James Ralph was an 18th-century content creator, scratching out a living in England’s New Economy. In an age of political, social and technological upheaval, life could be precarious for those who kept the printing presses stoked with words.
Writing in 1758, Ralph said “there is no Difference between the Writer in his Garret, and the Slave in the Mines; but that the former has his Situation in the Air, and the latter in the Bowels of the Earth: Both have their Tasks assigned them alike: Both must drudge and starve; and neither can hope for Deliverance.”
The quote comes from The Age of Authors: An Anthology of Eighteenth-Century Print Culture, a remarkable collection of writing about writing and the plight of writers. Editor Paul Keen writes that Ralph was “often dismissed as a Grub Street hack writer,” but managed to produce some important work, including the essay quoted above.
The essay, The Case of Authors By Profession or Trade, Stated, marks the decline of the era when writers relied on patrons. The new commercial model of publishing was generating profits that were being denied to those slaves in the garrets, Ralph argued.
In the new world of letters, anyone, it seemed, could be an author – even women. (Anyone, that is, who belonged to the educated classes. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the literacy rate in Great Britain rose above 60 per cent.)