Going the Rounds
Between the 1830s and the 1890s, the following snippet, given various titles such as “Take the Paper,” “The Difference,” “Advantage of Taking a Newspaper,” or “Why Don’t You Take the Paper?” appeared in at least 149 newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Though loosely structured in verse, the piece was typically printed as a continuous paragraph, as in this witness from Woodsfield, Ohio’s The Spirit of Democracy.1
Take the Paper
We find the following going the rounds of the press. Read, ponder, and—PAY UP! Why don’t you take the papers? they’re the life of my delight, except about election time, and then I read for spite. Subscribe, you cannot loose a cent, why should you be afraid? for cash thus spent is money lent at interest, four-fold paid. Go, then, and take the papers, and pay to-day, nor pay delay, and my word it is inferred, you’ll live until you’re gray. An old neighbor of mine, while dying of a cough, desired to hear the latest news while he was going off. I took the paper and I read of some new pills in force; he bought a box—and is he dead? no—hearty as a horse. I knew two men as much alike as e’er you saw two stumps; and no phrenologist could find a difference in their bumps. One takes the paper and his life is happier than a king’s, his children can all read and write, and talk of men and things. The other took no paper, and, while strolling through the wood, a tree fell down and broke his crown, and killed him—“very good.” Had he been reading all the news, at home like his neighbor Jim, I’ll be a cent that accident would not have happened him, for he who takes the paper, and pays his bill when due, can live in peace with every man, and with the printer too.
“Take the Papers” is clever enough as a nugget of editorial self-promotion, and general enough that editors could easily reprint it as the text circulated, fitting the short text into small gaps in the printer’s form as they composed their issues. It is one widely-reprinted selection identified through the Viral Texts project at Northeastern University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, an interdisciplinary effort among literary scholars, historians, and computer scientists seeking to better understand how, why, and which texts could be found “going the rounds of the press” during nineteenth century.2 At the time, newspaper content was not protected by intellectual property law, and editors swapped papers for common use through what were called “exchanges.” In the United States, editors took advantage of the US Postal Service’s favorable newspaper mail rates to trade their papers with each other for reciprocal use. Compositors filled daily, weekly, or more occasional issues with selections from the other newspapers on their exchange lists, as well as from the magazines, books, and other media that their editors sifted through for content. The hybridity of the nineteenth-century paper reflects their diverse sources, as literary genres such as poems and short stories jostle for attention on the same pages as genres diverse as hard news, reprinted political speeches, shipping reports, popular science, home remedies, recipes, childrearing advice, religious reflections, and myriad others.
Given that literary history often focuses on novelty and originality, why attend to duplication and repetition—what we might even term plagiarism—at all? What can a practice like newspaper reprinting teach us about nineteenth-century culture that other forms of writing and reading cannot? In brief, this book argues that scissors and paste reveal as much about print culture as pen or press. Considered as individual snippets, reprinted newspaper selections might read like ephemera, even filler. When identified, grouped, and considered as a corpus, however, the selections that thrived within the newspapers’ exchange system become instead vital markers of the priorities, concerns, and amusements of the period’s print culture. Popular reprinted texts offer a unique view into the zeitgeist—marked day-by-day, rather than by year or decade—of nineteenth-century newspaper readers.
In surfacing reprinted newspaper selections, Going the Rounds joins a burgeoning movement in recent book historical and bibliographical scholarship investigating the informal, ephemeral, pastiche, and unauthorized—the deckled edges of print culture, including investigations of job printing, forms, and blanks;3 commonplace books and scrapbooks;4 reprinting and literary piracy;5 algorithmically generated and printed books;6 and of course newspaper and periodical literature and culture.7 Much of this prior research acknowledges and grapples with the difficulties of accounting for forms and genres of print that are by nature partial, fragmentary, hybrid, even chaotic in their composition and sociology. Genres of excerpt, palimpsest, and mash-up, these texts pressure the organizational structures of libraries and bibliographies alike. As Matthew Philpotts argues, “we still lack systematic theoretical categories for classifying periodicals. Instead,” he continues, “we rely on proxy categories that are normally derived from one of the many specific properties that these publications exhibit” such as size, periodicity, theme, or even price.8 However, these categories overlap and imbricate, conveying relatively little about the contents of the periodicals they supposedly describe. For Philpotts,
the periodical is characterised by apparently contradictory properties: newness and familiarity, openness and closure, diversity and consistency. But these properties do not exist in free play with one another. Rather, there is a necessary coexistence between these centrifugal and centripetal forces…the latter sets the parameters within which the former operates, and our analyses need to take both elements into account.9
In other words, we might argue that what makes a newspaper a newspaper are the appearance of timely, fresh texts—newness, openness, and diversity—couched within familiar genres of writing and reliable material structures of masthead, columns, and even advertisements—familiarity, closure, and consistency.
