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In the 1840s and 1850s, as the market revolution swept the United States, the world of literature confronted for the first time the gaudy glare of commercial culture. Amid growing technological sophistication and growing artistic rejection of the soullessness of materialism, authorship passed from an era of patronage and entered the clamoring free market. In this setting, romantic notions of what it meant to be an author came under attack, and authors became professionals.
In lively and provocative writing, David Dowling moves beyond a study of the emotional toll that this crisis in self-definition had on writers to examine how three sets of authors—in pairings of men and women: Harriet Wilson and Henry David Thoreau, Fanny Fern and Walt Whitman, and Rebecca Harding Davis and Herman Melville—engaged with and transformed the book market. What were their critiques of the capitalism that was transforming the world around them? How did they respond to the changing marketplace that came to define their very success as authors? How was the role of women influenced by these conditions?
Capital Letters concludes with a fascinating and daring transhistorical comparison of how two superstar authors—Herman Melville in the nineteenth century and Stephen King today—have negotiated the shifting terrain of the literary marketplace. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of print culture and literary work.