The Penalties of Authorship

George Justice
University of Missouri–Columbia

The Trouble with Ownership (Pennsylvania, 2005), Jody Greene’s compelling study of the history of authorship, copyright, and liability in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, concludes with a gesture to wider politics: the stories the book tells “serve to remind us that ‘freedom from dependence’ is never more than a fantasy for the liberal subject and that, were we ever to approach it, the dangers associated with independence would unquestionably outweigh its benefits” (217). The author brings us to this stirring conclusion through an analysis of the history of proclamations and laws regarding authorial liability from the time of Henry VIII through to the Copyright Act of 1710, finally placing in this context close readings of aspects of the careers of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, John Gay, and Anne Dodd, a dealer of pamphlets whose name graced the imprints of a number of important eighteenth-century works, including The Dunciad. Greene provides reinterpretations of these various legal and personal histories designed to influence literary historians and critics who have, as Greene points out, been mired in the rut of literary property without considering legal liability. Greene’s study convincingly demonstrates that the notion of an authorial “freedom from dependence” was indeed illusory in the eighteenth century. The “dangers” described by the book, though, seem more the product of oppressive governments and jealous rivals than inherent in the notion of independent authorship itself.

Beginning with Foucault’s “What is an Author?” and Derrida’s Limited Inc., Greene argues that conventional cultural histories of authorship and copyright are Whig histories that wrongly progress to a dissociation of authors’ property rights from their liability. Rather, before, during, and after the Copyright Act of 1710, the government, booksellers, and the authors themselves understood that with the benefit of copyright came an increased liability for authors who could now be linked with their “naughty books.” The negotiation between the benefits of property and the penalties of liability characterized authorship even after 1710; the form and content of literary works in the early modern period must be understood in a more complex situation than we have often seen it.

The phrase “naughty books” comes from a proclamation of Henry VIII in 1538. Greene uses it repeatedly to bring together all sorts of books that incurred the wrath of governing powers or, in the case of The Dunciad, a range of rival literary professionals. Greene demonstrates the great cultural and legal importance of the author even before 1710. Even when proclamations, investigations, and punishments affected booksellers and even readers as well as authors, for those in charge the author was the main spring of offense. Booksellers were often punished as the responsible party in the case of an unknown author. That much is obvious, but Greene reinterprets the data to show that in most cases the authorities had a sense of “authorship” and were using proxies like printers and booksellers specifically in order to try to reach the authors of the naughty works. Greene provides engaging histories of the cases of John Twyn, Henry Carr, and Elizabeth Cellier in order to make her point. Roger L’Estrange is the common villain post-1660, and Greene does an excellent job of illuminating his role as chief theorist as well as executor of Restoration-era attempts to repress objectionable writing.

In Part II of the book, Greene offers close readings of aspects of the careers and works of Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, and John Gay. Defoe is the early eighteenth-century counterpart to Roger L’Estrange: although he suffered in the pillory (and made a lot of money by capitalizing on his fame for doing so), Defoe emerges as an influential theoretician of a notion of literary property linked not to Lockean liberalism but to the State’s continuing interest in being able to identify and punish the writers of supposedly seditious works. Defoe’s Essay on the Regulation of the Press presciently sets out the terms of this equation of property benefits and legal liability. Greene argues that even if the actual Act of 1710 seems to ignore the issue of liability, it was always there in practice as well as in the debate leading to its passage.

To demonstrate this, she turns to Pope and Gay. Greene argues that neither of these writers achieves the “independence” that historians of authorship, following the author himself, have attributed to Pope. Both, instead, shield themselves culturally with women “patrons,” Anne Dodd in the case of Pope and the Duchess of Queensbury in the case of Gay. Gay turns out, in this account, to be the more heroic of these two oft-paired authors. Gay, at least, proclaimed his property (and liability) for Polly on the title page, allowing him ultimately (and posthumously) to win his Chancery suit against the pirate booksellers who capitalized on the play’s instant success as a printed work. Pope’s unauthorized use of Dodd as the only name on the title page of The Dunciad and The Dunciad Variorum, on the other hand, shielded him from legal liability (if not, perhaps, the physical retribution of the “dunces”). It allowed the pirate booksellers to argue their case that the work did not fall under the provisions of the copyright legislation. The publication histories of The Dunciad and Polly have been told before, but Greene’s placing them in the context of seventeenth-century cases and the writings and career of Defoe allows her to demonstrate what has been left out not only of these particular cases but also our broader understanding of literary property.

