Over the course of the first half of the 19th century, conceptions about authorship, intellectual property, and copyright changed dramatically. Early American authors and printers were engaged in a torrent of plagiarism, from the legal reprinting of British texts to satisfy a voracious American appetite for cheap literature to scandals which embroiled almost every major American author. What constituted intellectual property theft in the early 19th century is very different from our understanding of it today; for example, the lifting of materials verbatim, as the Chloe Russel text does, was not as important as matters of voice and literary unity. Capitalism and colonialism complicated these understandings of plagiarism and authorship, from the way in which postcolonial art was and continues to be viewed as derivative of the colonizer’s art to the long history of white appropriation of Black texts. All of these issues inflect how we read Chloe Russel’s text; but whether we ever know the “true” authorship of Russel’s text, its relationship to issues of authorial ownership and can still be progressive and provocative.


To consider the invention of copyright and intellectual property as we understand it today is to trace the way in which "originality" became what Thomas Mallon calls a "cardinal literary virtue" in the late 18th and early 19th century (Weinauer 704). "Over the closing decades of the eighteenth century," explains Robert Macfarlane, "increasing reverence was directed at the quality of originality in literature, and increasing disparagement directed at imitation" (21). The very nature of what an author was changed; whereas the writer had previously been "represented as one among many craftsmen involved in the production of a book" (Macfarlane 27) now the author stepped into the "central role" of "the producer of a text" (Buinicki 4).

Macfarlane views the "increased admiration of literary originality" as being yet another consequence of the way improvements in printing technology altered the literary landscape (24). "In the age of mechanical reproduction" and mass production, a premium came to be placed on the genuine, the authentic, and the original (Macfarlane 24). Another explanation for the increasing importance of originality to judgments of literary value was that this new idea of a generative, individualistic author was "a means of rescuing the artist's work from the market" (Macfarlane 25).

The meaning of "plagiarism" likewise shifted with changing literary norms. For the Neoclassical writers like Phillis Wheatley Peters directly preceding the Romantic period in which these shifts predominated, plagiarism was solely "the reemployment of word-for-word particulars" or "verbatim parallels" (Mazzeo 12-13). Neoclassical literature "privileged displays of erudition, imitation, and satire... extended allusions to and unacknowledged borrowings... from classical and contemporary literary sources were routine in the eighteenth century" (Mazzeo 12).

The definition of plagiarism which became "culutrally dominant by the 1790s" was far more expansive (Mazzeo 11). Changing legal norms "defined authorial style, sentiment, and tone as elements of literary property" (Mazzeo 13). Though an author could be charged with plagiarism for "unacknowledged or wrongful appropriation of verbatim expression," "similarities in style, tone, and 'spirit'" were also fair game (Mazzeo 14).

Plagiarism was a major bone of contention for writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Ellen Weinauer lists "Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Nathaniel Parker Willis, Fanny Fern, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Russell Lowell, and Rose Terry Cooke" as being among the American writers involved in plagiarism scandals--and those were only the white authors (700). Particularly revealing of "the early to mid-century veneration of originality" is the birth of the "plagiarism hunter," "a species of literary journalist which specialized in tracking down allusions, borrowings, and derivations, and then in listing these examples in an article as an arraignment of an author's originality" (Macfarlane 41).


William Wordsworth (1815):

"Genius is the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe"


Percy Shelley (1818):

"I exercised myself in the despair of producing any thing original"


Herman Melville (1849):

"I... prefer rather to hang myself in mine own halter than swing in any other man's swing"

As plagiarism persisted, a "long-ranging battle over copyright" was fought over in the US legislature (Buinicki 1). Copyright protections in the US were fairly lax in the nineteenth century. The Constitution focused on access to knowledge instead of intellectual property rights. The copyright law in effect for most of the 19th century "offered protection only to certain types of texts for a finite duration of time," either 14 or 28 years, very unlike the current law which extends copyright seventy years after the death of the author, and didn't extend protection to foreign authors at all (Buinicki 2).


These 19th-century discourses of originality and intellectual property were always complicated by issues of capitalism, colonialism, and race. Friction between the British and American publishing worlds in the 19th century arose as a result of conflicting copyright laws. Because American copyright law only covered American nationals until 1891, a common practice for American printers was to reprint works by British authors at low cost because they didn't need to worry about compensating the author or the original publisher. "Reprinting foreign works was culturally and legally legitimate and even patriotic" in this environment (M. Cohen 3). Debates over copyright "were framed in such a way as to pose the elitist English authors against the humble 'everyman' of the United States" (Buinicki 51).

