Making it on the American Grub Street: Hired Pens, Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print

Making it on the American Grub Street: Hired Pens, Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print

0821412043Last month I posted here about Researching the Habits of Highly Prolific Authors for a book I’m working on. Black Gate reader John Hocking kindly suggested in the comments section that I read Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America’s Golden Age of Print, by Ronald Weber. I took him up on his advice and I’m sure glad I did.

This book looks at the careers of writing and editing from the nation’s earliest days until the end of World War Two. Weber shows us a parade of successful writers and editors — many well-known to this day, many more now forgotten — who found success in the ever-changing market for American popular periodicals.

Until the middle of the 19th century, American writers were hampered by the lack of international copyright laws. Newspaper and magazine editors filched English publications for free and saw no reason to pay homegrown talent. As the population grew and both American and British writers managed to get their governments to set up legal barriers to such theft, the market for American writing blossomed.

These writers certainly didn’t waste their time moaning about their lack of inspiration and hoping the muse would visit them. As prolific and successful Western writer Zane Grey said in a letter to a friend:

This morning I had no desire to write, no call, no inspiration, no confidence, no joy. I had to force myself. But when I mastered the vacillation and dread, and had done a day’s work — what a change of feelings. I had a rush of sweet sensations.

This is a common thread throughout the book. In example after example, we are shown that writer’s block is a myth and that writers should not — indeed, must not — sit around all day twiddling their thumbs. These writers worked hard.

David Graham Phillips, who at the beginning of the 20th century worked as a journalist, producing hundreds if not thousands of articles, wrote bestselling novels and short stories at night after his day job was done. He said of his method:

I write every night, from about eleven until about four or five or six in the morning. Sometimes seven or eight… Let me urge you to work the same hours every day and never, never, never to let anything or anyone interfere between you and working at those hours. I write every night — seven days a week. I don’t wait for mood or inspiration, and I don’t give up because I don’t begin right or am writing rubbish. I think it’s fatal to give way to moods. And I’m not a bit afraid to throw away everything I’ve written, or to edit my stuff to the bone.

Some of these writers never seemed to have done anything other than write. One such was Irvin S. Cobb, who worked as a reporter while simultaneously writing fiction. And when I say simultaneously, I mean simultaneously. He wrote novels while covering murder trials. He wrote on the train or while eating breakfast. His friend Robert Davis said he was the only person he knew who could write while having a conversation at the same time.

From almost the start, the top ranks of American writers included a sizable number of women. One such, Lydia H. Sigourney, first made a name for herself as a poet, at a time when one could make a living selling poems to newspapers. Her first book of verse came out in 1815, followed by more than 60 books of poetry and prose over a lucrative half century of production. Many of them went through multiple editions on both sides of the Atlantic. During her height in the 1830s and 40s her byline was everywhere, being a regular in all the major periodicals. Godey’s Lady’s Magazine paid her $500 a year for the right to put her on the masthead and write regular columns about her busy social and travel calendar. Anything she actually wrote for the magazine earned her extra.

The hard work of these men and women paid off. As the title suggests, it truly was a golden age for writers, with pay scales in the better magazines far higher than what they are today. For example, in 1931 Cosmopolitan, which at that time was marketed towards the entire family, paid $3,000 for articles, $5,000 for stories, and $40,000 for serial novels. This at a time when the per capita income stood at $6,238. The magazine could do this because of its incredible reach — 1.7 million monthly circulation in a nation with a population of 124 million.

Of course not all magazines paid so well, and for every Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell there were a thousand writers hacking away for underpaying publications and worrying about how they would pay the rent. I would have liked it if Weber had spoken more about these magazines and writers. Of course, most of these writers have been lost to history, but H.P. Lovecraft, who is barely mentioned in the book, is a perfect example. At times, Lovecraft existed on literally starvation wages while anxiously waiting for late payments from uncaring editors. This is well documented in his hundreds of detailed letters. It’s too bad that Weber didn’t look into these letters, or the stories of the countless short-lived magazines that failed during this golden age. Perhaps he would have had to change his subtitle to Gilded Age!

Indeed, the focus is on the newspaper industry (which was a major publisher of poetry and fiction until the turn of the last century) and the “slicks” like Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post, which initiated the practice of payment on acceptance much to the delight of contributors. Dime novels and pulp magazines are given coverage, but not nearly as much as I suspect the average Black Gate reader would like.

Still, this is a fascinating book and essential reading for anyone interested in the history of the American publishing industry and how writers lived in previous generations. Filled with humorous and enlightening anecdotes and written in a clear and compelling style, it’s also an inspiration for any writer out there that you really can make it on the American Grub Street.

So, Black Gate readers, any other suggestions for what I should read?

Sean McLachlan is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and several other titles, including his post-apocalyptic series Toxic World that starts with the novel Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

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Hugh B. Cave’s Magazines I Remember is a short book about his work while writing for the pulps and Frank Gruber’s The Pulp Jungle is a chronicle of his experiences as a writer fro same. I carried away the sense of their work ethic and stick to it thru thick and thin as writers though it would appear of course the emphasis for them was to make a living not create ‘Literature’.

Thomas Parker

I just came across this, from a letter that John McPhee wrote to his daughter:

Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short , you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes , while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

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