipend. And Dickens was still supporting his adult children–all six of his surviving sons were still receiving support from him by the mid-1860’s, despite being of age to support themselves.

Dickens’ resources were stretched thin. He wrote to his sister-in-law Georgiana, “Expenses are so enormous, that I begin to feel myself drawn towards America, as Charles Darnay in Tale of Two Cities is drawn toward Loadstone Rock, Paris. He believed enough time had passed that the American public would have forgotten about the publicity debacle of his first visit to the States.

Meanwhile, Dickens had perfected his readings, and British audiences flocked to see him perform. American theatre managers promised a second American tour would be even more lucrative than the first. They were correct. Dickens made £38,000 for 76 readings. His managers strutted around with paper bags full of cash. When Dickens passed away, the profits from this American tour constituted a full twenty percent of his estate.

An Unexpected Move


‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’

In 1867, Dickens made a bold proclamation. He announced that Fields, Osgood, and Co, the publishers who’d sponsored his tour, would have exclusive rights to his next novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This was a truly unprecedented maneuver, and it spurred discussions that have since become known as the “Dickens Controversy.” Dickens knew that he would never stop piracy of his works altogether, but he made an impassioned moral plea to the American public to buy authorized editions.

The tactic–perhaps surprisingly–worked quite well. Even the most notorious pirating firms were forced to reconsider their practices in light of Dickens’ campaign. Alas, Dickens passed away before finishing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the changes he promoted for international copyright law weren’t adopted until 1891. But Dickens contributed to a new era of cultural balance between Britain and the United States.

Related Posts:
Charles Dickens Does Boston
Irving and Dickens: The Authors Who Saved Christmas
Why Did Charles Dickens Write Ghost Stories for Christmas?
The Two Endings of Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations
Oscar Wilde: Dickens Detractor and “Inventor” of Aubrey Beardsley

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The Rare Books of Boston

November 15, 2013 kicks off the 36th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair! The city has played a vital role in America’s history, and in the history of the book. Here’s a look at some items in our collection that tie in with Boston’s rich past.

Red Sox Memorabilia

Red-SoxFew sports fans are more loyal than Red Sox fans. The Boston team was founded in 1901 as one of the American League’s eight charter franchises. For seven seasons, the team actually had no official name. They were referred to simply as “Boston,” “Bostonians,” or “Boston Americans,” while newspapers gave them more creative nicknames like “the Beaneaters” or “Plymouth Rocks.” In 1908, team owner John I Taylor chose the name “Red Sox,” a nod to the red socks that would become symbols of the team. Chicago journalists had started using “sox” as a headline-friendly shorthand for “stockings” already, and Taylor liked the name. But the team initially didn’t even wear red socks, but dark blue ones! And a Cincinnati team was actually the first to call iRed-Sox-Deweytself the Red Stockings. The team were members of the pioneering National Association of Base Ball Players and hired their first fully professional team in 1869, but the club folded after the 1870 season.

Boston Red Sox memorabilia is part of America’s rich and exciting tradition of baseball. We’re pleased to offer Boston Official Programs and Score Cards from 1957 and 1958. Another interesting item is AG Dewey Company’s Genuine Dodge Davis Flannel sample book (1971). The company got its start in 1936 in Quechee, New Hampshire. Throughout the 1930’s AG Dewey Company made the uniforms for the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and other teams.

Boston Training School for Nurses

The Boston Training School for Nurses was only the second of its kind in the country, preceded by the Bellevue school in New York. At the time, nursing was still not viewed as a vocation that required much training; women would often take up the career simply due to financial need, and in many cases nurses had no special qualifications to recommend them. In New York, this resulted in patients’ immense suffering at the hands of inept nurses. No such condition emerged in Boston, however; nurses there were considered some of the best in the nation. Thus the push to start a training school met with some resistance; why would good nurses need further training?

Eventually, however, nurses and doctors saw the potential advantages of such a program. The Boston Training School for Nurses was established in 1873. It was affiliated with Massachusetts General Hospital and eventually evolved into the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing. The organization published annual reports, which are quite enlightening regarding nursing history. This copy of the report from 1892, in very good condition, shows us how the organization and nursing have evolved in only a few decades.

Dinners for Dickens

Charles-Dickens-Boston-1842Charles Dickens made two visits to the United States, first in 1842 and again in 1867. Boston proved an important city during both tours. In 1842, Dickens arrived to find himself already quite the celebrity, and his presence was in great demand. The “Young Men of Boston” had already extended an invitation to Dickens before he’d even left England. The dinner in his honor, documented by Thomas Gill and William English of the Morning Post, was held on February 1, 1842. Dickens made an almost fatal move during the course of the evening: he introduced the concept of an international copyright law. Dickens failed to gain the support of fellow authors as he’d anticipated. Instead he sparked a battle with the American press, who accused Dickens of creating a “huge dissonance” by broaching the subject of international copyright at such an inappropriate occasion. Dickens would further disenchant his American audience when he published American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewitt, both of which painted America in a less than favorable light.

Charles-Dickens-Boston-1867But Dickens’ genius soon won over his American audience once again. Swayed by the promise of £10,000 from a group of Boston intellectuals, Dickens headed back to America in 1867. Prior to his departure, a public banquet was held in the author’s honor at London’s Freemason’s Hall, on November 2, 1867. A record of the meeting was made, which includes speeches by Dickens, Lytton, Trollope, and other luminaries. Dickens’ second visit to the US proved a dizzying tour, jam packed with readings and public appearances. During one of his early appearances, he noted that both he and America were much changed since his first visit and vowed to issue appendices to American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewitt to temper his critical tone towards the US.

News from a Moving Train

In May, 1870, the Boston Board of Trade journeyed over 3,000 miles to San Francisco to meet with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. During the trip, twelve issues of the Trans-Continental were published on a Gordon press located in the baggage car. The paper reported the normal business of the train and its passengers, along with other news. The first issue, for instance, reports that the Athletics of Philadelphia beat Harvard Base Ball Club 20-8. The newspaper’s office was located in the train’s second car. The train was also equipped with “two well-stocked libraries, replete with choice works of fiction, history, poetry, etc.” Each issue recorded a different locale on the masthead. The newspaper is generally regarded as the first newspaper to be printed on a moving train.

A Political Discourse on Abolition

Lydia-Childs_AbolitionBoston was a hotbed for abolitionism. One Bostonian’s abolitionist work, though denounced at the time of publication, is now recognized as a groundbreaking tour de force in American abolitionist literature. Lydia Maria Francis Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans in 1833 and immediately shocked even fellow abolitionists. Unlike her colleagues, Child eschewed religious or scriptural justifications for ending slavery. She also ignored traditional, emotional arguments about the cruelties of slavery. This was because Child had a larger and more ambitious objective; she sought to end discrimination against free African Americans. Such a stance was hardly popular, which Child had predicted in her preface, saying, “Though I expect ridicule and censure, I cannot fear them.” Child’s tone and style of argument at the time were seen as more masculine than feminine, which didn’t ameliorate reception of her work. Her book sales plummeted, and the Boston Athenaeum even rescinded her free library privileges.

But Child’s work would prove incredibly influential in the movement, making it a desirable addition to a collection on abolition, African American history, and the history of ideas. The book is relatively scarce in the trade; only three copies have appeared at auction in the last thirty years. The last copy, sold in 2000, was imperfect. This edition of An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans is bound in the original publisher’s cloth and has the errata slip tipped in. All in all, it’s a very good copy of a hard-to-find work.

Boston’s place in history intersects with the world of rare books in so many ways! What’s the most interesting item of Bostoniana in your collection?