July 1, 2011

Griswold: purloining the fastest

The first issue of Brother Jonathan was published on July 1, 1839, edited by Parke Benjamin, and with a young Rufus Wilmot Griswold as his assistant. The New York-based publication came about three years before Griswold's anthology of American poetry made him one of the most famous critics in the country.

The Brother Jonathan was only four pages long — but they were very big pages. One friend wrote of it as "up-to-the-sky-to-be-lauded, biggest-of-all-possible-newspapers." They were lucky to take advantage of cheap postal rates at the time and, when they lost control of the newspaper to its publisher, they founded an identical publication called the New World. Oversized broadside newspapers became the rage, ushering a period dominated by "Mammoth Weeklies," as they were nicknamed.

More importantly, the editorial policies at these publications were to pirate previously-published works, including serialized works which had not yet published final installments. Further, Griswold and Benjamin published (read: "pirated") full-length novels in their pages and, under the name of "newspaper," they sold cheaper than actual books at 50 cents a copy, and enjoyed the cheap postal rates that came with the designation "newspaper." Competition drove prices even lower; some of the "Mammoth Weeklies" charged only 6 cents. Book publishers had to slash their own prices to keep up and, though the large format newspaper died out by mid-1844, the effect on the industry was long-lasting: previously, the average price of a new book was $2; it was now 50 cents.

Oddly, throughout it all, Griswold advocated the need for copyright law to prevent literary piracy. A contemporary editor said of Griswold, "He takes advantage of a state of things which he declares to be 'immoral, unjust and wicked,' and even while haranguing the loudest, is purloining the fastest."

*Note: The date for the first issue of Brother Jonathan comes from a biography of Griswold written decades after his death by his son William McCrillis Griswold (who barely knew his father). Much of the book is less than reliable.

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