J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, October 23, 2011

“As soon as three Hundred Copies are subscribed for”

On 29 Feb 1772, this announcement appeared in the Boston Censor magazine:
PROPOSALS
For Printing by Subscription,
A Collection of POEMS, wrote at several times, and upon various occasions, by PHILLIS, a Negro Girl, from the Strength of her own Genius, it being but a few Years since she came to this Town an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa. The Poems having been seen and read by the best Judges, who think them well worthy of this Publick View, and upon critical examination, they find that the declared Author was capable of writing them.
There followed a long list of poem titles, many including the names of prominent New Englanders: the Rev. Dr. Samuel Sewall, Christopher Seider, Samuel Quincy, James Sullivan, and so on. Of course the list included Phillis Wheatley’s most famous poem at the time, “On the Death of the Rev. George Whitefield.”

The notice concluded:
It is supposed they will make one small Octavo Volume, and will contain about 200 Pages.

They will be printed on Demy Paper, and beautiful Types.

The Price to Subscribers, handsomely bound and lettered, will be Four Shillings.——Stitched in blue [i.e., paperback], Three Shillings.

It is hoped to Encouragement will be given to this Publication, as a reward to a very uncommon Genius, at present a Slave.

The Work will be put to the Press as soon as three Hundred Copies are subscribed for, and and [sic] shall be published with all Speed.

Subscriptions are taken in by E. RUSSELL, in Marlborough Street.
Ezekiel Russell was also the printer of the Censor. He had co-published Wheatley’s poem on the death of Whitefield, adorned with the woodcut of the minister’s body shown above. In fact, according to Isaiah Thomas, the Russell shop was known for printing “ballads on recent tragical events,…immediately printed, and set off with wooden cuts of coffins, etc.”

“Printing by Subscription” meant that Russell was ready for advance orders. Only after three hundred people had signed up for copies of the book would he invest the work and materials necessary to produce it—rather like Kickstarter.

The Censor repeated that ad in its issues of 14 March and 18 April, so Russell was still waiting for three hundred orders. And the magazine folded after its 2 May issue, having lasted less than six months. That couldn’t have made Russell more eager for a speculative project.

We know that the merchant John Andrews subscribed for a copy of Wheatley’s book because on 29 May he told a relative:
Its above two months since I subscribed for Phillis’s poems, which I expected to have sent you long ago, but the want of spirit to carry on any thing of the kind here has prevented it, as they are not yet publish’d.
In a chapter of his Black New England Letters, published by the Boston Public Library in 1977, William H. Robinson interpreted that “want of spirit” to mean “racist indifference from piqued Boston whites” who didn’t believe Wheatley actually wrote those poems.

TOMORROW: Testing that hypothesis.

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