Anna Cora Mowatt and Her Publishers

Anna Cora Mowatt and her Publishers

I came to the idea of devoting a blog entry to the topic of Anna Cora Mowatt’s publishers after reading Matthew Pearl’s “The Last Dickens”. I was pleasantly surprised to find that large parts of the book are set in the offices of Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, publishers of Mowatt’s autobiography and “Mimic Life.” James Ripley Osgood, who became a partner after Ticknor retired and Reed left, is the book’s protagonist. The novel chronicles Osgood’s fictional, but very engaging adventures as he tries to recover the last chapters of Charles Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”

I recommend the book. It’s satisfying summer reading — though, depending on what brings you to this blog, you may not have the added thrill of seeing the names of people you’ve set down dryly in footnotes thousands of times spring vividly to life in narrative form. Subplots in the book about the simmering conflict between Boston’s Ticknor & Fields and New York’s Harper Brothers also set me to reflecting that Victorian publishing was neither the prim, gentlemanly occupation we might assume it to have been nor anything like the multi-media, impenetrable, international corporate machines that exist today.

I’m afraid I don’t have any stories of adventure or intrigue that can rival the one Matthew Pearl spun for James Osgood, however, there are some surprisingly eccentric characters here. I do also think that looking at the personal and financial dynamics at work behind the scenes in the publication of her work can add to our understanding of Mowatt’s life and career. She had atypical success for an American woman of the early 1800s not only because of her intelligence and talent, but also from having the correct connections at the correct moment. Examining some of her rather unique circumstances can help us see why it was difficult for other less fortuitously situated women to duplicate her lightening-in-a-bottle success.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Perhaps later I will come back to this topic and talk about some of the many periodicals where Mowatt was able to place her work, but for today, I picked three publishers of her novels and one publisher of her non-fiction.


One of Mowatt’s first publishers was her husband, James. He set up a small publishing firm with the goal in mind of promoting his young wife’s work. The endeavor was a sort of a deluxe version of a vanity press. James Mowatt was very wealthy at this point in time. I think we biographers fail to give readers a sufficient idea of how rich he was when he married Anna Cora. Usually, he’s just described as “a lawyer.” He was the son of John Mowatt, a wealthy industrialist, whose company built steamboats. James Mowatt wasn’t just a struggling junior partner somewhere. He had his own firm and a team of clerks who worked for him. He had townhouse in Manhattan and a mansion in the suburbs. He could afford to open a publishing firm for his wife that was actually a real publishing house. It didn’t last very long because he didn’t know what he was doing, but it was a bona fide business and published several books that were not all by his wife.

The most important aspect of this publishing venture was that it brought the Mowatts into contact with Epes Sargent. A native of Boston, Sargent at this time was living in New York writing poems and short stories for various publications and editing for several newspapers. It’s not clear if he submitted material to the Mowatts, worked for them as an editor, or just became acquainted with them as a fellow member of New York’s literary scene, but it was at this time that Sargent became James and Anna Cora’s lifelong friend.

I cannot over-stress how significant Epes Sargent was to Anna Cora Mowatt’s career. He made her overnight success possible. He told her about the novel-writing contest for The New World and pointed her towards one of her short stories that could be expanded. She won the contest and launched her career as a novelist. He suggested that she write “Fashion,” and helped get it read by the manager of the Park Theatre. This launched her career as a playwright and subsequently as an actress. Mowatt’s correspondence reveals that Sargent was the editor for all her major works, no matter who was her publisher. When Sargent eventually became the Arts and Literature editor for the Boston Evening Transcript, he did a lot of important, behind-the-scenes work to make sure she got good press. Even when she died, Epes Sargent was there, making sure the proper final arrangements were made and everything was paid for. The husbands came and went, but Epes Sargent was always present when Anna Cora Mowatt needed him.


Anna Cora Mowatt’s “Autobiography of an Actress; or Eight Years on the Stage” was a bestseller for Ticknor & Fields when they published it in December of 1853. Although the list price was dear $1.25, they sold 20,000 copies and put out a second edition in 1859 of 500 more. Mowatt received a royalty of 15% on each copy, netting somewhere around $3,700.1 No wonder that her letter of July of 1855 to her publishers begins,

I echo your cry of “Give! Give!” If Heaven will but give me health enough to sit up and strength enough to hold a pen – or an amanuensis like May Thompson to whom I can dictate lying down, I will certainly “give” you the desired m.s. all in good time.2

By September, though, she had supplied her publishers with what she termed “a pile of m.s. of “Mimic Life”3 which is actually a collection of three novellas about theatrical life. The book was another critical and finical success for Mowatt and her publishers. “Twin Roses,” a fourth story, originally intended to be included in “Mimic Life,” but extended to full novel length by Mowatt with material to help promote the Mt. Vernon Association, was less favorably reviewed (including a tepid review in The Atlantic Monthly, which was a publication run by Ticknor & Fields), but sold fairly well.