Monica Cohen writes, "For most of the century, the unauthorized reprinting of British titles formed the bulk of the American book trade. As early as 1820, it was estimated that 70 percent of the American book market as a whole consisted of works by British authors" (4). The American appetite for reading material was a voracious market force. High literacy rates, technological advancements that made writing and printing more accessible, and the development of a middle class with leisure time fed into "American piracy" (M. Cohen 4).

A common charge leveled at newly independent colonies, from the Post-Revolutionary United States to Nigeria, Jamaica, and Vietnam in the mid-20th century, was that they lacked a "national literature," or that their aesthetics were derivative of the colonizer's art. Andrew Delbanco explains, "Some fifty years after the political establishment of the United States, the concept of an American literature barely existed--an absence acknowledged with satisfaction in Sydney Smith’s famous question posed in 1820 in the Edinburgh Review: 'Who in the four corners of the globe reads an American book?'" Even up until the mid-19th century, American literary critics anxiously pondered whether there was such a thing as "American literature," and literary movements like the American Renaissance and a wave of American literary nationalism attempted to address this question.

Increasingly, white critics turned toward "the nation's fetishized literary periphery" to define "American literature" (L. Cohen 105). One 1845 article called "the Jim Crows, the Zip Coons, and the Dandy Jims" of the minstrel stage "our ONLY TRULY NATIONAL POETS" (L. Cohen 66); in 1907, another critic wrote "We have one series of literary productions that could be written by none but Americans, and only here; I mean the Lives of Fugitive Slaves. All the original romance of Americans is in them, not in the white man’s novel" (L. Cohen 105). Black culture was held to be essentially “American” while cultural and social institutions were continually complicit in marginalizing, disenfranchising, and silencing actual Black Americans.


Thomas Jefferson (1785):

"Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry... Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet"

Black writers had a particularly fraught relationship with replication and originality. Slave narratives, a genre Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Charles T. Davis call "the beginnings of the Afro-American canon" (xx), were a particularly contested site on which the literary skills and integrity of Black writers were put on trial. Slave narratives were closely scrutinized for any factual inaccuracies that would suggest that the narrative--and, by extension, its critique of slavery--were inventions of white abolitionist publishers and writers. The expectation of Black deceit "literally frames slave narratives in the form of the vast quantities of authenticating materials—letters of recommendation, reprinted advertisements for runaways, excerpts of state slave codes—that routinely buttress them" (L. Cohen 106). At the same time, Black writers were not thought capable of the kind of creative invention necessary to forge slave narratives so skillful that the white gatekeepers of the abolitionist community would not be able to detect the fraud. Lara Langer Cohen writes, "White literary culture embraced African American writers as naturals at replication, the mode of testimonial and confession, but not capable of originality" (131).

The scandal over James Williams's 1838 fabricated slave narrative--published seven years before Douglass's--illustrates the way both abolitionists and slavery sympathizers found it impossible to imagine a Black writer possessing creativity and literary technique on a scale large enough to write what was essentially an anti-slavery novel. Pro-slavery critics thought that Northern abolitionists must have guided him; Lewis Tappan, his publisher, continued to insist long after evidence emerged that Williams had fabricated the tale, "that Williams could not possibly have fictionalized the narrative because whereas as an autobiography, it would simply be accurate, as a work of fiction it would be ingenious" (L. Cohen 131). Williams's "false" Narrative was just one example of "the pseudo-slave narrative," a supposedly nonfictional work about an escaped slave's life that was not actually written by a formerly enslaved person, a "small but vigorous subgenre of the slave narrative" (L. Cohen 102).

Pseudo-slave narratives reveal the contradictions inherent in the slave narrative industry. Supposedly an artless, plain, "unvarnished" recounting of fact (Olney 62), slave narratives gained authority by conforming to certain stylistic norms. Slavery was portrayed more kindly than its reality; what we know today were some of the most egregious atrocities of slavery were purposefully left out for fear that they would strain the reader's incredulity. White abolitionist editors warned writers like Frederick Douglass "to avoid analysis or political critique," not to mention literary flourishes, to present the level of narrative complexity a white reader would expect from a former slave (L. Cohen 102). In order to appear authentic, even "genuine" slave narratives were carefully managed and altered to confirm their readers' expectations.

"Pseudo-slave narratives are now considered largely embarrassing irregularities in the genre, when indeed they are considered at all," but the same urge to sort early Black writers as being either truthful and valuable or unethical and disreputable remains, such as in modern scholarly attempts to determine the authorship of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (L. Cohen 102). Issues of fraud, authenticity, and imposture are bound up with pseudo-slave narratives in a way they are with perhaps no other popular 19th-century genre.

