Before the International Copyright Act of 1891 was passed, the American literary marketplace was saturated with unauthorized reprints of British texts. Neither British nor American authors had any legal claim to income derived from the foreign sale of their texts, which meant that texts from the other side of the Atlantic held great potential for profit to reprinters. While there was some British reprinting of American texts, it was mostly an American business, with American publishing houses and periodicals capitalizing on the “vestigial high-cultural value” attached to British literature in the American marketplace. When Charles Dickens – whose works had been reprinted in America on a massive scale – expressed his support of international copyright during a visit to America in 1842, the American press cast the issue rhetorically as a clash of nations. This rhetoric was calculated to chime with the “Manifest Destiny” doctrine and concomitant policies of Jacksonian democracy. As the American government sought to expand its territory across the continent, it clashed with its British counterpart over the borders of New York (1837) and Maine (1839) and over the territories of Oregon (1841-46). As a result, the threat of a new war between Great Britain and America loomed throughout the 1830s and 40s. By presenting Dickens as a greedy, aristocratic snob, out to destroy the selfless American reprinters who sought only to democratize learning, American opponents made international copyright a symbolic focal point for ideological, cultural and economic differences between Great Britain and America.
For the most part, current scholarship has taken the highly constructed nationalized stakes in the national copyright debate at face value, arguing that Great Britain was in favor of international copyright, while America was not. My project challenges this view by positing that the debate was split along political, cultural, and professional lines, rather than along strictly national ones. It demonstrates this point by examining the work done on Dickens’s behalf in the American periodical press by the Harvard-based coterie that dubbed itself the “Five of Clubs” (in tribute to the “Pickwick Club”). The members of this group, unequivocally a part of America’s cultural elite through their links to academia and the legal profession, acted as the rearguard of Dickens’s international copyright campaign. As such, they became local markers in the ideologically laden international copyright question and fundamentally subverted the nationalized stakes of the debate. Groups like the “Five of Clubs” are remarkable because they bridge the gap between quasi-belligerent nations, gesturing towards the “special relationship” between Great Britain and America before it became policy.
This project takes its cues from Amanda Claybaugh’s “New Transatlanticism,” in that it not only attends to nations but also recognizes the ability and importance of (groups of) individuals operating across national boundaries. The “Five of Clubs” was composed of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), Cornelius Conway Felton (1807-1862), Charles Sumner (1811-1874), George Stillman Hillard (1808-1879), and Henry Russell Cleveland (1808-1843), who was replaced after his untimely death by Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876). From the club’s inception in 1836 to 1842, these men convened regularly to share their appreciation of Dickens’s work. From 1842 onwards, however, after meeting Dickens during his American tour, they also began acting as Dickens’s proxies in the American literary marketplace after Dickens’s withdrawal from American publishing in July of that year. Very little work has been done on how the “Five of Clubs” informed American attitudes towards Dickens and Britain on the one hand, and American self-imagining on the other. Through an archival excavation of the “Five of Clubs,” my project aims to address that lacuna, and demonstrate how transnational informal networks of the mid-nineteenth century prefigured the current privileged Anglo-American relationship.