In 1836 the Piney Woods Planter (20 April 1839) of Liberty, Mississippi, reprinted a short scene that had been circulating since at least 1803, and would continue to wend around the world until it was published in at least 450 newspapers over the course of the nineteenth-century. The article describes “[a] young gentleman happening to sit at church in a pew adjoining one in which sat a young lady for whom he conceived a most sudden and violent passion.” The young man proceeds to woo the only way he can in the midst of a sermon, by marking a passage in the Bible that makes his “sudden and violent” passion plain. The young lady reciprocates—though not without some hesitation—he responds, and the whole episode ends with the assurance that “the marriage took place the ensuing week.” This is an amusing example of a common form of writing in the nineteenth-century newspaper: the short prose piece that declares itself neither as truth nor fiction or, perhaps more accurately, proclaims itself both simultaneously. This very short story borrows from journalistic conventions, gesturing toward specificity or facticity, primarily through its verbs, which describe events that happened in the past and are now being recounted. The young man “happened to sit” and “politely handed,” his beloved “returned it,” the marriage “took place.” Of course, the characters and setting are far too vague for any reader to ever seek them out—a nameless “young gentleman” sits in a nameless church and passes biblical notes to a nameless “young lady.” The tidy ending smacks of sentimental fiction rather than history.
Found on any particular page of any individual newspaper, this piece—often titled “Religious Courtship”—would seem a quirky but typical example of newspaper writing. In its decades of circulation, individual newspapers contextualized it in different ways, whether by printing it in a particular section of the newspaper or through the titles under which it ran. For example, “Religious Courtship” was sometimes titled “For the Girls,” implying a specific audience and implying, perhaps obliquely, that the selection should be grouped with the sentimental fiction also strongly associated with women readers during the period. Sometimes this piece was titled “Courtship in Church” and could be found mixed in among snippets of news, while occasionally it ran under a banner for a newspaper’s “Wit and Humor” section, implying more strongly that the episode was fabricated.
When the North Wales Chronicle (26 March 1864) reprinted “Religious Courtship,” they included more details than most reprintings, specifying that, “A young gentleman, a stranger, on a tour through Wales, happened to go on a Sunday morning in the Assizes Week to Ruthlin Church to hear divine service, and more particularly to hear the Sheriff’s chaplain preach before the Judges.” The body of this witness remains largely the same as most other reprintings, though it extends the story beyond its typical ending to add, “the happy pair hired a chaise and four, the horses were decorated with white ribbons, and they drove off, it was understood, via Chester, to the bridegroom’s residence near Coventry. It appears the lady was a native of Tamworth, and was on a visit in the neighbourhood.” This localized version of the text circulated fairly widely in the UK and Australia, though this version does not seem to have migrated back to the United States, where the overall texts seems to have originated.
This selection was localized in other ways in the US, however. In 1869, “Religious Courtship” appeared in Pennsylvania’s Bedford Inquirer (29 October) and Raftsman’s Journal (17 November), as well as the West Virginian Weekly Register (2 December), identifying the story’s protagonist as a “young gentleman visiting Germantown some time” or “six months ago.” Identifying the young man as a visitor to Germantown might have been a deliberate choice by one exchange paper (perhaps not available in digital archives) seeking to bolster the story’s intrigue by writing a local-interest angle into its introduction. In such cases, the details in texts like this one most often point to places local, but not too local, to the paper in question. Some editors sought to relocate a story close enough that it might seem reachable to readers, but not so close that its details could be readily nitpicked or investigated. When this snippet went the rounds again in 1891, it was attributed, as in the Roanoke Times (24 May 1891), to The Metropolis and identified its protagonists as “a certain couple not unknown to metropolitan fame.” Such a tidy formulation simultaneously make a strong local claim for this story of religious wooing, while cleverly leaving each and every reader outside of the privileged circle who would recognize the central couple.
Other branches of the “Religious Courtship” circulation illustrate more organic ways selections shifted and melded as they migrated through the exchange system. In 1879, for instance, a number of newspaper reprinted “Religious Courtship” as “Love at First Sight,” which they all claimed to have received from the Philadelphia Telegraph (though, as we have shown elsewhere in this book, attributions were frequently copied with selections). Most of the witnesses in this stemma begin, as in this example from the Cincinnati Daily Star (12 September 1879), with the sentence, “Love at first sight in church, with Scriptural commentary, is illustrated by the Albany Argus.” When the Juniata Sentinel and Republican (17 September 1879) and National Tribune (1 October 1879) published the text, however, they collapsed the supposed source of the text with the identity of its main character, printing, “An Albany man fell in love at first sight of a young lady who sat next to him in church” (our emphasis). As with other genres in the exchange system, these short prose narratives were highly mutable, changing due to a combination of deliberate editorial choice, mistakes of fact or typesetting, and the material demands of newspaper publication.
In its several modified forms above, “Religious Courtship” exemplifies the genre at the heart of this chapter, which we name the vignette. In brief, vignettes are short prose accounts that blend fact and fiction, anecdote and sketch, information and entertainment. The uncertainty and hybridity of the vignette exemplify the medium in which they thrived, the nineteenth-century newspaper, which was, as we have seen throughout this book, deeply hybrid in its content and aims. In this chapter we outline a theory of the vignette’s origins, purpose, and afterlife in the American press.
We make this argument in tandem with a methodological argument positing computational text classification (CTC) as a means for meaningfully, iteratively sorting the miscellany of the nineteenth-century newspaper. In contrast to ideas of classification as reductive and binary, we follow Ted Underwood (2019) and others to endorse “perspectival modeling” that can evidence overlapping and even contradictory signals of genre within hybrid texts such as vignettes (37), providing a useful fulcrum for grouping and analyzing large textual collections without foreclosing alternative configurations or explanations. The vignette proves an edge case for both CTC and more readerly understandings of genre within the nineteenth-century newspaper. The hybridity of newspaper genres such as the vignette can help us reflect on the overlapping and even contradictory signals of genre exposed by classification models, even as those models help us reflect on the overlapping and contradictory operations of genre within this medium.