Dr Katie McGettigan: ‘The Transatlantic Materials of US Authorship in The Whale, or Moby Dick’

As part of the 2019/20 BAAS-funded seminar series, we were excited to be joined in Glasgow last semester by not one but two Americanist speakers: Dr J. Michelle Coghlan from the University of Manchester and Dr Katie McGettigan from Royal Holloway, University of London. This post is about the second talk of the evening, given by Dr McGettigan, Senior Lecturer in American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Dr McGettigan’s talk, ‘The Transatlantic Materials of US Authorship in The Whaleor Moby Dick’, is taken from her second monograph, tentatively titled The Transatlantic Materials of American Literature, 1830-1860. The London edition of Moby Dick (1851), the title and subtitle inverted as The Whale, or Moby Dick, is a curiously ornate object. Richard Bentley, Melville’s authorised London publisher, commissioned an extravagant binding for the book which he issued in three volumes. The material object of The Whale – with a white or cream spine, blue face, and three gold whales stamped on its binding – stands in stark contrast to the Harper Brothers’ single volume bound in standard cloth. 

Clarifying that this contrast is partly explained by ‘different print economies either side of the Atlantic’, McGettigan explained that US publishers sold a greater volume of cheaper books directly to readers, whereas the inverse was true in Britain where circulating libraries demanded the multi-volume format. But Bentley’s elaborate presentation was still unusual, even by his own binding standards which were smarter than most. Given that Melville’s last three books lost Bentley money and his print run was just 500, why such ornate presentation?

Dr McGettigan pointed out that Bentley actually used the wrong species of whale, since Moby Dick is a sperm whale.

McGettigan’s answer to this curious choice is that Bentley’s material text intervened in contemporary transatlantic copyright debates about the rights of foreign authors and, by extension, how notions of authorship – as an ‘imaginative and economic activity’ – were situated in US print culture. Melville came to represent disputes over the rights of US authors in Britain and Bentley’s binding, McGettigan suggests, was an ornate claim to these rights. She argued that this also generated a ‘literary extravagance’, which she considers to be Melville’s ‘stylistic signature’. She examines this literary history as an example of the ways in which British publishers and texts – as material objects – shaped US authorship and its place in national literary culture, a transatlantic exchange often ignored in histories of US literature.

From 1830 to 1860, Bentley published over 80 titles by 57 American authors, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Charles Fenno Hoffman. In June 1849, the Court of Exchequer ruled that ‘foreign authors could not claim copyright through prior publication’, a reversal of the status quo prior to the ruling, which was not final. Thus, British publishers were now reluctant to produce authorised editions of US books. Meanwhile, cheap railway libraries were encouraged to reprint US books – which they could do legally regardless of the author’s permission – ‘to which other British publishers claimed copyright’, and so some American writers found this source of income suddenly insecure. 

In November later that year, ‘The Literary World’, a pro-copyright periodical in New York edited by Melville’s friend, Everett Duyckink, hoped US authors would be persuaded to campaign for revisions to international copyright law. Melville felt this change in law immediately, since selling English copyright to books had provided a valuable income supplement. He travelled to London to sell White Jacket, which McGettigan noted was rejected repeatedly. Journals from the period reflect that the investment was perceived as too risky, and one anonymous Times article describes Melville ‘wearily hawking this book from Piccadilly to Whitechapel’. 

Eventually, Bentley offered Melville what would have been the disappointing sum of £200. In this way, McGettigan explained, Melville became ‘emblematic of the struggles of American authors to secure copyright in Britain’ while Bentley made a name for himself as the British ‘champion of American writers’. In May 1851 the Court of Exchequer ruled that foreign authors could in fact hold copyright by prior publication, announced in ‘The Literary World’ in June. In July 1851, Melville wrote to Bentley – having accepted his offer of £150 for The Whale – to argue that Britain would have to lead the way in the copyright debate: ‘If you desire an international copyright hoist your flag on your side of the water and the signal will be answered, but look for no flag on this side till then.’

McGettigan suggests that Bentley did respond to Melville’s suggestion to hoist the flag in Britain. The extravagant binding, she argues, is ‘a statement about the text’s copyright status’. It advertised ‘that particular book’s security against reprints’, as well as Bentley’s role as ‘a champion of US authors’ rights’, willing as he was to pay handsomely both for the lavish material object and the abstract rights of the book’s author. The Knickerbocker Magazine, a New York literary monthly, suggested that American literature – and culture – would continue to lag behind London until publishers followed Bentley’s lead. The Whale stood as a physical emblem of pro-copyright lobbyist arguments that British publishers were doing the work that should really have been undertaken by their American counterparts but would not be until international copyright law was in place. Bentley’s edition, explained McGettigan, also argued for a ‘US publishing industry centred on authorship rather than reprinting.’

Meredith McGill writes in American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1834-1853 that these international copyright debates were situated within wider arguments about the US literary industry’s emergence. McGettigan noted that Gill demonstrates that both British and American petitions to the latter’s government constructed a vision of US literary culture as ‘centred on native authorship.’ For America to assert both literary independence and nationhood, US authors needed protection. Meanwhile, anti-copyright petitions argued that the cultivation of a radically different literary marketplace, a kind of republican based on reading and reprinting rather than authorship, would prove cultural independence. McGill argues that ‘the resetting of type becomes a powerful point of re-origination’ and the single-volume US reprint of The Whale was a sign of this developing literary culture. McGettigan argues, conversely, that Bentley’s materialisation of The Whale as an expensive and beautiful print object ‘validated a copyright system in which foreign authors had equal rights’, as well as an author-centred literary culture. So, in addition to intervening in copyright debates, Bentley’s lavish edition envisioned authorship as central to a print culture that was still finding its shape.

Turning to the book’s author, McGettigan examined Melville’s own engagement with copyright law in The Whale. In chapters 3 and 4 in the third volume, ‘Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish’ and ‘Heads and Tails’, Ishmael digresses to explain how disputes over whale ownership are resolved, observing that the American whaleman’s code is ‘One, a fast-fish belongs to the party fast to it’ and ‘Two, a loose-fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.’ These statements, McGettigan proposes, ‘constitute a version of the English court’s position on foreigners’ copyright’: American books entering the British marketplace attached to a British publisher were fast fish, but those loose fish that came over after publication were fair game. 

In ‘Heads and Tails’, Ishmael explains that the heads of whales beached on English coasts belong to the king, the tails to the queen. He tells the story of the Lord Warden of Cinque Ports taking possession of a beached whale brought in by ‘honest mariners of Dover, or Sandwich’, robbing them of the chance to make £150 from oil and bone. McGettigan underlines that what Melville imagined here was good men taking pains to bring a whale to England and then losing a considerable sum when it is seized ‘by one who has a legal but not a moral right to it’, and the sum of £150 ‘further binds Melville to the mariners’, since this is the amount Bentley offered for The Whale

Dr McGettigan gave us an extremely rich and informative talk on The Whale’s participation in the transatlantic fashioning of the material and aesthetic practice of American authorship. We eagerly anticipate her second monograph and hope she’ll visit us again soon! You can find the link to Dr McGettigan’s first book, Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text, below:

Herman Melville: Modernity and the Material Text

Follow Dr McGettigan on Twitter @KatieMcGettigan.

Post by Chiara Howe, PGR American Studies

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