While "black impersonators of fugitive slaves" were a major concern for the abolitionist movement, other pseudo-slave narratives were authored by white writers pretending to be Black (L. Cohen 108). For example, white author Richard Hildreth pretended to be a slave called Archy Moore when he published The Slave in 1836. "Why were free white authors so eager to impersonate black fugitive slaves?" Cohen asks (109). Slave narratives were so "extraordinarily popular" that Gates Jr. and Davis compare them to modern detective fiction (xv), but Cohen reminds us that "very little publishing at all earned a profit" in the 19th century; Hildreth's pseudo-narrative went through eight print runs yet did not empower him to quit his day job (109). Christopher Castiglia suggests that writing Black characters, or adopting Black personas, paradoxically "enhance[d the] whiteness" of their writers, helping them to understand themselves as subjects (L. Cohen 110).

In her seminal work of literary criticism Playing in the Dark, Toni Morrison suggested that these attempts to "press black expression into the service of white authority" found in Blackness a figurative freedom from cultural norms (L. Cohen 128). "In minstrelsy, a layer of blackness applied to a white face released it from law," Morrison notes of the long tradition of Blackface in American entertainment (66). "Just as entertainers, through or by association with blackface, could render permissible topics that otherwise would have been taboo, so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture" (Morrison 66). There is a "long tradition (from Stowe to Faulkner and beyond) of white authors taking and telling stories of black people" (Gardner 267). This appropriative tendency only works in one direction, however. "In America, whites may borrow from blacks with impunity, but Negro use of white material is always suspect" (Hochman 525). Accusations of intellectual property theft, or even just a lack of originality, have been used to punish successful Black writers from Phillis Wheatley Peters to Nella Larsen.


Erika Renée Williams (2012):

"By drawing considerably from Galsworthy for the opening passage of her novel, and then, passing as an originating author, Larsen neglected to honor the text she covertly misappropriated, to be sure, but she also neglected to honor her own text, and therefore, herself"

"[Plagiarism] is not merely the highest literary crime which it is possible to commit, but it is the only literary crime which is never to be forgiven"

– an article in the Caledonian Mercury, 1852


Many questions around the authorship of The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book remain. In the introduction, the possibilities Eric Gardner sets forth for placing the Chloe Russel text in a context of early African American literature are highly dependent on how involved the historical Russel was in actually setting down the words of the text. "Questions about the veracity of the narrative raise the possibility that 'Chloe Russel' was invented by a publisher hoping to capitalize on the stereotype of the African American fortune-teller," Gardner suggests (264). "if Russel did author the work... then The Complete Fortune Teller might well require us to reevaluate the terrain of early African American literature... as an early slave narrative or... as one of the earliest examples of fiction by an African American woman" (Gardner 266). So how important is the identity of the creator to how we understand the text and locate it in its context?

As this exhibit has shown, the author, the owner of the text, and the writerly persona are not always the same thing. Gardner's persistent attention to the term "author" makes more sense in our highly copyrighted society, which revolves around Romantic notions of originality, than in Russel's. Michael Kearns draws a useful distinction between "the work of writing... [which] involves putting words to paper but also research (broadly defined) and simply being still and thinking" and "the work of authorship [that] requires engaging in publicity, negotiating the best deal, shopping one's goods, reading and marking proof, and other activities" in 19th-century America (66). Even without knowing the role she played in the text's production, we can assume that Russel, like many American authors, probably did not receive much money from its sales; we cannot rely on whether the text materially benefited the Black woman billed as its author to judge its ethics.

Chloe Russel may be the writer of the text, but not the author. She may have been a canny businesswoman who "capitalized" on the relationship between Blackness and mysticism, or she may have been the mask worn by a white publisher who exploited her image and racial stereotypes to sell books. Her six-page account of her enslavement and liberation may be "an early slave narrative" or simply a pseudo-slave narrative. The Complete Fortune Teller might rewire critical understandings of early Black literature or it might be literary Blackface. Until further scholarship appears, ought the text to live in limbo, possibly progressive and possibly racist? What can we say about The Complete Fortune Teller as it appears to us today--with an ambiguously raced author whose identity we may never know?

Part of the answer to this question may be found in the aspects of the texts that have been appropriated themselves. Gardner notes that "a number of passages in... The Complete Fortune Teller or, an Infallible Guide to the Hidden Decrees of Fate," an anonymous text published as early as 27 years before Russel's text, "are identical to the work attributed to Chloe Russel, including much of the sections on dreams, palmistry, and moles" (261). Though borrowing to this extent would unmistakably be intellectual property theft today, in the 19th century, plagiarism was excusable if the plagiarist improved upon the source material. "A successful improvement justified any borrowing... Improvement did not necessitate an author making any change to the phrasing or wording of another author's text; it was sufficient to alter the context of the borrowed work" (Mazzeo 3). Russel certainly alters the context of the sections lifted from the anonymous author of the earlier work. The juxtaposition of her dream interpretations with a slave narrative in which the dream the narrator has of her father deters her "from committing suicide the succeeding day" (Gardner 271), or of her palmistry guide with a story in which she gains her freedom by helping a white planter uncover "hidden treasure" (Gardner 272), utterly transforms the original materials.

