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Becoming an Author

Paper Presented to the History of the Book in Canada’s Founding Conference
by Mary Lu MacDonald


The book may be analyzed as a stand-alone artifact consisting of paper, printing, binding, design, and other functional characteristics, but unless it contains words or pictures, or both, is it really a book? Without the author, can there be a book?

The history of authorship in Canada illustrates many of the problems involved in producing a History of the Book. This is particularly true of book production in the period before Confederation when the printer and publisher were almost always the same person, and when authorship was perceived as an acceptable leisure activity for some people, but not as a profession.

Questions of economics, demography, social status, gender, transportation, education, politics, genre hierarchies, and printing technology all played a part in changing the status of the author in Canada.

We assume today that we know what we mean when we refer to an “author”. However, when I went to the Oxford English Dictionary to verify the definition I found an interesting gap. The word dates from the fourteenth century, its root is in the French auteur, and meanings related to authority, initiation and creation are listed ahead of the literary usage, which is “One who sets forth written statements; the composer or writer of a treatise or book”. Note that, except tangentially, there is no mention of the poet or novelist, or of the “inspired” writer we generally associate with the word today. Does the OED definition mean that authorship relates only to non-creative texts, or, in the alternative, if the reference to a book is inclusive of creative writing, is the writer of periodical literature not an author? The creators of the subject search list under “authorship” on the National Library’s “Amicus” reveal another problem having to do with the modern definition: - almost all the titles listed are tomes on “how to become an author”, or have to do with marketing one’s literary product.

In the pre-Confederation period in Upper and Lower Canada (Canada East and Canada West from 1841 to 1867) questions of authorship as a source of income and authorship as affecting social status were intertwined. A thriving literary culture was perceived as an important aspect of nationhood, but so was the gentility of the population. Consequently, authorship had some social status, since it was generally perceived as a leisure occupation for the educated and genteel who, it was assumed, wrote poetry, fiction or essays for the private approbation of their friends, and who, if their writing became public, would resort to anonymity. Financial considerations rarely entered into literary production, so the aura of gentility and amateur interest remained in place. Although the occasional widow or orphan - they were always female1- would publish a small volume, pleading the need for cash while asserting both amateurism and gentility, making a profit from writing just wasn’t done - both in the colloquial sense and in the sense of possibility. Most of those who offered books to the public did so by advance subscriptions, thus ensuring that neither the author nor the printer lost money. Making money was not accepted as part of the equation. With the spread of literacy, improvements in printing and paper making, and the resultant rise of magazines, some authors began to be paid small amounts for their contributions2, but no one was paid enough to live on by the Canadian periodical publishers before Confederation and residents of the Canadas remained ambivalent about the concept of earning a living by the pen.

Ambivalence about authorship as a socially-acceptable profession remained throughout the nineteenth century. One of the reasons given for the large percentage of female authors in nineteenth century United States was that “literary” activity still had its aura of gentility and it was therefore acceptable for a woman alone in the world to try to support herself and her family by the pen.3 An 1891 publication, Toronto Old and New by Graham Mercer Adam, in discussing J.H. Hagarty, then Chief Justice of Ontario, but in his youth a frequent contributor to periodicals under his own initials or the pseudonym “Zadig”, also indicates the continuing prevalence of the question of gentility and amateurism. He describes Hagarty at the age of 25: “Besides a well-stored mind, he had attractive social qualities, fine literary tastes, a bright mother wit and the bearing and manners of a gentleman.”4

The social status of authors is difficult to establish empirically, but it is generally accepted by critics in both Britain and the United States that for most of the nineteenth century status was derived from birth, marriage or primary non-authorial occupation. Lawrence Buell has analyzed the New England Literary Culture. From Revolution through Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). He found that the 276 authors whose lives he examined were genteel by comparison with New Englanders at large. Most males had attended college where they had received a classical education, although, with the passage of time, as literature became a commercial activity, many of those for whom literature was the primary source of income were not college educated. Divinity and Law were the most common occupations of the men. Those who attempted to eke out a literary existence as a profession were most often employed as journalists or editors. Women writers were effectively barred from legal, medical, theological, or journalistic careers. Buell finds no pattern as to those who were married, unmarried or widowed, but did find evidence of literary partnership between spouses in about a third of the cases.5 The women’s status would have been derived from their husbands or fathers, the men’s from their family or occupation.