George Ticknor and James Fields, although generous and gentlemanly, had something of a reputation of pushing their favorite authors to produce. A popular anecdote recalls James Fields regretfully placing an unfinished manuscript in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grave where he served as pallbearer.4 In spite of their demands for material; Mowatt seemed to have had a very friendly relationship with Ticknor and Fields, who sent an expensive gift to her wedding and paid visits to her home. She closed one letter,

To the “writer’s” sweet young wife “yclept Annie” I send my best love united to a hope that she is as happy as I wish her to be and that she is as willing as I am to look upon conjugal happiness as one of the blessings that daily increases.

My kindest regards to the writer’s partner “yclept Ticknor” and remembrance to all friends – not forgetting one of the oldest (not in years) and most valued – the “writer’s” self.5

Feelings of personal connection notwithstanding, Mowatt felt free to ask favors in return for the manuscripts she delivered. In addition to the original material she provided, she also granted the rights to Ticknor & Fields to print new versions of her plays Fashion and Armand as well as the novels The Fortune Hunter and Evelyn. She and James Mowatt had taken in three English orphans Margret, John, and William Gray, who were now teenagers. The couple had never taken steps to adopt any of the children, but had paid for their upkeep and education for many years.

It seems that Mowatt’s second husband, William Foushee Ritchie, didn’t feel under any obligation to maintain this relationship, because Mowatt’s letters to her publishers show her asking for advances on royalties to help defray costs for expenses concerning them. She even sought to get the oldest boy, John, a job at the company.6

Mowatt may have been steered towards the Boston-based publish firm of Ticknor & Fields by her good friend and fellow Bostonian, Epes Sargent. Although he was not an employee of that company, Sargent served as primary editor and proofreader for all her work she published. Most of her letters to her publishers mention Sargent and his on-going contributions to her writing process.


Although I don’t have any documentation of what kind of remuneration Robert Bonner offered Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie to write for The New York Ledger, I strongly suspect that money was what lured her away from Ticknor & Fields. Bonner was famous for the fabulous amounts he was willing to spend on his authors – male and female. Remember that this was still at a time when female authors were looked upon as a great, untalented nuisance to the publishing world. Lady authors were nicknamed “bluestockings” because jokesters claimed they were too dirty, deranged, and lazy to maintain clean white stockings like “normal” women would. Despite this prevailing prejudice, Robert Bonner was paying Mrs. E.D.E.N Southworth $10,000 per year to write serialized novels and sharing his editorial page with Fanny Fern. In their respective columns, Bonner and Fern traded opinions on issues as trivial as the advisability of long engagements or as serious as the lack of standardized legal repercussions for spousal abuse.

As you can tell, I’ve fallen a little in love with the Ledger. I had heard of the publication, but now I have actually flipped through whole issues and witnessed its quirky Victorian popular culture magnificence in full. Bonner designed the publication to appeal to middle class women, saying,

“When I first bought the LEDGER…. I pictured to myself an old lady in Westchester with three daughters, aged about twenty, sixteen and twelve, respectively. Of an evening they come home from a prayer meeting and not being sleepy, the mother takes up the LEDGER and reads aloud to the girls. From the first day I got the LEDGER to the present time there has never appeared one word which the old lady in Westchester County would not like to read to her daughters.”6

Remarkably, he was able to keep the price of the Ledger low ($2.00 per year for a subscription) while running no advertising within its pages. Bonner was famous, though, for the unusual and incredibly expensive advertising for his paper he ran in other publications.

As I said, I do not at this point have any documentation of how much money Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie received for writing for the Ledger. I have no doubt that it was a substantial amount, though. She seemed to have an established and congenial relationship with Ticknor & Fields. Her husband owned a newspaper. Granted, the Richmond Enquirer was a political publication, not a literary one. However, she had been submitting anonymous literary and theatrical reviews for some time. At any rate, given Robert Bonner’s track record of making princely offers to celebrity authors, I’ll bet she was well remunerated for her contributions to the Ledger.

Mowatt may have met Bonner through her work with the Mt. Vernon Association. She was very active in the drive to raise money to preserve George Washington’s home in the years 1856-1860. She organized several fund-raising events in New York during that time. Bonner was a major donor. In the fall of 1858, he offered a $10,000 per year contract to Edward Everett to write for the Ledger about Washington’s life and the Mt. Vernon Association’s efforts.7 In 1859, Mowatt started writing for the Ledger. Mowatt was the person who had initially approached Everett about doing speaking engagements and writing editorials in support of the Association. Bonner could have met the two separately, but there’s a very good possibility that he might have met both at the many glittering fund-raising events she organized in New York such as a special benefit performance by Laura Keane’s company of “Our American Cousin,” a reading by Edwin Booth from “Romeo and Juliet,” or a tableaux vivant of the poem Paradise and the Peri staged in the mansion of one of the city’s “upper ten.”

Again, this is something that I have no documentation to support, but I believe the novel “Fairy Fingers” was written to be serialized in the Ledger. “The Mute Singer” appeared in serial form from January 6 to March 30, 1861. Bonner lavished unusual amount of editorial praise on the novel, reprinting positive responses to the narrative from both a mother in Wauskon, Ohio and the Empress Eugenie. However, the U.S. Civil War interrupted Mowatt’s relationship with the Ledger for some reason. Although Bonner continued to list her among his contributors and post promises of an upcoming novel from her in 1862 and 1863, there were no new contributions from Mowatt until 1866. Before her death in 1870, she wrote an article and three short stories for the Ledger, but no novel. “Fairy Fingers” was published in 1865 by G.W. Carleton. With its fifty-seven chapters neatly divided into dramatic, romantic, or comic episodes, it would have made a wonderful serialized novel for the Ledger in my opinion. Why it did not remains a mystery.


