Sunday, January 22, 2012

Charles Dickens for the Million in Nineteenth-Century America

I’m always interested in items that challenge accepted wisdom and contradict assumptions that we often make about literature. For example, say the words “Charles Dickens” to anyone who has taken a high school English class and you’re likely to conjure up images of high end, thick tomes whose very heft seems meant to serve as a visual metaphor for the weighty Literature-with-a-Capital-L contained within. But, as this week’s book demonstrates, in his own time Dickens was promoted as a very different kind of writer offering a very different kind of reading experience.

Most people are aware that Dickens, like many other writers of his age, wrote most of his literature for serial publication in monthly installments; this accounts for many of the peculiar features of Dickensian style, in fact. Even when complete, however, many of Dickens’s novels reached their original reading public in a cheap format more akin to modern paperback romances than great works of Literature. Also, as I've mentioned in the past, many of Dickens's works appeared in America under questionable circumstances -- circumstances that also speak to the high demand for cheap editions of Dickens for popular readers.

This week’s book is a great example of both these phenomena: it’s a flimsy pamphlet edition of No Thoroughfare, by Dickens and English novelist and dramatist Wilkie Collins, published by T. B. Peterson & Brothers of 306 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. No Thoroughfare began its life as a play by Dickens and Collins, premiering at the Adelphi Theatre in London in December 1867, followed by performances (often using versions of the script rather than the original) elsewhere in England, in Boston, Philadelphia, and Paris; pirated versions of the script were also used to stage unlicensed plays in Boston and New York. It was last professionally staged in Islington in 1903; it is the only Dickens-related dramatic work to have had no subsequent life on stage or screen. No Thoroughfare was the last play in which Dickens – a famously dedicated theater aficionado and amateur – was involved (he died in 1870) and also the most lucrative and successful. At around the same time that it appeared on stage, a novelized version of No Thoroughfare was published in the Christmas issue of the periodical All The Year Round and simultaneously in Boston’s Every Saturday magazine, published by Ticknor and Fields. Scholars believe that Collins was mainly responsible for the stage version and that Dickens was in charge of the novelization. In an attempt to cross-market the published version and the stage version, the novel is divided into five “acts” rather than into chapters and section headings often use theatrical jargon (“enter…”, “exit…”, etc.).
The original London cast of No Thoroughfare (1867)
The first stand-alone American editions of No Thoroughfare were not the novel but published versions of the play script – one issued by R. M. De Witt of New York in 1868 and which included “a description of…the whole of the stage business”, and one (renamed Identity: or, No Thoroughfare) by Samuel French of New York (French’s Standard Drama, number 348). In fact, No Thoroughfare was not included in any of the Dickens “Complete Works” collections until 1908 and it is rarely studied or reprinted outside of the comprehensive remit of the “Complete Works”. The reasons for the work’s obscurity are complex, but probably have to do with style more than anything else: though the novel contains many of the same themes and scenarios found in other late Dickens, it reads a bit like a cliché of those works. The plot is rather contrived and the genre quite melodramatic, though it’s easy to see how – with its sweeping tale of adventure, romance, murder, and suspense – it was popular on the late nineteenth-century stage.

It seems that (according to an investigation on WorldCat, at least) the Peterson & Brothers edition that I own was, in fact, the first stand-alone American edition of the novel (the true first American being, of course, its publication in Boston’s Every Saturday magazine). There is no publication date on the pamphlet itself, but cataloguers date it up until 1870. According to dealer Robert Davis of Gadshill, “Peterson had published the first collected works by Dickens in America, beginning ca, 1855, by buying out Lea and Blanchard of Philadelphia and other publishers and beginning to pay royalties to the author. The dating of Peterson issues can often be surmised from the list of Dickens titles in the ads or on the title page.” Using this system (as described by Davis for his copy of Peterson’s edition of Dombey and Son), I would estimate that the Peterson edition of No Thoroughfare appeared in 1868.

As a case study in using cautious skepticism when reading what dealers jot down on their copies, I’d point out that whomever the dealer was who was trying to sell this (I ended up getting it at auction), they penciled “1850?” in the upper outside corner of the front cover. The question mark is, of course, a bit of an understatement since the book itself wouldn't be written for another seventeen years after that date.

Peterson & Brothers published No Thoroughfare in its highly popular series of cheap pamphlets called “Petersons’ Cheap Edition For the Million”. The individual titles retailed for the very reasonable price of ten cents (about $1.58 in modern money) and the complete Dickens – “the cheapest edition of the works of Charles Dickens ever printed,” promises the ad on the back of No Thoroughfare – in seventeen octavo volumes each with a uniquely illustrated cover for only four dollars ($63.16 in modern money). “Now is the time,” trumpets an ad on the back, “for every person in the land, rich or poor, to club together and procure a set of Dickens’s Works”. Those who did “club together” – booksellers, news agents, reading clubs, libraries, and others ordering in bulk – enjoyed a 40% discount…which gives some idea of the kind of mark-up for a profit margin Peterson was putting on the books. Indeed, inspecting my copy of No Thoroughfare, it’s difficult to imagine that the publisher put anything like $1.58 worth of value into it.