In The Sociology of Authorship6 Richard Altick analyzed the background and occupations of 1100 British writers in the period between 1800 and 1935. Interestingly, Altick bases his class analysis of the writers’ status on the occupations of their fathers. Before 1835 12.7% were upper class, 83.9% middle class and 3.4% lower class. Between 1835 and 1870, 11.3% were upper class, 87.8% middle class and only .9% lower class. In both periods, the greatest concentration of parental occupations is in the professions, government service and the arts. Although information about schooling is difficult to find, Altick suggests that the children of these parents had greater access to education than the children of other social groups and that the “...secondary education of the great majority of English authors was classical in spirit and substance.”7 On the crucial question of who earned their livelihood by the pen, Altick lists a number of caveats, but does suggest that the number certainly grew over the period and that most of those made their principal living as journalists. The extra-literary professions were (more or less in order and using very broad terms) clergy, law, government official, artist, teacher, and physician. He concludes:

...the readers of Great Britain were supplied by authors the great majority of whom had sprung from the “solid” middle class. They had, for the most part, whatever intellectual advantages the formal education of their time offered them; and socially and politically they were, with conspicuous exceptions that come immediately to mind, in sympathy with the attitudes of their class and era.8

My own analysis of 108 writers, in French and English, in the 1817-1850 period in the Canadas9 shows that, except for those who worked as journalists and editors, none of the group made their living by the pen. The information is not available to make an effective comparison of the social class of their fathers10 with that of the British writers studied by Altick, but, although most worked at more than one occupation in their lifetime, Law was definitely the principal occupation of most of the Canadian-born male writers. This is especially true of those who wrote in French. Editors and civil servants were more numerous than those who worked in the other liberal professions, clergy, medicine and military. Most of the native-born writers were young men who were authors only in their youth, and then went on to more financially-rewarding careers. In general, as indicated by their occupations, writers in the Canadas were an educated minority with essentially urban skills. A number of them, usually for partisan political reasons, dabbled in unpaid journalism, but those who were dependent on journalism for their living were generally not well paid and were usually considered to be interchangeable hacks. Their status was low, but they often had access to means of production for their own works. Those who started periodicals certainly hoped to make a profit, and also to give themselves a measure of status as a central figure in indigenous literary culture. In a country in process of development, social status was less dependent on parental class, and more focused on what the individual became on his or her own. In this sense, my results are closer to those of Lawrence Buell for New England than they are to Altick’s for Britain.

The easiest factor to establish in the growth of printing and publishing, and therefore the opportunities for authorship, is the demographic one. In the 1851-52 census report, the population of Canada East and Canada West is given as 1,842,26511. At the same time the population of the United States was given as 23,263,488 and that of Great Britain (without Ireland) 21,121,967. Toronto and Montreal were home to 30,775 and 57,715 respectively. For comparison, the Boston population is given as 135,000 and that of New York as 517,000. Because of the unreliability of statistics for earlier periods it is difficult to analyze population growth before 1851. The figures for Canada East and Canada West in 1861, a total of 2,507,657, show about a 25% increase in population over the previous decade. More people to buy and read newspapers, periodicals and books, more people to produce these, both as writers and printers.

The 1851 census for Montreal shows 56 printers and 24 bookbinders; for Quebec City, 16 bookbinders and 117 printers. In the 1861 census Montreal has 260 printers and 60 bookbinders, with Quebec City having 45 binders and 199 printers. Many of the printers and binders would have been the employees of large establishments: for example, the 1852 Montreal city directory lists 15 printing offices and 21 “Booksellers, Stationers, Bookbinders”12. Since printing presses were resold and upgraded and few printers’ records have survived, no one has been able to establish how many printing presses actually existed in the Canadas at any given date after the first four presses are known to have begun printing, but it is evident, just from the number of community newspapers published, that there was a considerable increase in the number as the nineteenth century progressed. Potential authors, whose numbers must have increased in proportion as the population increased, thus had a greater potential market and a greater possibility of seeing their work in print, regardless of where they lived.