Plagiarism can also be a particular aesthetic. Geoffrey Sanborn locates "an edgy spirit of play" in noted 19th-century Black writer William Wells Brown's "lush, louche plagiarism" of "at least 87,000 words from at least 282 texts" (8-9). Sanborn argues that Brown's plagiarism is a manifestation of how "he likes speaking both as and not as himself, blending his voice with the voices of others," a literary attitude very similar to the "double-voiced" quality Henry Louis Gates Jr. recognizes as a key element of the Black literary tradition (11). If Chloe Russel is both writer and plagiarist, she joins a tradition of Black literary luminaries who borrowed words to some extent, including Brown, Larsen, and Pauline Hopkins (who plagiarized from Brown). Gates Jr. sees reoccurring tropes in early Black literature as evidence that "the earliest writers of the Anglo-African tradition read each other's texts" (256). Sanborn takes it a step further and suggests that plagiarism can sometimes be an indication of "a wide-ranging awareness of, and freedom with, the materials of one's culture" (15). Though Russel's text was published too early to be in conversation with Brown's plagiarisms, it is possible she is speaking back to the "scores of cheap chapbooks" about fortune-telling practices that circulated in the antebellum period (Gardner 259).

Plagiarism is etymologically linked to kidnap, slavery, and the theft of self. "A 'plagiary' is one who abducts the child or slave of another, a kidnapper;... also... a literary thief'" (Weinauer 699). This definition suggests that the relationship between the author and the text is analogous to the one between parents and children, masters and slaves. The literary "thief" who intervenes in the property relationship between author and text "disrupts" the "claims of legitimacy and natural authority" (Weinauer 700). If plagiarism disrupts hierarchies of ownership, Russel's plagiarism--and perhaps even the attribution of the text to Russel, whether she wrote it or not--is a kind of radical intervention in the logic of property that Russel, if she was indeed a former slave, might have been all too familiar with. "Posing as an originator, the plagiarist unmakes old affiliations and creates new ones, giving the child a new parent, the slave a new master, the text a new author," and that is precisely what The Complete Fortune Teller does (Weinauer 700). It breaks the relations of ownership between whoever actually authored the words--both the sections on palmistry and dream interpretation and her slave narrative--and forges new bonds with Russel.

Works Cited

Buinicki, Martin T. Negotiating Copyright: Authorship and the Discourse of Literary Property Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. Routledge, 2015.


Cohen, Lara Langer. The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Cohen, Monica F. “Introduction.” Pirating Fictions: Ownership and Creativity in Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture. University of Virginia Press, 2018.


Davis, Charles T. and Henry Louis Gates Jr. "Introduction: The Language of Slavery." The Slave's Narrative, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. xi-xxxiv.


Delbanco, Andrew. "American literature: a vanishing subject?" Dædalus, 2006, https://www.amacad.org/publication/american-literature-vanishing-subject.


Gardner, Eric. "'The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book': An Antebellum Text 'By Chloe Russel, a Woman of Colour.'" The New England Quarterly, vol. 78, no. 2, 2005, pp. 259-288.


Gates, Henry Louis Jr. "James Gronniosaw and the Trope of the Talking Book." The Southern Review, vol. 22, 1986, pp. 252-272.


Hochman, Barbara. "Love and Theft: Plagiarism, Blackface, and Nella Larsen's 'Sanctuary.'" American Literature, vol. 88, no. 3, 2016, pp. 509-540.


Macfarlane, Robert. “’Romantic’ Originality.” Original Copy: Plagiarism and Originality in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Oxford University Press, 2007.


Mazzeo, Tilar J. “Romantic Plagiarism and the Critical Inheritance.” Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.


Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, 1992.


Olney, James. "'I Was Born': Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature." Callaloo, no. 20, 1984, pp. 46-75.


Sanborn, Geoffrey. Plagiarama!: William Wells Brown and the Aesthetic of Attractions. Columbia University Press, 2019.


Weinauer, Ellen. “Plagiarism and the Proprietary Self: Policing the Boundaries of Authorship in Herman Melville's ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses.’” American Literature, vol. 69, no. 4, 1997, pp. 697–717.