Stab-stitches indicate that an item is a
pamphlet rather than a book
The pamphlet is stab-stitched with white thread; the outer paper wraps are a semi-glossy salmon color (called “buff” paper) with black ink for the advertising, title, and an illustration from a scene in the book. Inside the front cover is a detailed ad listing the prices for all the different kinds of Dickens editions Peterson & Brothers offers; inside the back cover is an ad for the company’s Cheap Edition of the Waverly Novels. The verso of the back advertises the complete Dickens. Inside, the book is printed on cheap newsprint stock with the text in two columns per page. Following the title-page, with the table of contents on the verso, the entire novel itself is 46 pages; thus, including the title-page/contents, it runs 24 leaves in octavo (the second and third gatherings are signed numerically in the lower margin beneath the left column of the recto page; the first gathering is not signed). There is no marginalia, but the copy is ragged on the edges (no text is lost, however), so it has clearly been read over the years. There is some foxing throughout and at some point tape was used to make some rudimentary repairs to the binding.

One thing that strikes me as odd is the pagination. After the title-page, the novel begins on p. 21 and ends on p. 66. Also, the title-page itself is not integral to the first gathering; rather, the final leaf of the gathering lacks a conjugate. What is going on here? Understanding how Peterson & Brothers made this pamphlet is important because it illuminates both an historical moment that gave rise to modern notions of overseas copyright and more broadly the idea of how literary texts were circulated through a physical “regurgitation” that ensured publishers of quick profits and readers of cheap, readily available books.

Dickens’s ferocious popularity in America during his lifetime gave rise to intense competition between publishers for his manuscripts, proof sheets, or anything else they could use to make and sell works by Dickens. Advances in the mechanization of printing that made it more efficient to print in volume and the development of new technologies for making truly cheap paper also both added fuel to this fire. This mania for cheap, mass produced Dickens reached its first crest in 1842, during a visit he paid to America; he left bitter and irate that so many publishers and booksellers were profiting off his creative work while he was seeing only marginal returns from the upsurge in the market. In 1867-8 he returned to America for a book tour (during this tour he corresponded by post with Wilkie about their joint project) and the furor took a more positive turn; a group of American publishers even organized in support of a new US-Great Britain mutual copyright bill. In April 1867, Dickens issued a statement that Ticknor and Fields was “the only authorized representatives in America of the whole series of my books.” This created problems for many American publishers, especially Ticknor’s prime competitor, Harper Brothers, but also Peterson, who had collaborated with Harper on many American editions of Dickens since before the 1850s. Peterson’s practice had been to buy advance sheets for serial runs from Harper’s Weekly and Harper’s Monthly, in effect obtaining (indirectly) priority over later publishers who took the trouble to obtain rights from London and Dickens directly. (For a summary of this affair, see, among others, Robert McParland, Charles Dickens’s American Audience [Lexington Books, 2010], esp. 59-62.)

So what does all this have to do with the “Cheap Edition” of No Thoroughfare? A quick search of dealers’ descriptions online reveals that the first printing of the novel, in the holiday number of Every Saturday, ran 48 pages. If two of those pages comprise the leaf that included a title or half-title, that would make the text the same length as that in Peterson’s “Cheap Edition”. Some dealers describe many pages of advertisements in the holiday Every Saturday; if there were several pages of other content and ads before the Dickens story, perhaps it began on page 21? Lacking access to a copy of the 1867 holiday Every Saturday, I can’t say for certain, but what this might mean is that Peterson & Brothers resorted to their old practice of binding together advance sheets from a serial and then re-selling that pamphlet under their own imprint. Essentially: scavenging, or, to use a modern term, pirating from a competing publisher. Lacking modern copyright laws, nineteenth-century publishers were known to resort to even more blatant forms of piracy than this, so it is plausible. The move gains an added edge when we recall the publisher of Every Saturday: Ticknor and Fields – the firm that, in April 1867, only eight months before the publication of No Thoroughfare, Dickens had declared his “only authorized” publisher, at the great expense of other firms, including T. B. Peterson & Brothers.

The image projected by this pamphlet is starkly at odds with the authoritative, heavy-tome image of Dickens. Instead of being a repository of Great Literature, this Dickens novel advertises itself and its contents as trivial and, literally, “cheap”, designed not for the elite, erudite scholar but for the “99%” of general readers, “the million”: the paper is the flimsiest available not unlike a "pulp" fiction novel of the mid-twentieth century, the text is compressed as if it were a magazine article, the content is quite possibly actually contraband, and the advertising all over the paper covers trumpets its easy availability for any and all. It was designed to be bought by the casual, working-class reader, used quickly, and then discarded; it was not designed to last – which is quite different from the image of Dickens’s writing as among the Great Classics of the English Canon meant to survive through all time.

No comments:

Post a Comment