The economics of publishing have been difficult to determine. Few records exist for the pre-Confederation period and none have turned up which show the production costs of a particular work. The records that do exist are difficult to analyze in an empirical manner, since we know that much of the economy operated on a non-cash basis, and since we know so little about the actual cost of living in the nineteenth century.13 Newspapers certainly did not pay those who contributed poetry and fiction to their pages. Only the Literary Garland is known to have paid any of its contributors,14 although it might be said that the Moodies, in editing the Victoria Magazine and writing much of the content, were paid for their contributions to that periodical.

Where monographs are concerned, publication was at the author’s expense, and certainly no one stated publicly that they had made any money from their literary work. We know that most authors solicited advance subscriptions for their work and some were said to sell them from door to door.15 All, or part of, the book’s cost would be paid in advance. Beginning in 1789, when Thomas Cary announced in the Quebec Gazette his “Proposal for Publishing” Abram’s Plains by subscription,16 newspaper advertisements seeking subscriptions for projected books became standard procedure. In the 1829-30 period, the same procedure was followed by Adam Kidd, W. F. Hawley, and Michel Bibaud.17 Not all the books offered to the world in this manner saw the light of day. Adam Hood Burwell advertised unsuccessfully for subscriptions for a 250 page volume of his poetry in the Niagara Gleaner on August 5 1819.18 Before the middle of the nineteenth century the only Canadian author known to have been paid for the rights to a book manuscript, which was then printed at the publisher’s expense, was J. H. Willis, who sold all the rights to his Scraps and Sketches of a Literary Lounger to the Montreal printer and bookseller H. H. Cunningham in 1831.19 Willis was already known to the Montreal public through his contributions to Montreal and Quebec newspapers. Of those whose books were sold by subscription, we only know that Adam Kidd claimed to have sold 1500 copies of The Huron Chief, John Richardson said that fewer than 200 copies of The Canadian Brothers were purchased, the subscription list for Julia Beckwith Hart’s St. Ursula’s Convent contains 147 names, and Walter Henry’s Trifles from my Portfolio had almost 600 names on the subscription list. There is no suggestion that royalties were ever paid to any author before Confederation.20

The two volumes of St. Ursula’s Convent cost 8s 8d in boards; Trifles from My Portfolio, also two volumes, was advertised at 15s in advance and £1 later; The Canadian Brothers, 2 volumes, was $3 in advance and $4 after publication. These were not inconsiderable amounts in an economy in which £200 p/a was a respectable salary and in which many transactions took place by barter. Newspaper readers in smaller centres were encouraged to pay for their subscriptions in rags for papermaking or in wood for the newspaper office stove. The cost of books, in relation to available cash, was a further inhibitor to the development of professional authorship.

In addition to perceptions of personal social status which could affect attitudes to publication of creative work, the works themselves suffered from low status in the eyes of a community which still regarded sermons as the most perfect form of discourse. Poetry was somewhat acceptable if the sentiments were correct, although many considered it a waste of both writing and reading time. Where fiction was concerned, Sir Walter Scott’s novel writing was excused on the grounds that he was repaying the debt of his bankrupt publisher; Dickens was just never considered to be a gentleman. In a time when the objective of literature was “to please and instruct”, with the emphasis on the latter, mistrust of fiction was pervasive. George Brown, writing in his Globe on January 1, 1848, summed up the case against fiction for the masses:

...tales and romances all turning upon scenes of robbery and seduction, both of which are delineated with an infinite amount of particular details of an exciting and unhealthy nature. The robber or the pirate is always made a hero - daring, impassioned, with resolute will, loose character, cruel, and yet chivalric after a rude fashion. ...The betrayed and culpable heroine is a martyr, the disgusting anatomy of whose mind is often attempted to be given, and in whose history and adventures the sympathies of the untutored, and especially female, reader are feverishly engrossed.....A succession of sickly but exciting scenes is kept up - theft, seduction, violence, adultery, and murder, stalk through their pages, as if they were the most commonplace and agreeable things in the world. Contact with such a literature is inevitable corruption. Nothing can prevent it.
In this environment, who would write novels? In pre-Confederation Canada the answer was - only morally-correct older women and the enthusiastic young native-born.21

