Bootlegging Dickens: Author Looks At 'Bookaneers'

Hollywood is constantly battling overseas bootleggers. But in the 19th century, publishers in the United States made a fortune bootlegging British authors — even the biggest, like Charles Dickens. That's the backdrop of Matthew Pearl's latest work of historical fiction, The Last Dickens. Pearl talks to Guy Raz about "bookaneers" and the perils of early author tours across America.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Frank Browning tells a pretty good 19th-century tale, but I've got one that just might top it: murder, drug runners, book pirates and an unfinished Charles Dickens mystery.

It's all captured in Matthew Pearl's new novel, "The Last Dickens." Part fact, part fiction, it traces that writer's 1867 tour of America. Matthew Pearl spoke with us from Boston, where Dickens began his journey.

Mr. MATTHEW PEARL (Author, "The Last Dickens"): When Charles Dickens arrived in Boston Harbor, where he started, they had to keep it secret because there was such a mob of people expecting him, and they actually chased down his carriage at the hotel, the Parker House Hotel - which is still here - and as he got out of the coach, people would rip parts of his coat off, his little strands of his shawl, and this is how it was the entire time. He really was our version of a rock star.

RAZ: And he embarked on his tour, this reading tour of the United States. He'd read from "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist." He did this, in part, to make money because he wasn't making money in the United States on his books. How was that possible?

Mr. PEARL: We had a very strange copyright law, at least strange to our ears and eyes today, because we would not give copyright protection here in the United States to any foreign citizens. Well, what this meant is that someone like Charles Dickens could be published and printed by any newspaper, any publisher, without paying him a cent, either in advance or as royalties once copies were sold.

Now this was a bit of a double-edged sword because on the one hand, Dickens lost untold amounts of money through this arrangement. On the other hand, he became extremely famous because there were so many editions - and quite affordable editions - of his book. So he was pretty savvy.

He was upset at first, for a while back - going back about 20 years from his first trip to America, but he figured out how to exploit this, by using the fame to earn money through, as you say, actual personal appearances. It was such a different time, but in a way he was inventing what we would know of as a book tour.

RAZ: Paint a picture of this world of the wharfs and the docks in places like Boston and Philadelphia and New York, where you had these book pirates, known as bookaneers.

Mr. PEARL: This was so surprising to me. When I was doing my research, it was one of these moments where I had to stare at the page. Since there was no copyright for foreign authors, the value in publishing a foreign author became who could publish it first, not who could get permission to publish it.

So there was a race to intercept manuscripts and advance sheets from A-list writers by the pirating publishers in the United States because if they could publish it first, it was worth simply thousands of dollars.

So they sent these literary bounty hunters, what I call the bookaneers, to the wharfs in Boston, Philadelphia and New York and wait for shipments of new books to come in from Great Britain and a few other countries by messengers that were aboard ships to be delivered to certain publishers.

So it really created this warfare right at the front lines to get the physical books, and that's something that's so much fun for me. Those were among my most favorite characters to write, and many of my readers point to them as their favorites as well.

RAZ: Charles Dickens made a lot of money off of this tour, right?

Mr. PEARL: He left the United States in 1868 with the equivalent of $150,000 that ended up being about a fifth of his estate, his total estate when he dies a couple years later. So the American tour, certainly financially, perhaps also creatively, also involving his health, really did make an impact in his final years and really, I think, did satisfy him to a certain point that he had been elevated in his fame and his celebrity with American readers.

RAZ: How did it impact his health?

Mr. PEARL: When Dickens arrives in the United States in November of 1867, he's already in questionable health. So by the end of the trip, he was really in failing condition, and really, he would never recover completely after this point, and you could sort of draw a straight line to his ultimate decline and death.

RAZ: Now in your book, "The Last Dickens," you of course described this real, unfinished novel of Charles Dickens, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." What is the fascination, do you think, with this story that Dickens never finished?

Mr. PEARL: If we think about what mystery entails as a genre, certainly a big part of it is a resolution. There's been attempts to communicate with Dickens' ghost to find out the ending that were taken quite seriously in the 19th century.

So I wanted to capture that, not necessarily to give my own speculations, although we all have them, but actually dramatize that sense of urgency, that sense of need to find the ending.

RAZ: Matthew Pearl's new novel is "The Last Dickens." He's also the author of "The Dante Club" and the "The Poe Shadow," and he joined us from WBUR in Boston. Mr. Pearl, thank you so much.

Mr. PEARL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Coming up, the biggest midget in the music game plays it her way.

Ms. LADY SOVEREIGN (Musician): I don't rap about, you know, chopping people up and putting them in boots of cars and stuff.

RAZ: The inimitable Lady Sovereign, a British invasion that'll fit in your pocket. This is NPR News.

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