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The Book as Author Work: 18th Century

During the Enlightenment period the term author began to transform. Haynes (2005, 311) notes that the term acquired "its modern sense of individual and original genius. Authorship gradually became identified with a subjective personality". However men continued to dominate.

defoeDaniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731) is best known as an early English novelist, however to his contemporaries he was a journalist and satirist. Adams (2012) calls him the "undisputed king of political pamphleteering. According to Adams (2012, iii),

"he was much more prolific, and widely known to his contemporaries, as the most incisive, fearless and uncompromising political, social and economic literary agitator of his day."

Defoe's outrageous pamphlets led to charges of libel. He was found guilty and sentenced to public humiliation and prison. According to Sutherland (2012, 9), "as legend has it, he was pelted not with rotten fruit or stones but flowers by a sympathetic crowd." The politician Robert Harley arranged for his early release and employed him as his personal propagandist. Adams (2012, vi) notes that "arguably more than any other writer of his day, Defoe understood the psychological techniques that underpin the art of persuasion."

Late in life, Defoe's skills at deception were applied to the new blossoming field of fiction. He was able to draw on his personal experiences in writing books like Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders (1722). Sutherland (2012, 10) concludes that

"There has been much academic dispute about Defoe and the 'Rise of the Novel'. One thing seems indisputable - that there is a link between the fiction he wrote and the Rise of Capitalism - specifically the commercial activity Defoe was engaged in during the first twenty years of his adult life - 'the business of the shop', he called it."

brownCharles Brockden Brown

Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810) was an American novelist. He may have been the first to make a living as an author in the United States writing novels in addition to short stories, essays, articles, and reviews.

Although trained as a lawyer, he joined a group of intellectuals instead and began a literary career in New York. Although most of his novels were gothic fiction following the progressive ideas of British writers of the period, they also incorporate historical, scientific and medical elements as well.

In articles like Walstein's School of History (1799) and The Difference Between History and Romance (1800), Brown shared how he combined fiction and history placing original individuals in stressful situations such as the Yellow Fever epidemic in Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793 (1799a) or settler-indian wars of the frontier in Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799b). In addition to entertaining his audiences, he hoped to educate them about historical cause and effect.

The title pages and preface can provide useful insights into an author and his work. Many early works of fiction didn't include the author's name. The title page of Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793 simply states "by the author of Wieland; and Ormond, or the Secret Witness". The preface introduces readers to the book's connection to medical and political discussions and is simply signed C.B.B. Borwn (1799a, vi) states

"In the following tale, a particular series of adventures is brought to a close; but these are necessarily connected with the events which happened subsequent to the period here described. These events are not less memorable than those which form the subject of the present volume, and may hereafter be published either separately or in addition to this."

The images below are from Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793.

brown title pagecbb

The preface to Edgar Huntly: or, Memoirs of a Sleepwalker (1799) notes the success of his approach to fiction. Brown (1799b, 3-4) states

"The flattering reception that has been given by the public, to Arthur Mervyn, has prompted the writer to solicit a continuance of the same favour, and to offer the world a new performance... one merit of the writer may be at least claim; that of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathy of the reader, by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Peurile superstition and exploded manners; Gothic castles and chimera, are the materials usually employed for this end. The incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness, are far more suitable; and, for a native of America to overlook these, would admit of no apology. These, therefore, are, in part, the ingredients of this tale."

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was one of few novelists during this time to gain international popularity during his lifetime. The Scottish author combined writing and political activities with his day job as a law clerk and deputy sheriff. The novel was just emerging as a form and was not yet accepted in literary circles.

ivanhoeLike a growing number of authors, Sir Walter Scott did not tolerate changes in his work. He was fortunate to have a friend in the printing business, James Ballantyne who published his first works of poetry. He even persuaded his friend to move the press to Edinburgh and become partners providing him control over his work.

Scott combined his interest in oral history and storytelling with writing. Scott thought of himself as a poet first and was concerned about a novel hurting his reputation. His first novel, Waverley (1814) was published anonymously. Often considered to be the first historical novel, it was a huge success selling out the first edition of one thousand copies in a couple days. He pioneered the use of the three-volume novel that survived until the end of the 19th century. Many people recognized that Waverley was the work of Scott. However Scott maintained the ruse publishing other novels under the name "Author Waverley" rather than his own name.

The image on the right shows an 1821 edition of Ivanhoe. Notice that it is credited to "by the author of 'Waverley,' &c."

Letters provide a valuable resource to gain insights into the thoughts of Scott's contemporaries. For example, Jane Austen wrote

"Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. He has Fame and Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people's mouths.– I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must." (Austin, 1818).

Women as Authors

CerePrior to the 18th century, women were often overlooked as authors. Other than anonymous works or materials focusing on particular topics such as fairy tales, women faced many struggles in their quest to become published.