Added to the question of the social and moral value of creative writing was another level of value perceptions - the hierarchy of value attached to the means of publication. At the bottom there were the literary columns of the local newspaper. Open to all who could pass the editor’s scrutiny, not producing any income, but certainly allowing for some local renown. Even the identity of pseudonymous contributors seems to have been generally known in their own communities. Sometimes, as in the case of J. H. Willis, Adam Kidd and W. F. Hawley, a writer became sufficiently well-known through newspaper publication that their books would attract subscribers. Of the 108 Canadian writers whose works I analyzed, 18 published works in newspapers before they went on to produce monographs.

Literature published in periodicals had higher status than that which appeared in newspapers, since the periodicals were avowedly “serious” publications devoted to cultural objectives. Sixteen of the writers in my study went from publishing in periodicals to the production of monographs, and an additional 16 published in both newspapers and periodicals before their monographs appeared - although there were 7 of those who went this newspaper and periodical route who did not produce a book. Of the newspaper literateurs I could identify, 14 did not publish in any other medium, and 10 individuals published in periodicals only. In none of these categories is there any significant difference between French and English writers.

At the top of the hierarchy of cultural respectability were the 22 who produced a book, without, as far as I can determine, having “come before the public” previously. Of these only 4 produced fiction22, and 3 prose non-fiction23. The remaining 15 were all poets. Since the cost of producing a monograph was borne by the author and/or the subscribers, the 50 who tested the waters in other media before attempting a book seem to have had a realistic approach to the state of publishing. If they couldn’t make money, they could at least make a name for themselves. Almost all the book-only individuals seem to have had an established occupation to support their leisure activity, or to have a charitable purpose - either personal, as in the case of Mary Anne Madden’s Tales of the Olden Time, or social, as in the case of Bishop Mountain’s Songs of the Wilderness.

Availability of education was a basic factor in the development of both writers and the reading public in pre-Confederation Canada. Free, compulsory schooling was not available in the colony. Consequently, like the British and New England authors studied by Altick and Buell, most were sons and daughters of middle class parents who could afford to pay for their children’s education. Almost all the French-Canadian writers had at least some secondary education, having benefited from the proliferation of classical colleges in the 1820s and 1830s. Only 3 of the 15 native-born English-speaking appear to have received secondary education in a formal school setting. The remainder were privately tutored, or self-taught. Most immigrant writers had received some secondary education before they left their native lands. The Scottish education system, which produced so many Hudson’s Bay Company traders, also produced at least a dozen “Canadian” writers. Class was an important factor for female authors, since only the daughters of the well-to-do received a broad enough education to produce a woman interested in authorship. Since this social class did not generally need to emigrate, we find few women among early Canadian authors - and these are mostly wives of men who emigrated for future prospects. The three native-born women writers in English were Julia Hart, the daughter of a former governess who was presumably educated at home, and Mary Graddon Gosselin and Rosanna Mullins, the convent-educated daughters of prosperous Catholic merchants.

Transportation, or the lack thereof, was a factor in the marketing of literary products. One reason why the newspaper was such a popular means of dissemination was that it was nearby and manuscripts could be delivered by hand. The postal service, allied to transportation, was unreliable and postage was expensive. There are records of two of the Literary Garland’s contributors, Mrs. Moodie and Mrs. McLachlan, sending manuscripts to Montreal with people travelling to that city. One effect of the limited availability of transportation was a very regional publishing activity. Although Montreal, Quebec, and Toronto certainly produced most publications, 16 other centres in Upper and Lower Canada were the source of books and periodicals published before 1850. Almost all these works appear to have circulated and been reviewed only in their region of origin. The Literary Garland, which the editors promoted widely throughout British North America, was an exception to this rule, as were the productions of anyone, like John Richardson, perceived to have political motivations.

