Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
As with so many other areas of American life, the publishing world underwent dramatic changes in the years following the US Civil War. These changes affected the ways in which authors understood their audiences and markets, their possibilities for generating income, and their own professional identities. Such wide-ranging shifts in authors’ thinking could not help but have an impact on how and what they wrote. Publishing in the decades prior to the Civil War was still in the early stages of its development as a modern industry, at least in the United States; most books in America were either imported from Britain or else were pirated editions of books first published there. Most of those creating what we today think of as classic early American literature – from the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet to Benjamin Franklin up through the American literary “Renaissance” (as it has become known) of the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s – saw themselves not primarily as professional writers but as ministers, statesmen, reformers, lecturers, or simply citizens. Very few of these figures ever imagined supporting themselves by their writing.
It wasn’t until the middle decades of the century that technological innovations – printing from metal plates, new processes for casting type and for manufacturing paper – allowed books to be produced quickly and cheaply enough, and in sufficient quantities, that they could begin to be purchased by consumers in large numbers, which allowed for the possibility of meaningful profits both to publishers and (at least in theory) to authors. The reading population was expanding at the same time as public education increased literacy. The producers of fiction who most immediately benefitted from these changes were those who published, and to a lesser extent those who wrote for, the period’s cheap and immensely popular “story papers” (available for mere pennies) and “dime novels.” Although most early dime novels targeted male readers with adventure tales (westerns, high seas, crime), growing numbers of women readers quickly boosted the sales of fiction focused on love and romance (whether in pioneer, urban working-class, or high-society settings). Written as escapist entertainment for the masses, this fiction was unapologetically formulaic and sensationalistic: it made no attempt to present itself either as art or, for that matter, as an accurate portrayal of Americans’ real lives.