James Thomas Fields

James Thomas Fields (1817–81)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 27, 325–331.

At a time when the intellectual property of foreign writers was not protected by American copyright laws, the example set by the Massachusetts publisher James T. Fields to compensate English authors fairly for their work was not lost on RB, who proposed a formal alliance between the two in 1854; his initiative came to fruition the following year with release by Ticknor and Fields of Men and Women, recording sales that outperformed the British edition.

In 1850, the Boston firm of Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, of which Fields was then a junior partner, had reprinted, in two volumes and without authorization, the revised and augmented “New Edition” of RB’s Poems, issued the previous year in England by Chapman and Hall. Widely acclaimed by American reviewers for the elegance of its typography and design (see the reviews in vol. 16, pp. 345–348), Fields was sufficiently proud of the production that he sent a copy to the author in December 1849 with the inscription, “For Robert Browning Esq. With the compliments of James T. Fields” (Reconstruction, A461). During a trip to Europe in 1851, Fields paid “a charming visit” in Paris to the Brownings, his only regret, he confided in an April 1852 letter to Mary Russell Mitford, one of his English authors and a close friend of EBB, that “I could not see more of them” (see SD1562 in vol. 18). Miss Mitford had assured him several months earlier that EBB had greatly appreciated his brief courtesy call: “Mrs. Browning was delighted with your visit,” she wrote on 5 January 1852. “She is a Bonapartiste; so am I” (see SD1539 in vol. 17).

This personal contact paid dividends two years later when the Brownings were mulling options for expanding their readership and pondering whom in the world of commercial letters to approach. “I expect to bring out in London, next season, a collection of new Poems, containing about 5000 lines,” he wrote Fields on 23 August 1854 of the major work-in-progress that he would title Men and Women (letter 3458). Some “American friends” of his, he said—principally William Wetmore Story and George William Curtis—had “assured” him “that it is possible to obtain some remuneration for the reprint of these in their country, by consenting to furnish a publisher there with the proof-sheets as they are issued and thus enabling him to forestal competitors—that I suppose I should be wanting to myself if I neglected to act upon their advice.”

RB added that several American publishers were suggested to him as being “likely to close with such an offer,” but that he was giving the Bostonian first refusal. “Will it suit you to enter into this arrangement with me—and, if so, upon what terms, may I ask? … I am sure you will rejoice to be as generous as you can—indeed, as you commonly are, if I am not misinformed.” Prominent among authors at that time on the Ticknor and Fields front list were the Americans Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry David Thoreau, and the Britons Thomas De Quincey and Alfred Tennyson, to be joined in due course by William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens.

Fields’s response to this letter has not to date surfaced, but RB’s summary of the terms he had proposed has. In return for securing exclusive American access to the proof sheets of his forthcoming work, Fields offered RB a choice of the customary 10 percent royalty on the retail price of each book sold, or a flat sum of £30. Writing Fields on 6 September 1855—a full year after making his first query—RB asserted that the work had since “grown so considerably as to fill two books, not one,” justifying what he felt was additional compensation (letter 3618). “These poems, too are all new entirely—unpublished I mean. They are the best of me, hitherto and for some time to come probably.” He requested that Fields therefore “treat” the project as two books, not one, and that he agree to a £60 upfront payment.

To that, RB asked Fields to also consider publishing a “thoroughly” revised edition of his 1840 narrative poem, Sordello, which was no longer in circulation, along with the historical drama Strafford (1837), also long out of print. Both works had been left out of the 1850 Ticknor, Reed, and Fields American collection, for which RB had received no compensation. (They had also been left out of the 1849 Chapman and Hall English edition, for which he did receive royalties.) “If you choose to pay for them,” RB advised Fields, “you shall have them a year before they are published in England—and that out of real love and respect to my American readers of whom I am duly proud whether they pay me or not. You see, Dear Mr Fields, I take the short way with your friendliness as it deserves– Pray do what you can for us—and tell us the sum of it by return of post” (letter 3618).

Fields wasted no time agreeing to terms. “Dot us down your debtor £60 for the two vols & send them just as early as it is possible to do so, that we may have a full months start before our brethren of the trade smell the English copies across the sea,” he wrote on 25 September 1855 (letter 3635). As for Sordello and Strafford, “I will another day confer with you.” Clearly, there was an unspecified issue there—both of these works had received decidedly mixed reviews when first published—but Fields wanted to assure RB there was room for accommodation. “We wish to be your publishers, whatever you may prepare for the press. Please remember this. There are certain names we should feel a deep mortification to see any where else than among our list of worthies, & we mean to be just. I regret, and always have done so, that Mrs. Browning does not belong to us, but when her writings first saw America, I was guiltless of book-publishing and innocent of ink. And now that I am reckoned among Publishers and sinners, it is too late to claim her. This is, and always will be annoying to us.”

