Atlantic Monthly Vol. 6, No. 33, July, 1860
Author: Various
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How Could He Help It? or, The Heart Triumphant. By A.S. ROE. New York: Derby & Jackson.

A fair representative of a class of books that are always pleasant reading, although written without taste, cultivation, or originality,—because they are obviously dictated by a kind heart and genuine earnestness. In this volume the numerous heroes (so similar in every respect that one might fancy them to be only one hero mysteriously multiplied, like Kehama) and the fair heroines (exactly equalling the heroes in number, we are happy to assure the tenderhearted reader) are not in the least interesting, except for sheer goodness of heart. This unaided moral excellence, however, fairly redeems the book, and so far softens even our critical asperity that we venture only to suggest,—first, that the utterly unprecedented patois of Mrs. Kelly is not Irish, for which a careful examination of the context leads us to think it was intended,—secondly, that "if he had have done it" is equally guiltless of being English,—thirdly, that, if our author, desiring to describe the feelings of a lover holding his mistress's hand, was inspired by Tennyson's phrase of "dear wonder," he failed, in our opinion, to improve on his original, when he substituted "the fleshy treasure in his grasp."

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The New Tariff-Bill. Washington. 1860.

We do not propose to submit the English of this new literary effort of the House of Representatives at Washington to a critical examination, (though it strikingly reminds us of some of the poems of Mr. Whitman, and is a very fair piece of descriptive verse in the b'hoy-anergic style,) or to attempt any argument on the vexed question of Protection. But there is a section of the proposed act which has a direct interest not only for all scholars, but for that large and constantly increasing class whose thirst for what may be called voluminous knowledge prompts them to buy all those shelf-ornamenting works without which no gentleman's library can be considered complete. Though in the matter of book-buying the characters of gentleman and scholar, so seldom united, are distinguished from each other with remarkable precision,—the desire of the former being to cover the walls of what he superstitiously calls his "study," and that of the latter to line his head, while the resultant wisdom is measured respectively by volume and by mass,—yet it is equally important to both that the literary furniture of the one and the intellectual tools of the other should be cheap.

The "Providence Journal" deserves the thanks of all students for having called attention to the fact, that, under the proposed tariff, the duties will be materially increased on two classes of foreign books: the cheap ones, like "Bohn's Library,"—and the bulky, but often indispensable ones, such as the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." The new bill, in short, proposes to substitute for the old duty of eight per cent. ad valorem a new one of fifteen cents the pound weight. Could we suspect a Committee of Members of Congress of a joke appreciable by mere members of the human family, could we suppose them in a thoughtless moment to have carried into legislation a mildened modicum of that metaphorical language which forms the staple of debate, we should make no remonstrance. We recognize the severe justice of an ideal avoirdupois in literary criticism. We remember the unconscious sarcasm of the Atlantic Telegraph, as it sank heart-broken under the strain of conveying the answer of the Heavy Father of our political stage to the graceful "good-morning" of Victoria. The enthusiastic member of the Academy of Lagado, who had spent eight years in a vain attempt to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, might have found profitable employment in smelting the lead even from light literature, not to speak of richer deposits. Under an act thus dubiously worded, and in a country which makes Bancroft a collector of the customs and Hawthorne a weigher and gauger, the works of an Alison and a Tupper would be put beyond the reach of all but the immensely rich. The man of moderate means would be deprived of the exhaustless misinformation of the Scottish Baronet, who has so completely disproved the old charge against his countrymen of possessing an ingenium perfervidum, (which Dr. Johnson would have translated by brimstone temperament,) and of the don't-fail-to- spread-your-umbrella-when-it-rains-or-you'll-spoil-your-hat wisdom of the English Commoner, who seems to have named his chief work in a moment of abnormal inspiration, since it has become proverbial as the severest test of human philosophy.

But we cannot suspect the Congressional Committee of a joke, still less of a joke at the expense of those anglers in the literary current whose tackle, however bare of bait, never fails of a sinker at the end of every line. They have been taught to look upon books as in no wise differing from cotton and tobacco, and rate them accordingly by a merely material standard. It has been the dealers in books, and not the makers of them, who have hitherto contrived to direct public opinion in this matter. We look upon Public Opinion with no superstitious reverence,—for Tom's way of thinking is none the wiser because the million other Toms and Dicks and Harries agree with him,—nevertheless, even a fetish may justly become an object of respectful interest to one who is to be sacrificed to it.

However it may be with iron, wool, and manufactured cotton, it is clear that a duty on books is not protective of American literature, but simply a tax on American scholarship and refinement. The imperfectness of our public libraries compels every student to depend more or less upon his own private collection of books; and it is a fact of some significance, that, with the single exception of Hildreth, all our prominent historians, Sparks, Irving, Bancroft, Prescott, Ticknor, Motley, and Palfrey, have been men of independent fortune. If anything should be free of duty, it should seem to be the material of thought.

