James Thomas Fields was born on December 31, 1817. That year, Sir Walter Scott published Rob Roy, Jane Austen published Northanger Abbey, and Lord Byron published Manfred. It would be three years before the first major American novelist (James Fenimore Cooper) published anything, and two years before Washington Irving published his Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. In other words, when James T. Fields was born, quality American literature was nonexistent. By the end of his life, he had helped create it.
Though Fields dabbled in poetry and prose, he was not a writer. But, without him, American literature would not have had its Renaissance. He was only 14 when he took his first job at the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts. By 1839, he was junior partner with publisher William Davis Ticknor. In 1846, the company was named Ticknor & Fields — America's first major national publishing-house.
Nathaniel Parker Willis called it "the announcing-room of the country's Court of Poetry." George William Curtis called it "the hub of the Hub" (Boston's nickname) and that it "compelled the world to acknowledge that there was an American literature."
What distinguished Ticknor & Fields was their interest in nationwide distribution. Other publishing houses were more regional, making them less influential outside of their center (such was the case with other publishing cities like New York, Philadelphia, Hartford). Fields in particular made it a point to seek out new talent, help them tap into their potential, and then he would personally promote them. In fact, Fields assisted them not only as writers but also in their personal lives. He built close relationships with all of his writers and can occasionally be given credit for inspiring their work: legend has it that Nathaniel Hawthorne was working on a short story about the Puritans; Fields urged him to expand it into a novel. The result was The Scarlet Letter, which Ticknor & Fields published in 1850.
The Old Corner Bookstore, the site of Ticknor & Fields, became a hang-out for authors. Among the bunch that Fields worked with: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry David Thoreau.
* In case I haven't dropped enough names, the image at the top of this page is by Julia Margaret Cameron, who photographed Fields when he was visiting Alfred, Lord Tennyson, at the Isle of Wight.
** The second image is Fields next to Hawthorne and Ticknor.