Politics were of keen interest to most of the residents of the Canadas and a not-uncommon inspiration for writers, particularly the newspaper poets - although there are also two novels and two long poems which are overtly political24, plus a number of others in which politics is part of the sub-text. However, publishing was too fragmented and regional an activity, and too entrepreneurial, for any one party to control either publication or dissemination in its entirety. Well-known reformers published their works in reform newspapers and their attendant printing houses. Presumably the works were bought principally by those with reform sympathies. The same was true on the other side of the political fence. John Richardson’s problems, both as an author and an office-seeker, stemmed from the fact that he had alienated both parties.

Given all the difficulties of establishing a literary culture in a developing country, why did any person choose to become an unpaid and generally unappreciated author? If you weren’t going to be paid for your writing, why bother to emerge from anonymity and leave yourself open to criticism? The mysteries of inspiration apply to the early nineteenth century as well as to today: - a story to tell, an emotion to express, a point of view to publicize - all would play a part. At the most basic level, the author needed sufficient education to write down the result of the inspiration and a means of reaching an audience of some sort. To accomplish this required the right economic, political, social and technological conditions.

The editors of the History of the Book in Canada will have to consider many questions when deciding who, or what, is an author. Is it only the person who produced a monograph and saw it published? Is it only those whose names we know, or do the anonymous have a place in our history? Is it only the writer of poetry or fiction, or does didactic prose count? Is it only those who were able to make a living as writers? Is it only those whose works have been judged in our day to be “good”, or are the unsuccessful important too. Is the act of publishing crucial? It is probably obvious from the foregoing questions that I believe that the History of the Book must include all those authors, amateur and professional, canonical today or known only to specialists, who wrote in all genres and who published in all media appropriate to their time and place, although not necessarily in books.

Is the book as finished artifact all important, or does it have a history?


1. Mary Lu MacDonald. Literature and Society in the Canadas 1817-1850. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992 p. 113-4, mentions “The Widow Fleck” and M. Ethelind Sawtell as examples. Mary Ann Madden (later Mrs. Sadleir) apologized in the preface to Tales of the Olden Time that, suddenly left alone in a strange country, “necessity rather than choice brings me before the public”. There were hints in Montreal papers that Mrs. Blennerhassett whose book of verse “By a Lady” was published there in 1824 was only publishing because she needed the income. Bishop Mountain’s volume of poetry, Songs of the Wilderness, published in England in 1846, as a fundraiser for Bishop’s College in Lower Canada, might also be considered part of this charity genre.

2. Carole Gerson. Canada’s Early Women Writers: Texts in English to 1859. Ottawa: Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, 1991, p. 23 suggests that Susanna Moodie was paidover £250 over an eleven year period by the proprietor of the Literary Garland and at least £350 by her London publisher between 1852 and 1856. In the 1840s people lived modestly on £200 p.a. Senior civil servants were paid four or five hundred pounds p.a.

3. Susan Coultrap-McQuin. Doing Literary Business. American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp.12-15. Coultrap-McQuin also gives (p. 2) percentages of American fiction writers as one-third female before 1830, one half by the 1850s, and three-quarters by 1872. However, Richard Altick in “The Sociology of Authorship: The Social Origins, Education and Occupations of 1100 British Writers 1800-1935” (Writers. Readers and Occasions. Selected Essays in Victorian Literature and Life. Columbus: University of Ohio Press, 1989) p. 97, states that the proportion of female to male writers in the UK remained fairly constant over time, varying between 16 and 22 percent between 1800 and 1935.

4. Toronto: The Mail Printing Company, 1891, p. 58.

5. Pages 378-82.

6. Richard D. Altick. Writers, Readers, and Occasions. Selected Essays on Victorian Literature and Life (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989) pp. 95-109.

7. op.cit., 103.

8. ibid., 107.

