This essay examines early nineteenth-century US literature that fought for increased compensation and copyright protection for authors. Instead of dismissing this literature as a form of complaint, as many scholars do, I take writers’ concerns seriously, but I also look at the difficulty even professional writers faced in mounting any kind of case for themselves as paid creative personnel. Even when writers made a rational argument to explain why they should be paid more, they tended to undermine themselves, invariably intimating that writers as a group were better off impoverished. These difficulties, I argue, arose not just from the systems of industrial publishing but also from the systems of political value instituted by art in what Jacques Rancière calls the “aesthetic regime.” I pursue this hypothesis by examining contemporary texts that argue for authors’ rights alongside Rebecca Harding Davis’s tale of tragic artistic labor, “Life in the Iron Mills.”

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