For a cultural history of authorship over a two-century expanse, The Trouble with Ownership is highly specific and therefore almost necessarily partial. Greene focuses on legal proclamations from the sixteenth century onward, giving obscure but very interesting cases the spotlight. Showing us the underside of seventeenth-century authorship allows us to see one way in which the “major author” careers of Pope and Gay are grounded in earlier debates that have little to do with conventionally understood literary merit. Defoe provides the connection between the literary underworld and the triumphalism of the Scriblerians, and he is strangely (but appropriately) both the victim of continuing authorial liability and its greatest eighteenth-century advocate. I wished for equivalent coverage of similar promoters of authorship from the seventeenth century. The book’s historical breadth would seem to demand that certain authors and major incidents be covered, but we see nothing of Ben Jonson, and there is nary a reference to suppressed and politically controversial works like Middleton’s Game at Chess. Pope’s self-proclaimed authorial mentor, John Dryden, does not appear in the index and Milton receives scant reference as the author of Areopagitica. There are no index entries for Aphra Behn or Andrew Marvell. And what about Swift and his Drapier’s Letters or Gulliver’s Travels?

Moving from famous authors to the production process, the book includes only secondary analysis of the Stationers’ Company, whose role both before and after the Copyright Act of 1710—de jure and de facto—was crucial for issues of both literary property and authorial liability. Pope and Gay are fascinating examples of authors attempting to wrest the machinery of publication away from booksellers in order to print “for themselves,” and some additional context would have helped readers understand what led to the strange machinations behind the publication of The Dunciad and Polly. (Greene does discuss the issue of subscription publication and Pope’s supposed “independence” from patronage, and it would be pointless and page-wasting for her to summarize a book like David Foxon’s Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade.[1] Without some of this background information, however, the detailed story Greene tells of the publication of The Dunciad lacks crucial professional context.) As The Trouble with Ownership mentions, but does not explore, Pope used a male bookseller, Lawton Gilliver, in the publication of The Dunciad as well as (at least the name of) Anne Dodd, a female mercury. Gilliver, like Robert Dodsley after him, was a newcomer to the trade who was bankrolled by Pope and served largely to do Pope’s bidding. Examples of authors working with established booksellers, either in ways that benefited the authors or continued to shortchange them, would have provided some nuance to the book’s argument.

Greene’s discussion of the publication of “naughty books” contributes a great deal to our understandings of the literary world as a whole, but it is unclear whether the peculiar circumstances of the writers and booksellers she discusses with such energy and zest can support the weight of the entire argument. Yes, for many writers and publishers legal liability (and physical liability in the guise of the fear of being beaten) affected the literature they produced, whether inhibiting it or encouraging it as a potentially profitable challenge to the regulatory mechanisms of the culture. But professional authorship was no more the direct outgrowth of writing “naughty books” than the careers of professional directors such as Steven Spielberg stem from the production of “naughty films” like Deep Throat.

In a sense, such criticism is unfair, since any book covering so much ground—and doing so in such an original and interesting way—is going to make strong readings that overstate its case and bypass issues important to its central claims. Still, there are certain cultural and legal issues that should not have been occluded in the book. For example, the kind of personal libel that Pope risked with The Dunciad seems different from the crime of seditious libel (let alone “treason”) for which L’Estrange persecuted seventeenth-century writers, but the book does not adequately differentiate among various crimes of publication.

Finally, it is a truism that “owning” a literary work requires registering one’s authorship, at least to the bookseller who publishes the work and takes in the proceeds from its sale. It is also a truism that such registered authorship makes one subject to prosecution for libel, and whether we prefer the greater protection for the writers of potentially libelous material offered by the law of the United States or the less author-friendly laws of the United Kingdom, most people in the real world would defend the existence of libel law as a principle of communication in a well-functioning public sphere (or marketplace of ideas, or whichever bourgeois, yet unavoidable, metaphor you choose). Even in its time period, Pope’s “naughty book” was different from Defoe’s “Shortest Way with the Dissenters.” Greene also misses the opportunity to link the important practice of authorial anonymity—recently analyzed in detail by Marcy North for the earlier period and in a collection edited by Robert Griffin for the later—to her own arguments.[2] A connection is hinted at, but more analysis would help us understand better the cultural effects of proprietary authorship.

The most original element of the book involves its focus on gender. Greene demonstrates that gender was crucial in subtle ways to the legal and cultural program enabled by the Copyright Act of 1710. Authors, the book states, needed the protection of women to make the legislation to protect (or establish) their interests. Not only did Pope need Anne Dodd and Gay the Duchess of Queensbury, but both authors themselves had to adopt the position of women vis-à-vis the literary marketplace. A look at the literary careers of a couple of women writers—perhaps one before 1695 and one in the early eighteenth century—might have either further complicated or better clarified the ways in which systems of gender intersected with the histories of authorship, authorial liability, and literary property. The section on Elizabeth Cellier is interesting, but her literary career is perhaps too “minor” for her case to bear much of the argument’s weight. It seems to me that gender could have been more pervasively present as part of the argument and as an influence on the examples chosen than it is in the book as it stands. However, by highlighting the ways in which authors assumed liability along with literary property not only by accident, but by design, Greene provides scholars interested in the intertwined legal and cultural histories of authorship with an important new intervention that will force them to reconsider their earlier work and will help to shape all such research in the future.


[1] David Foxon, Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade, rev. ed.James McLaverty (Oxford, 1991).

[2] Marcy L. North, The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England (Chicago, 2003); and Robert J. Griffin, The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (New York, 2003).