In The Other Enlightenment: How French Women Became Modern (2003), Carla Hesse stresses that although women continued to be overlooked in the political and social arenas, they became to have a voice in literature during the late 18th century. She notes that the number of women authors dramatically increased during the French Revolution as royal regulations lost their power giving rise more flexibility in publishing.

The image on the left shows Portrait of Comtesse de Ceres by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Hesse notes that while women were often depicted as readers, until this time they were rarely shown as writers.

Fortunee Briquet (1804) noted that "no other century has begun with such as great number of women of letters."

Jane Austen

senseJane Austen (1775-1817) was brought up in a home filled with books. The library included works of fiction by authors like Sterne and Fielding providing a broad spectrum of experiences not typical of a young lady of this period (Sutherland, 2012). This may have influenced her interest and writing of romance novels. Her family was supportive her work as a professional writer.

Novel writing was viewed as an unacceptable occupation particularly for women because it would likely imperil her social standing. Like many authors of fiction, her books were published anonymously. The title page simply read "BY A LADY." Among the aristocracy her authorship was considered an "open secret."

The image on the right shows the title page of Sense and Sensibility: A Novel published in 1811.

Although her novels are widely read today, her books were only moderating successful during her lifetime. They were fashionable among the aristocracy. While the novels were well-received by the public and allowed her some financial independence, they were generally ignored by mainstream reviewers. However, Walter Scott used his anonymous review of Emma to defend the importance of the genre of novel. He also wrote in his journal about Austen's writing style.

"Also read again and for the third time at least Miss Austen's very finely written novel of Pride and Prejudice. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going, but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!" (Scott, 1826).

Through the use of humor, Austen shared the sad true of a woman's dependence on marriage and family to secure financial well-being and social standing.

Phillis Wheatley

In 1773, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) became the first African American to publish a book of poetry. She was born in West Africa and sold as a slave to a Massachusetts family. She learned to read and write and later gained freedom. Publication of her collection of collection of poems titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral made her instantly famous.

Listen to Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) in LibriVox or read her book of her poems


A letter from George Washington dated February 28, 1776 reflects Wheatley's statue as an author. Click the link or image above to read the letter published in both George Washington by Sparks and a biography of Phillis Wheatley. The poem referenced in the letter was published in American Monthly Museum in April 1776.

Read an original letter from Phillis Wheatley to Rev. Samuel Hopkins dated Boston, May 6, 1776. Hopkins was an early abolitionist. In the letter she regrets the lack of success of a missionary and requests assistance in distribution of her book of poetry. If you zoom in, you can easily read her beautiful handwriting. Think about the insights that can be gained by reading the correspondence of an author.

However there were some who felt that her writing was too accomplished for a "young Negro girl... under the disadvantage of serving as a slave". However in a letter from her owner published in the preface of her memoir stated that she was a quick learner who was educated in the home of her Master (Wheatley, 1938).

The President of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1863 acknowledged her importance as a poem by collecting letters she had written and presenting them to the society (Massachusetts Historical Society, November 1863, 268). The letters can be read as part of the proceedings. A previously unpublished poem was read to the group the previous month. He stated

"What judgment, therefore, has hitherto been formed of her literary attainments, has probably been derived chiefly from her poems. At a moment, too, when so much attention is drawn to the colored race, I feel that I need not apologize for occupying so much of the time of members as to call their attention to the letters of one of this class (who, nearly a century ago, was the object of so much attraction both her and in England), and to read some portion of them to the meeting."

Editorial Control

dedicationBy the late 18th and early 19th century, authors became much more vocal about editorial over their work. For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was an author well-known for wanting control of the quality of this printed work.

However many authors still relied on patrons to support their writing project. For instance author and explorer John Ledyard patrons to support his work.

The image on the right shows a dedication to Jonathan Trumbull from author John Ledyard (1783) for A Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.

During the 16th and 17th centuries many small publishers did all the writing and illustrating themselves. They often "re-purposed" classic works and added their own engravings. However, in the 18th century it became increasingly common for the author and illustrator to work separately. This often caused friction.

For instance, Thomas Gray's were illustrated by Richard Bentley in Designs for Six Poems by Mr T. Gray in 1753. Although the book was well-received, Gray was not enthusiastic about the result. He felt that the designs shouldn't precede the poems in the title (shown in the two images below). Harthan (1981, 154) noted that Gray's complaints

"anticipates many future objections to the effect that texts can easily become the vehicle (as in twentieth century livres d'artiste) for displays of graphic virtuosity."

richard 1richard 2

To learn more about the illustrated books of this time period, skim Lewine, J. (1898). Bibliography of Eighteenth Century Art and Illustrated Books and Paston, George (1905). Old Coloured Books.



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