January 13, 2010

Geoffrey Crayon in London

On January 13, 1820, Washington Irving wrote to his brother Ebeneezer from London. In the letter, Irving announces:

I have just made arrangements to have a volume of the 'Sketch Book' published here... I expect the first proof-sheet to-day, and the volume will be published in about a month. If the experiment succeeds I shall follow it up by another volume.

Irving was referring to his collection The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., editions of which had only recently been published in the United States. Its first volume included the now-famous tale "Rip Van Winkle" and featured the first usage of Irving's occasional pseudonym, Geoffrey Crayon.

He was justifiably nervous that his book would soon be the victim of British piracy — an all-too-common occurrence which left the original writer uncompensated. At the time, copyright law protected works within a country but did not protect those same works internationally. Irving, living overseas at the time, enacted a plan he would return to throughout his literary career: find a legitimate, authorized publisher in both the United States and England which will publish the book at about the same time. The American publisher secured copyright in the United States and the English publisher secured the same in that country.

The plan usually worked rather well and helped Irving become the first major American writer to earn a solid reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. It also helped him financially (more or less) and, as his reputation increased, granted him opportunities for business bargains that other authors could only imagine.

Acting quickly on The Sketch Book, he soon found a small publisher — which would quickly turn disastrous. More, as Irving predicted in the letter, in about a month.

*The image above is an undated illustration for "Rip Van Winkle" by artist George Frederick Bensall (1837-1879). The scene depicted is Rip waking up from a 20-year nap. During that time, the colonies established the United States and, perhaps less radically, his clothes and rifle have decayed. The original is in the collection of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, PA.

1 comment:

  1. I didn't know anything about Irving until I read this. Thanks so much.