9. MacDonald, op.cit., 13-37 and tables 278-283.

10. ibid., 16. The 18 native-born English-speaking are the only ones for whom some parental information is available. Of these, six were raised on farms, the three women and one of the men were the children of prosperous merchants, and three were sons of military officers. Other fathers were a lawyer, a clergyman and an Indian chief.

11. Province of Canada, Board of Registration and Statistics. Census of the Canadas 1851-52. (Quebec: John Lovell, 1853). Province of Canada, Department of Agriculture and Statistics, Census of the Canadas 1861-62 (Quebec: S. B. Foote, 1863). Earlier censuses are incomplete and difficult to document. Helen Taft Manning in The Revolt of French Canada (London: Macmillan, 1962, p. 176) gives Lower Canada figures of 400,000 in 1825 and more than half a million in 1831. J.M.S. Careless in The Union of the Canadas (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967, p.4) gives the 1841 figure for Lower Canada as 650,000 and that for Upper Canada as 450,000. These round figures indicate a level of uncertainty. G.M. Craig’s standard text Upper Canada 1784-1841 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963) gives no population statistics for Upper Canada.

12. R. S. Mackay, The Montreal Directory for 1852 (Montreal: Lovell, 1852).

13. For a discussion of costs and other aspects of the literary distribution system, see Mary Lu MacDonald, Literature and Society in the Canadas 1817-1850 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992) pp. 39-65.

14. Carl Ballstadt, Michael Peterman and Elizabeth Hopkins (eds.) Letters of Love and Duty. The Correspondence of Susanna and John Moodie. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993) p. 153. Susanna Moodie to John Moodie, June I, 1839. “I sent by Cyprian Godard two small MSS. down to Mr.Lovell the Editor of the Garland, for which I asked £5. He has returned me a very kind gentlemanly answer, accepting the MSS and promising to transmit the money the first of June. He likewise hopes that any papers I can spare I will send him putting upon each a price and if they can possibly afford to purchase them they will.”

15. A letter writer in the Montreal Gazette, June 7, 1830, mocked Adam Kidd for going door-to-door selling subscriptions for The Huron Chief. In the context of writing about the difficulties of being a poet in mid-nineteenth century Canada, W. W. Smith in his unpublished Reminiscences tells of another poet, W. A. Stephens, selling his book from door-to-door.

16. Quebec Gazette, January 8,1789.

17. Robert Sweeny’s book of poetry Odds and Ends was printed in Montreal in 1826. While I have found announcements of its publication, I have not seen any requests for subscriptions.

18. Most of those who advertised unsuccessfully are now unknown, since their books never did appear. However, W. F. Hawley also solicited subscriptions for a History of Canada which was never published.

19. Quebec Mercury, January II, 1831. G. L. Parker, p. 18, has misinterpreted his source reference. Willis’ book was never published elsewhere.

20. Coultrap-McQuin op.cit. 40, states that royalty payments in the U.S. went from 10% in the 1840s to15% or more in the 1850s, then settled down to 10-15% between 1860 and 1890. William Charvat in Literary Publishing in America 1790-1850 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959) states p.41, that native writers received no royalties in the early 1820s, hence “...when Irving and Cooper found that they could produce literature of commercial value, they followed the established custom and financed their own works ....” He also states, p. 66, that Longfellow was the first native American poet whose works would sell in the U.S.

21. Chauveau, Holmes, Hawley, Barthe, De Gaspé, Beardsley, Doutre, Boucher de Boucherville, and Hart as young native-bom. Moodie, Bayley, Leprohon, and Madden with moral tales. Levi Adams and J. H. Willis published short stories.

22. De Gaspé fils, Charles Beardsley, Julia Beckwith Hart, and Leblanc de Marconnay. The latter’s work was a play.

23. Maximilien Bibaud, John Gaisford, and Henry Wilton.

24. Beardsley’s The Victims of Tyranny, Trobriand’s Le Rebelle, F. B. Ryan’s The Spirit’s Lament, and John Newton’s The Emigrant and other Pieces.

Mary Lu MacDonald
Independent Scholar, Halifax, Nova Scotia
jbmlmac@ns.sympatico.ca