In the early days of publishing, our U.S. Articles of Confederation gave no provision for copyright and left the States to address the issue individually. Authors were forced to copyright their work in each state to ensure complete protection of their work. This practice continued until 1790 when Congress finally enacted a national copyright law under the Constitution. The law protected American writers for 28 years, but gave no protection to foreign writers.
Publishing boomed over the next 40 years, and here in America, European books went into piracy on a large scale. Popular novels like Tom Jones and Robinson Crusoe were reprinted and sold many times over in early America without a penny paid to their foreign authors. Philadelphia was the center of publishing, with a dozen or so smaller towns like Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, also publishing books.
This left American writers at a significant disadvantage. Foreign books came free to publishers and were generally considered of a higher standard than American works. The runaway bestseller of its day was Charlotte Temple by British author, Susanna Rowson. Young colonial ladies blushed and wept over its tragic, romantic plotline and slept with it under their pillows. First published in America in 1794, the novel ran through 200 editions.
Some American writers did manage to get recognized. Attorney and statesman, William Wirt, of Virginia wrote The Letters of a British Spy, which quickly became a bestseller in 1803 and later went on to write a biography of Founding Father, Patrick Henry. By the late 1820s, Nathaniel Hawthorne had begun jotting his first lines in Salem and Henry David Thoreau was observing nature in Concord, but it was in New York City that American literature first came onto its own with author Washington Irving.
In 1809, he wrote the satire, Knickerbocker’s History of New York. The book’s gaiety and charm was not exactly what the editors were anticipating, but it made its mark as early American literature, nonetheless. Washington’s short story, Sleepy Hollow, is still wildly popular today and is one of my all-time favorites, in all its forms, from the original book to movies and television.
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Lisa Norato is the multi-published author of Prize of My Heart, an inspirational, seafaring historical from Bethany House, set during the Federal era. A life-long New Englander, Lisa lives in a historic village with homes and churches dating as far back as the eighteenth century.