As a gesture of good faith, Fields conferred with the New York publisher Charles S. Francis on behalf of EBB, arguing successfully for a larger payment than originally agreed to by him for the privilege of publishing Aurora Leigh, a sweeping narrative poem in nine parts that had grown in its composition to 11,000 lines, considerably longer than first proposed. “We are wholly indebted to you for these increased terms on the part of Mr Francis,” RB wrote on 26 October 1855 (letter 3665). “My wife thanks you heartily for all your trouble and kindness.” A month later, on 29 November 1855, RB wrote another letter of gratitude, with everything he had to say stated in a single sentence: “I take advantage of the opportunity of the publication in the United States of my Men & Women,—for printing which, you, through being more righteous than the Law, have liberally remunerated me,—to express my earnest desire that the power of publishing in America this and every subsequent work of mine may rest exclusively with you & your house” (letter 3684). Fields sagely used an adaptation of that quote nine years later as an epigraph to a new collection that included Sordello and Strafford, which he finally did publish, along with Christmas-Eve and Easter-Day. His working relationship with RB continued through most of the decade, including the publication in 1864 of three poems (“Gold Hair,” “Prospice,” “Under the Cliff,” the last being section VI of “James Lee,” afterwards “James Lee’s Wife”) in The Atlantic Monthly, which Fields and his partner, William Ticknor, had acquired in October 1859. “Thanks mostly to Fields,” James C. Austin observed in Fields of “The Atlantic Monthly” (San Marino, California, 1953), “Browning’s reputation in the United States was better than in England at the beginning of the sixties” (p. 401).

James Thomas Fields ( Field) was born on 31 December 1817, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the son of Michael Field, a ship captain, and Margaret (Beck) Field (married 6 March 1816), who raised “Jamie,” as the boy was called, as a single parent after the death of her husband at sea in 1820. Finishing high school at the age of thirteen, Fields moved to Boston to work as a junior clerk in the downtown bookstore of Carter and Henderson, where he became a protégé of the publisher William Ticknor (1810–64), whose firm was headquartered in the same building. Ticknor consolidated both businesses under his ownership in 1832, and the historic building on the corner of Washington and School Streets—known today still as the Old Corner Bookstore—gained fame as a gathering place for the literati of the period.

Unable to afford college, Fields pursued his own course of study largely through independent reading in the Mercantile Library Association subscription library on Congress Street, where he remained a lifelong member and patron. By the time he was twenty-one, Ticknor had made him a junior partner in the company, newly named Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, which would become Ticknor and Fields in 1854, and Fields, Osgood and Co. in 1868. In addition to publishing and selling books, Fields wrote poetry, his work over the years collected in three volumes: Poems (Boston, 1849); A Few Verses for a Few Friends (Cambridge, Mass., 1858); and Ballads and Other Verses (Boston, 1880). His other books include: Yesterdays With Authors (Boston, 1872); Hawthorne (Boston, 1876); Old Acquaintance: Barry Cornwall and Some of His Friends (Boston, 1876); In and Out of Doors with Dickens (Boston, 1876); and Underbrush (Boston, 1877).

Fields was widely celebrated for the friendships he nourished in the literary world, his relationships with Longfellow, Hawthorne, Dickens and Thackeray marked by unstinting loyalty and dedication to their work. The eminent historian of American book culture William Charvat wrote that Fields “had a gift for what is now called ‘promotion,’” characterizing the various publicity schemes he undertook as a “new but rapidly developing brand of American business enterprise.” It was by dint of his ability to get people talking about his titles that Ticknor and Fields was able “to sell its publications in quantity all over the country despite the geographical disadvantages of Boston and the jealousy of other literary centers” (“James T. Fields and the Beginnings of Book Promotion, 1840–1855,” Huntington Library Quarterly, 8, November 1944, 75–94).

Fields’s first wife, Eliza Willard Fields (married 13 March 1850), died from consumption in 1851, eighteen months after their marriage. Ann (“Annie”) West Adams Fields (1834–1915), his second wife (married 15 November 1854), was born on 6 June 1834 to a prominent Boston family whose forebears included two American presidents and who believed in progressive education for young women. Her father, Zabdiel Boylston Adams, was a Harvard-trained physician; her mother, Sarah May Holland Adams, a descendant of early Massachusetts settlers. Among Annie’s earliest teachers was George Barrell Emerson, a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who emphasized rigorous instruction in the classics and literature, disciplines that in time would help make her the ideal companion and literary confidante to America’s most consequential publisher of the period.