Finally, I include George W. Carleton, the publisher of her last works, not because I have a lot of information about her relationship with him, but as a kind of a placeholder, because I would like to have more. In addition to being a successful publisher and a shrewd businessman, Carleton was himself an author and what we would today term a cartoonist. “Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers” by J. C. Derby gives an account of Carleton’s career that drops every name in 19th century U.S. literature. Mowatt gets a couple of brief mentions, but only in the connection with other author’s work, not her own.

Morris Phillips, writing in the New York Times, recounts the origins of the unique trademark of Carleton’s publishing house as follows:

All of Carleton’s friends remember the quaint little bird, drawn with two or three strokes of the pen, which invariably accompanied his signature. The curious little device, which was the emblem or trademark of his publishing house and which appeared with the imprint of all his publications, Carleton told me was the Arabic for the word “books.” George W. Carleton was a successful publisher, an honest man, a sincere friend, and a true artist.8

The Library of Congress number for all the Carleton publications (except “Fairy Fingers” which was registered by Carleton) was obtained by Mary G. Thompson. (Brace yourself – This is going to get a bit “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” for a bit.) Mary Thompson was Mowatt’s sister and wife of artist Cephas Giovanni Thompson. Mowatt lived with the Thompsons off and on after she left the U.S. The Thompsons were close friends with author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family. Hawthorne in turn was friends with author Thomas Bailey Aldrich who worked for G.W. Carleton as a literary critic in the early 1860’s. So if Mowatt, who was living in Italy in 1864, was looking for a publisher for “The Mute Singer” and “Fairy Fingers” and for some reason didn’t want to go back to Ticknor & Fields – which was now Fields & Osgood – she could have heard through her sister-in-law that her husband’s friend Nathaniel Hawthorne said that his friend Tom Aldrich had a good things to say about Carleton…Well, perhaps. The connection does not have to be that complex. G. W. Carleton and Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie were both New Yorkers who moved in the same sort of cosmopolitan literary circles. They could have encountered each other directly while she was still in the United States or via Carleton’s contacts in Europe during her years abroad. Carleton was having great success publishing translations of French authors such as Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac. Mowatt-Ritchie was born in Bordeaux. “The Mute Singer” and “Fairy Fingers” are both set in France. Perhaps their initial connection was that simple.

IN CONCLUSION, I hope this quick review of Mowatt’s relationship with some of her publishers gives you a new perspective a some of the behind-the-scenes forces at work in her career. She was a woman of great intelligence — multi-talented, and incredibly hard-working. However, she also benefited from extraordinary opportunities available to her as a byproduct of her birth into a privileged class of American society. Compare Mowatt for a moment to her near-contemporary Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, a lawyer’s daughter, was not poor. Because of her family’s affluence, she, like Mowatt, was well-educated and had a very unusual amount of leisure time to devote to developing her skills as a writer that was not at all typical for a young Victorian woman. Like Mowatt, she knew how to compose effective correspondence with the editors of literary publications. However, despite what we recognize today as her literary genius, fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson had to take on the full force of the gender-based prejudices against women writers that were active in her day virtually un-aided when we compare her to Mowatt. She did not have a husband who created a publishing firm to produce her works. She did not become best friends with someone like Epes Sargent who would found his own literary magazine, publish her poems, encourage her, introduce her to people who would further her career, and then later go on to edit the Arts and Literature section of one of the most influential papers of the U.S. and serve as her champion and advisor. She didn’t have a second and third career as an actress and novelist that would bring her a great deal of added publicity, gain international fame, then become widowed, and marry a second husband who owned another of the country’s leading newspapers and get involved in a high-profile charity like the Mt. Vernon Association that would bring her into contact with all the literati of her day. Nor did her brother-in-law happen to be best friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Given the depth and breadth of prejudice against taking the creative work of women in the early 1800’s, it seems to have required the timely assistance of a number of powerful and well-placed men to gain a fair hearing for a female author’s work.

I’m not saying that Anna Cora Mowatt Ritchie could never have gotten any of her plays or books published if she hadn’t had any of the above going for her. (She was also a woman of remarkable determination who always seemed to do exactly what she set her mind on getting done.) I’m just saying that given the odds that were stacked against her in that day, none of the above advantages hurt her chances at all.

1. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. University of Virginia, 1938. Page 301.
2. Ibid, p. 311.
3. Ibid, p. 312.
5. Blesi, Marius. The Life and Letters of Anna Cora Mowatt. University of Virginia, 1938. Page 311.
7. King, Grace. Mount Vernon on the Potomac; History of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. MacMillan: New York, 1929. Page 41.
8. Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 267.
9. “The Late George W. Carleton.” The New York Times, October 19, 1901. Page 27.