If Congress be really desirous of doing something for the benefit of American authors, it would come nearer the mark, if it directed its attention to the establishment on equitable grounds of some system of International Copyright. A well-considered enactment to this end would, we are convinced, be quite as advantageous to the manufacturers as to the producers of books. We believe that a majority of the large publishing houses of the country have been gradually convinced of the inconveniences of the present want of system. Many of them have found it profitable to enter into an agreement with popular English authors for the payment of copyright, and works thus reprinted cost the buyer no more than under the privateering policy. But without some definite establishment of legal rights and remedies, the publisher is at the mercy of a dishonorable, sometimes of a vindictive competition, and must run the risk of having the market flooded within a week with a cheaper and inferior edition, reprinted from the sheets of his own which had been honorably paid for. We do not pretend to argue the question of literary property, the principle of it being admitted in the fact that we have any copyright-laws at all. Our wish is to show, that, in the present absence of settled law, the honest publisher is subjected to risks from the resultant evils of which the whole reading community suffers. The publisher, to protect himself, is forced to make his reprint as cheaply as possible, and to hurry it through the press with the disregard of accuracy inseparable from hasty publication,—while the reader is put in possession of a book destructive of eyesight, crowded with blunders, and unsightly in appearance. Maps and plates are omitted, or copied so carelessly as to be worse than useless; and whoever needs the book for study or reference must still buy the original edition, made more costly because imported in single copies, and because taxed for the protection of a state of things discreditable in every way, and not only so, but hostile to the true interests of both publishers and public.

We do not claim any protection of American authorship from foreign competition, but we cannot but think it unfair that British authorship should be protected (as it now practically is) at the cost of our own, and for the benefit of such publishers as are willing to convey an English book without paying for it. The reprint of a second-rate work by an English author has not only the advantage of a stolen cheapness over a first-rate one on the same subject by an American, but may even be the means of suppressing it altogether. The intellectual position of an American is so favorable for the treatment of European history as to overbalance in some instances the disadvantages arising from want of access to original documents; yet an American author whose work was yet in manuscript could not possibly compete with an English rival, even of far inferior ability, who had already published. If, within the last few years, a tolerably popular history of France had been published in England, and cheaply reprinted here, (as it surely would have been,) we doubt whether Mr. Godwin would have undertaken his laborious and elaborate work,—or, if he had, whether he would have readily found a bookseller bold enough to pay an adequate price for the copyright. And it is to be remembered that an American publisher gives this preference to an English over an American book simply because he can get it for nothing, by defrauding its author of the just reward of his industry or genius. That an author loses his equitable claim to copyright for the simple reason that by publication he has put himself in our power is an argument fit to be used only by one who would make use of a private letter that had accidentally come into his possession to the damage of the writer.

The necessity of some kind of equitable arrangement was so strongly felt by American publishers that a kind of unwritten law gradually established itself among them. It was tacitly understood, that, when a publisher had paid an English author for advance sheets, no rival American edition should be published. But it already appears too plainly that an arrangement with no guaranty but a private sense of honor is liable to constant infringement for the gratification of personal enmity, or in the hope of immediate profit. The rewards of uprightness and honorable dealing are slow in coming, while those of unscrupulous greed are immediate, even though dirty. Under existing circumstances, free-trade and fair-play exist only in appearance: for the extraordinary claim has been set up, that an American bookseller has an exclusive right to all the future works of an English author any one of whose former productions he has reprinted, whether with or without paying for it; so that, however willing another publisher may be to give the author a fair price for his book, or however desirous the latter may be to conclude such a bargain, it is practically impossible, so long as privateering is tolerated in the trade.

We have said nothing of the advantages which would accrue to our own authors from a definite settlement of the question of international copyright between England and America. How great these would be is plain from the fact that the editions of American books republished in England are already numbered by thousands. With the growth of the English Colonies the value to an American author of an English copyright is daily increasing. Indeed, it is a matter of consideration for our publishers, whether Canada may not before long retaliate upon them, and by cheaper reprints become as troublesome to them as Belgium once was to France.

It is not creditable that America should be the last of civilized nations to acknowledge the justice of an author's claim to a share in the profits of a commercial value which he has absolutely created. England is more liberal to our authors than we to hers, but it is only under certain strictly limited contingencies that an American can acquire copyright there. Were all our booksellers as scrupulous as the few honorably exceptional ones among them now are, there would be no need of legislative regulation; but, in the present condition of things, he who undertakes to reprint an English book which he has honestly paid for is at the mercy of whoever can get credit for poor paper and worse printing. There is no reason why a distinction should be made between copy-right and patent-right; but, if our legislators refuse to admit any abstract right in the matter, they might at least go so far as to conclude an international arrangement by which a publisher in either country who was willing to pay for the right of publication should be protected in its exercise. No just objection could be made to a plan of this kind, which, if not so honest as a general international law of copyright, would be profitable to our publishers, and to such of our authors at least as had acquired any foreign reputation.



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