Annie is credited with helping Fields recruit such authors as Emma Lazarus, Sarah Orne Jewett, Horatio Alger, and Celia Thaxter. The dinners and literary salons they hosted in their Charles Street home became a fixture of Boston society. “I stood as much in awe of him as his jovial soul would let me,” William Dean Howells wrote two decades after Fields died. “He gave aesthetic character to the house of Ticknor & Fields” (Literary Friends and Acquaintances, New York, 1900, p. 40).

Like her husband, Annie Fields was a poet, her work appearing in several volumes over the years, Under the Olive (1880) and The Singing Shepherd and Other Poems (1895) among them. She wrote numerous biographical essays of the writers she came to know, a number of them included in James T. Fields: Biographical Notes and Personal Sketches (1881), which she compiled after her husband’s death. She was, in addition, a prolific diarist whose thoughtful entries, most of them unpublished and in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, contain useful insights and impressions of the people she encountered. “We are to see the Brownings today and can think of nothing else,” she recorded on 14 February 1860 during a trip the couple made to Rome (SD2340). “Browning talked about ‘Sordello’ and his desire to finish it,” she reported further on, “at which his wife looked at him with a curious doubting expression which at last came out in words. Oh! Robert I’m afraid you’ll never make that clear! He was arranging the fire while she spoke so that his face was hidden but when he turned to look at us and answer there was not the least shadow of annoyance about him only a radiant expression of confidence in himself and belief in her as if he were saying ‘Well! if she thinks I can’t do that she knows well what I can do’ mingled with an amused look, that she should think the idea so droll.”

Annie expanded on the get-together a week later in a joint letter to her two sisters in Boston (21 February 1860). “Mr and Mrs Browning are living here this winter and this week we passed the afternoon with them. She has been ill and hardly yet goes out. Her voice quivers over her words still, as the light over a lamp when the air rushes too swiftly out. Her energy is so much greater than the power. But Browning himself is so strong, so tender and so free in every motion and tone that you could lean on him as on a rock but find within a woman’s heart” (SD2342).

Annie’s opinion of RB would in time be tempered, a consequence, most likely, of “a rupture in the friendship of the publisher and the poet, never fully reconciled,” according to James C. Austin (Fields of “The Atlantic Monthly”, p. 402), that was occasioned by publication in the United States of The Ring and the Book (1869). Fields had opted to issue the poem in two volumes, not four, as was the case in England with Smith, Elder, and Co. “Four bites at such a masterly cherry … I am afraid will puzzle greatly the American appetite,” Fields had professed on 19 September 1868 (ms at Berg). RB reluctantly agreed to terms on 23 October 1868, but not without taking sarcastic note of Fields’s blithe metaphor. “When you call it ‘four bites of a cherry,’ I submit that this is an apple, which you will eat, unchoked, if you decently quarter it” (ms at Huntington).

Further eroding their relationship was RB’s lingering resentment over never being compensated for the 1850 American edition of Poems, a circumstance he brought up periodically in their correspondence and in communications with others. “To tell you the truth,” he wrote Fields on 16 October 1863, “I hardly cared to take the trouble of sending” along to him proofs of a new edition of his poems, “having never got anything for the old, you know, ‘stereotyped’ or otherwise” edition (ms at Harvard). [1] When ironing out terms for The Ring and the Book, and arguing for four volumes instead of two, RB minced few words on his displeasure, indicating how “very sorry” he was that “you break our bargain,” and even threatened to take his work elsewhere. “If I may express a hope, in parting company, it will be that, suppose I find another American Publisher disposed to take what you refuse, you will remember all the drawbacks and difficulties, and not determine upon printing my poem after all and in spite of them: but that would give too ugly a look to the rupture of our bargain” (letter to Ticknor and Fields, 2 September 1868, ms at Berg).

Fields moved quickly to calm RB’s ill feelings. “I hope our firm has set itself all right with you now, and that the terms submitted to you in Mr. [James R.] Osgood’s letter, by this mail, will be agreeable to you” (19 September 1868, ms at Berg). RB’s mollified response put the matter to rest, at least in the short run. “Let it pass for a misunderstanding and then an end!” (23 October 1868, ms at Huntington). Fields, Osgood and Co. proceeded to publish the “Author’s Edition, From Advance Sheets” of the work in two volumes, marking the last venture the two men undertook together. Despite his assurances to the contrary, RB continued to harbor his grievances. “Fields & Co. have published my works for above twenty years: they never gave me a farthing for any one of them till the appearance of Men & Women,” he declared to the London publisher George Murray Smith on 2 December 1875 (ms at Eton).

