Think the beating the book market is taking by a slumping economy is a new phenomenon? Think again.
Writing in the latest issue of the journal Common-Place, Fordham University professor Edward Cahill discusses how the rise of easy credit in the early nineteenth century led to a devaluing not only of paper money, but eventually of literary currency as well — culminating in the financial panic of 1819 and the collapse of countless booksellers. Left standing among the debris was Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon. “But if the appearance of the Sketch Book marked the economic development of American literary culture,” Cahill says, “it was also haunted by widespread economic unrest.”
Cahill goes on to explain why The Sketch Book was not only a survivor, but also provided elegant commentary on — and a bit of a eulogy for — the early 19th century publishing industry. Eventually, Cahill concludes, “elite literary culture would be inextricably tied to popular culture, despite many protests to the contrary.” Well put. Once again, almost in spite of himself, Washington Irving shaped our perceptions of popular culture.
Professor Cahill’s article, “The Other Panic of 1819: Irving’s Sketch Book, Literary Overproduction, and the Politics of the ‘Purely Literary,'” can be found right here. Go get it.
This is fascinating. I tend to think the American economy dictated the slow rise of American literature; the first half of the 19th century was loaded with panics and depressions, and this shows the publishing industry was certainly affected.