Avery Blankenship and Ryan Cordell
Throughout the nineteenth century, it remained difficult to define precisely what made fiction “American” or, as the last chapter demonstrated, what distinguished fiction from other prose genres. Editors such as Rufus Wilmot Griswold gathered anthologies to identify the Prose Writers of America (1855) even as writers debated the boundaries and qualities that should characterize American letters. Parallel to these intellectual debates, a growing well of popular literature suffused periodicals, as this book has shown throughout. In other words, the circulation and uptake of fiction in this period was uneven and happened across many vectors, from the publication of novels in book-form, to serialized fiction, to the vignettes, short stories, and novelistic excerpts in magazines and newspapers.
During this period, fiction often circulated as fragments—particularly in the newspaper. Segments of a particular novel chapter might make the rounds through one set of newspapers, while different sections of the same chapter circulated through a different set of papers. These literary “morsels,” to borrow a term from Ellen Gruber Garvey,1 would sometimes appear as individual selections—short prose squibs set off by space or rules from the other material on the page—and sometimes woven into longer prose pieces as quotations or simply borrowed text used in a prose pastiche. Considered as recontextualized fragments, scattered across the newspaper page, fiction becomes far less distinct, visually or stylistically, from the diversity of genres that surrounded it in the medium. Indeed, many fragments we know from our work in Viral Texts to be drawn from fiction were not so clearly identified as such when reprinted in newspapers, and may not have been understood as such by their readers. The circulation of any novelistic fragment constitutes a bibliography, and tells one story about the novel’s circulation and reception. Considered together, however, the many bibliographies we might compile from a single chapter constitute a complex and sometimes contradictory story of one novel’s uptake.
Today, we understand how social media platforms such as Twitter allow users to cut and paste media at will, sometimes altering the information they share dramatically from its original form. Similarly, nineteenth-century Americans used the newspaper to disperse information in ways that often altered its original context. We have seen such alterations in the other genres we have explored in this book, such as the “fugitive poetry” discussed in chapter two. In the last chapter we queried the boundary between the nineteenth century newspaper’s news and fiction, demonstrating how vignettes trouble this boundary and exemplify the hybridity of the newspaper medium. In this chapter, however, we wish to use the fragmentary circulation of literary fiction in the newspaper to illuminate the boundaries between readership groups as well as the ability of the newspaper to repackage and reconstruct the white, middle-class, American values codified in the period’s fiction.
Periodical fiction has long been central to scholarly accounts of nineteenth-century literary print culture. Existing scholarship attends to the newspaper and magazine circulation of short stories, standalone novel chapters, and novels published in serial parts. As Meredith McGill writes of the culture of reprinting, “not only was the mass-market for literature in America built and sustained by the publication of cheap reprints of foreign books and periodicals, the primary vehicles for the circulation of literature were uncopyrighted newspapers and magazines”2. However, the operations of reprinting often limited authors’ control over the distribution of their work in newspapers. Rather than publishing entire stories or chapters in ways that might advertise a work or author, editors often excerpted quotable, reprintable paragraphs, with or without explicit attribution. This kind of selection brought literary works—first published in books or literary magazines, with explicit markers of authorship—into the uncertain, fragmentary milieu of newspaper literature, and subject to the network effects of the medium.
This chapter builds on our theorization of the vignette as a central form of nineteenth-century American fiction to investigate the reception and use of a more defined corpus, the Wright American Fiction Collection of works published between 1851–1875. While periodicals scholars have long analyzed the importance of magazines and newspapers to the popular reception of fiction, those analyses have largely focused on “whole cloth” modes of publication: short stories printed in full, or novels serialized over time. Here, however, we apply the reprint-detection methods of the larger Viral Texts project—not dependent, if you will recall from chapter two, on known textual boundaries or complete textual overlap—to bring those well-known forms of periodical publication into conversation with modes of circulation through quotation, excerption, and theft. By using a (supposedly) known data set as a seed corpus for analyzing reprinting and circulation, we can trace such textual fragmentation more clearly than we can with short texts that originate in the newspaper.
The Wright collection spans the years 1851–1875, while our newspaper corpus extends a few decades farther in both directions. With 2,887 titles currently digitized, however, Wright provides a useful, “mid-range” data set of known fictional works,3 which allows us to trace more precisely the trends we have theorized from the bibliographically messier newspaper genres central to our prior chapters. Our first goal in the current chapter, then, is to examine the relative prominence of the Wright collection’s authors in the economy of newspaper exchanges. We want, in other words, to not only ask how literary works might reshape our understanding of nineteenth-century newspapers, but also how our reading of newspaper exchange might nuance our readings of literature. How should the kinds of excerpting and “viral” circulation we outline here affect our assessment of authors’ importance, and might our map of the American canon shift when we acknowledge the enormous popularity of authors since forgotten or marginalized? Can we develop measures of literary importance founded on fragments?
Secondly, this chapter considers the literary-historical implications of fictional fragmentation and, sometimes, dramatic recontextualization. When a work of fiction is excerpted in the newspaper and not explicitly advertised as a work of fiction, how should that change our account of that work’s bibliography and cultural life? Contrariwise, when fiction authors draw inspiration—or even prose—for their stories from the newspaper, how should that change our understanding of their stories and books? American fiction was more intimately entwined with the newspaper during this period than previous scholarship has recognized because many of the exchanges between these media were quotational, unattributed or misattributed, or otherwise difficult to identify without the kinds of computational pattern matching employed in our Viral Texts work. These media must be understood not as vehicles one for the other, but as mutually shaping forces.
Finally, we hope in this chapter to illuminate the boundaries of readership groups, which often are subject to class, race, or gender divisions. Complete, printed novels and short story collections were available primarily to particular readers in the nineteenth century: those who had the luxury of time and money to devote to the purchasing of books. Texts that appear in the newspaper, however, were more widely available and in many ways democratized the availability and uptake of literature. However, while the democratizing potential of the newspaper is significant to our work, we also acknowledge that the nineteenth century newspaper—and especially the newspapers collected and available for computational text mining today—primarily represent the burgeoning white, middle-class America of the period. Other social groups, such as the working-class or people of color, did not have access to all the avenues available to a middle-class newspaper reader for responding to fiction. Additionally, for much of the period covered in this chapter, literacy itself remained a significant gateway to power that was intentionally left closed to enslaved people in America. Likewise the Wright Collection reflects a mid-twentieth-century idea of the fiction canon, excluding marginalized voices we might now identify as central to our understanding of the period. Our experiments in this chapter will introduce a second corpus, focused on black writers, to help illustrate these limitations.
While the newspaper does not open up readership evenly, it nonetheless widened possibilities of nineteenth-century readership to more readers than could regularly access printed and bound books. By turning our use of newspaper fiction toward an examination of readers, we aim to highlight and question the power of readerly uptake on the traversal of fiction through the newspaper system. How did the middle-class repackage and resell its own ideas back to itself through the newspaper? Who did this repackaging leave out? In what ways did this repackaging affirm ideals of domesticity, religious purity, and public morality and then disperse those ideas to marginalized groups who may have come into contact with them through the newspaper? We will begin by highlighting some overview analyses from the Wright collection before turning to more precise and representative examples of the readership we hope to illuminate. The Wright collection could prompt many investigations and we can only discuss a few in this chapter. We hope, by focusing on some of the more salient examples we have gathered from Wright, that possibilities for further inquiry will occur to readers who might extend our experiments.