Annie Fields, for her part, detested The Ring and the Book from the outset. “It is obscene, dirty, unpoetic. He has slain himself,” she confided to her diary on 2 December 1868. “As for his publishers I fear the poem will be a dead loss of several thousand dollars to them. I see no help for this. I am sure the world is too wise to read such twaddle. Yet it is the work of a great brain” (ms at MHS). Traveling with her husband in Europe the following year, Annie described a dinner they attended in London, the fissure that had developed further apparent. “Browning was like a piece of polished steel, receiving on his surface keen reflections of persons and giving back sharp points of light,” she wrote on 19 May 1869. “He is scornful, unsympathetic, powerful and swift. Ah! It seems as if a demon held him. Words forsook me and I was a stupid companion I know, mais, que faire? How could words come before such a nature? He had just returned from France where he goes and hides himself in unfrequented quarters” (ms at MHS).

Fields retired from publishing in 1870 and devoted himself to lecturing and writing. He and RB exchanged several perfunctory letters in the years ahead, but their professional relationship had come to a close. With Edwin P. Whipple, he edited The Family Library of British Poetry (Boston, 1878) for Houghton, Osgood, and Company. He died from heart failure on 23 April 1881 in his Charles Street home and was buried in the Adams family plot in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The grief-stricken widow he left was but forty-six yet despite all differences of age it had been a life together of singular attachment and devotion,” Warren S. Tryon, Fields’s biographer, noted in Parnassus Corner: A Life of James T. Fields, Publisher to the Victorians (Boston, 1963, p. 382). The couple had no children, their mutual interests, according to all contemporary accounts, the driving focus of their lives.

Annie remained a vibrant force in cultural, philanthropic, and literary circles for another three decades. Among her numerous publications were James T. Fields, Biographical Notes and Personal Sketches (Boston, 1881); A Shelf of Old Books (Boston, 1894); Authors and Friends (Boston, 1896); and Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston, 1897). Her later years were marked by a warm domestic relationship with the Maine author Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), a sustaining friendship that provided comfort and fulfillment to both women (see Rita K. Gollin, Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters, Amherst, Mass., 2002, pp. 215–228.) Annie Adams Fields died in her home on 5 January 1915 of myocarditis and arteriosclerosis. As requested in her will, her body was cremated, her ashes were placed in an urn and buried at the foot of her husband’s coffin.

—Nicholas A. Basbanes

1. RB found himself at odds with Fields on another matter, this one involving his friend Walter Savage Landor’s ongoing irritation with a libel suit he had lost in August 1858, and his wish to have Fields reprint in the United States a pamphlet he had written, “Mr. Landor’s Remarks on his Trial for Libel,” which had been previously printed in England, at his expense, under another title (see letter 4545, note 1). RB explained his unpleasant involvement in the episode in a lengthy letter to Landor’s niece, Sophia Landor, on 28 January 1861 (ms at Yale). Her uncle’s “constant desire,” he wrote, had been to have the “little wretched” pamphlet reprinted and “circulated in America,” and to that end he applied “to two persons, each of whom I was able to convince easily enough of the true disservice, instead of favor, they would inflict on Mr Landor by accepting his commission: last year however, Mr. Fields foolishly promised to ‘gratify him’—assuring me afterwards that he would take care nothing further was done in the matter—so I understood him—but he sent six copies in very deed, with a note to myself bidding me have no apprehension for this was simply done to quiet your Uncle—perhaps, to prevent his attacking anybody else with his solicitations.” Instead of placating Landor, however, the ruse merely encouraged him to pass one of the pamphlets on to a “mischievious person” in Bath, which led to the lawyers of the former plaintiff, Mary Jane Yescombe (see letter 4214, note 4), taking out an advertisement in The Times (8 December 1860, p. 1) that offered a reward of £50 for “INFORMATION and EVIDENCE of the PRINTING and PUBLISHING, in England, of the … PAMPHLET … such reward to be paid on the conviction of the offender or offenders.” Embarrassment was suffered all around. “I have sent the advertisement to Fields, as the best example of what harm his complaisance may do, and trust there will be no repetition of the great mistake.”


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