In the 1840s and 1850s, as the market revolution swept the United States, the world of literature confronted for the first time the gaudy glare of commercial culture. Amid growing technological sophistication and mounting artistic rejection of the soullessness of materialism, authorship passed from an era of patronage and entered the clamoring free market. In this setting, romantic notions of what it meant to be an author came under attack, and authors became professionals.

In lively and provocative writing, David Dowling moves beyond a study of the emotional toll that this crisis in self-definition had on writers to examine how three sets of authors—in pairings of men and women: Harriet Wilson and Henry David Thoreau, Fanny Fern and Walt Whitman, and Rebecca Harding Davis and Herman Melville—engaged with and transformed the book market. What were their critiques of the capitalism that was transforming the world around them? How did they respond to the changing marketplace that came to define their very success as authors? How was the role of women influenced by these conditions?

Capital Letters concludes with a fascinating and daring transhistorical comparison of how two superstar authors—Herman Melville in the nineteenth century and Stephen King today—have negotiated the shifty terrain of the literary marketplace. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of print culture and literary work.

“David Dowling’s well-named Capital Letters makes a substantial contribution to the recent surge of scholarship on antebellum American authorship. Its individual chapters lucidly illuminate the interplay between economics and literature in the careers and writings of a wide array of the era’s writers, and at its best its overall argument provides intelligent commentary about the ways that even the most disparate writers sometimes found common ground across regional, gender, and racial boundaries in responding to the conditions of literary capitalism.”—Ezra Greenspan, editor, William Wells Brown: A Reader
“What good is an author without readers? But in a market economy, how does the lonely romantic artist find those readers? In this brisk and refreshing book, David Dowling puts into play the range of strategies American authors have used to solve this dilemma, from Thoreau, Whitman, Harriet Wilson, and Fanny Fern to Melville, Rebecca Harding Davis, and even Stephen King. Dowling’s authors rolled up their sleeves and with ink-smudged hands dove into the paradoxes of the modern literary marketplace. In the process careers were made, redefined, and ruined—and the market, too, was changed. By asking important new questions about how high romantic ideals wrestled with the materialities of the book trade, Dowling, too, bids fair to change and reenergize the marketplace of American literary studies today.”—Laura Dassow Walls, author, Emersons Life in Science: The Culture of Truth
“David Dowling has produced a first-rate book. Capital Letters is a thoroughly researched and well-argued analysis of the complicated relationship between ‘capital’—in the economic sense—and ‘letters’—in the literary sense. Dowling goes about his work with an admirable determination to treat each of his writers as an individual case, but always painstakingly hewing to his theme that writing for the market was the inescapable problem that every writer had to resolve, one way or another. This is an excellent book.”—R. Jackson Wilson, author, Figures of Speech: American Writers and the Literary Marketplace, from Benjamin Franklin to Emily Dickinson
Capital Letters not only adds to our historical knowledge of antebellum publishing but also deepens our appreciation of the cultural dialogues maintained by some of the nineteenth century’s most significant writers.”—David Haven Blake, author, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity

Acknowledgments ix
Literature Now Makes Its Home with the Merchant
The Transformation of Literary Economics, 1820–61 • 1
Part 1: Crusading for Social Justice • 25
1. Other and More Terrible Evils
Anticapitalist Rhetoric in Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig and Proslavery
Propaganda • 27
2. Alert, Adventurous, and Unwearied
Market Values in Thoreau’s Economies of Subsistence Living
and Writing • 44

Part 2: Transforming the Market • 63
3. Capital Sentiment
Fanny Fern’s Transformation of the Gentleman Publisher’s Code • 65
4. Transcending Capital
Whitman’s Poet Figure and the Marketing of Leaves of Grass • 82

Part 3 Worrying the Woman Question • 107
5. Dollarish All Over
Rebecca Harding Davis’s Market Success and the Economic Perils
of Transcendentalism • 109
6. Satirizing the Spheres
Refiguring Gender and Authorship in Melville • 127
Dreams Deferred
Ambition and the Mass Market in Melville and King • 145

Notes • 173
Works Cited • 199
Index • 213

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230 pages, 4 photos, 3 charts, 1 table, 6 x 9 inches