Newspapers share these qualities with other periodical forms, such as magazines. In our study and this book, we will occasionally discuss a selection that was reprinted in both newspapers and magazines, and indeed the line between those forms was often murky and fungible. For example, while by the early twentieth century Scientific American was clearly a magazine in the modern sense, issued monthly with many pages and elaborate illustrations, in its first decades it was more akin to the newspaper, with which it shared its short length—four and then eight pages per issue—weekly publication schedule, and tight three-column format. In advertisements—often printed in other newspapers—Scientific American was touted as “the best mechanical paper in the world” (our emphasis), a tagline that highlights the publication’s hybrid identity as both technological journal and newspaper. In our analyses, we find that Scientific American also exchanged texts regularly with newspapers, both publishing articles that circulated elsewhere and reprinting poems, lists, and other material from newspapers. While we will occasionally reference such cross-medium publications, this book will focus on newspapers. This focus stems in part from a practical reality, which is that we have exponentially more newspaper than magazine data, so our analyses would by necessity skew heavily toward one medium. However, that reality stems from our early commitment to investigating the literary history of newspapers, which, thanks in large part to the challenges of discovery our project seeks to address, has been far less thoroughly researched than that of magazines.
In nineteenth-century newspapers, reprinted texts from the exchange system—what editors called “selections”—were simultaneously new and familiar, appearing for particular, local readers as novel information or entertainment, while reminding those readers—through citations and form alike—of the system through which selections circulated. In Going the Rounds we propose a set of computational approaches that, we argue, can help scholars account for the contradictory nineteenth-century newspaper. We offer models, for example, that help identify specific texts of particular interest to historians and literary scholars within a vast and largely undifferentiated textual field, as well as models that illustrate larger dynamics of exchange, influence, and imitation among newspapers in the period. This work draws from and contributes to scholarly conversations in literary history, bibliography and book history, periodical studies, digital humanities, information science, and computer science, demonstrating how richly interdisciplinary research methods—and research teams, for that matter—can produce knowledge that resonates across fields.
As they combed through exchange papers (as well as magazines and books) in search of selections, nineteenth-century newspaper editors could spot which texts were being reprinted over and again by their peers. Editors often prefaced their reprintings of popular selections by telling readers a given text was “going the rounds of the press” or “going the rounds of the papers.” Sometimes editors used this phrase to express skepticism about the information circulating among their peers, as when the Weekly Arizonian (10 March 1859) reported about “a story going the rounds of the Eastern papers that President Buchanan is about to marry a Georgia widow,” which they assured readers was “doubtless a sheer humbug.” Likewise the North Branch Democrat (5 November 1862) would caution its readers, “[t]he story that is going the rounds of the papers that General [Lewis] Cass approves of the President’s Emancipation Proclamation, is very good—only it is not true. The General don’t think the Proclamation constitutional.” The Arizona Sentinel (17 February 1877) prefaced a reported small-pox cure with more diffidence, writing coyly that the “following is going the rounds of the press and we give it for what it is worth.” Likewise the Rocky Mountain Husbandman (8 May 1879) would report “[w]e see a column article ‘going the rounds,’ giving instruction how gilt-edged butter, as it is called, can be made” before insisting that the instructions in said column were, in the Husbandman’s opinion, far more elaborate than is necessary for making “as good butter as every tickled the palate already.” The phrase “going the rounds,” then, sometimes licensed editors to circulate material of dubious quality while washing their hands of responsibility for its veracity.
Most often, however, “going the rounds” signaled circulation alone, subtly reminding readers of the systems of exchange, selection, and reprinting that brought items into their local papers. During the early months of the Civil War, for instance, the Camden Confederate (8 November 1861) would “find the following anecdote going the rounds” about a “spunky old Yankee woman” whose two sons had joined the First Vermont Regiment and for whom “the only thing she had to regret was that she could not have known it twenty years ago—she would had furnished more.” And just as some media “goes viral” within particular social groups online rather than generally, nineteenth-century newspapers sometimes reported a text “going the rounds” of a specific community. For example, the Ohio Organ, of the Temperance Reform (22 July 1853) recounted a letter, written by Daniel Webster, which was “going the rounds of the temperance press” and in which the “distinguished statesman” offered “a fine specimen of non-committalism” (sic). Likewise, during the Civil War the New South (2 January 1864) reprinted a racist article about “a private hotel at the south” they claimed was “going the rounds of the rebel press” and which recounts the travails of “Mike” whose requests for service from enslaved Black hotel workers are continually rebuffed because the items he requests are “private” to other hotel guests. In other words, “the rounds” were fungible in conception and scope, variously describing textual circuits of regions or political organizations, the globe, or a small local community.
Many nineteenth-century newspaper editors in the United States saw their primary function as “selection” rather than editorializing, and their primary tools as scissors and paste rather than the pen. Louis F. Anderson expressed such a view when he took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, admitting that he was “not…very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,’” but assuring his new readers that “our pen will not lead us into difficulty” because “our ‘principal assistant,’ the scissors, will be called into frequent requisition—believing as we do, that a good selection is always preferable to a bad editorial” (June 28, 1856). In this quip, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In nineteenth-century US newspapers, circulation often substituted for authorship, while the authority of the newspaper rested on networks of information exchange that underlay its production. “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment,” Alexis de Tocqueville writes, describing circulation as a technology—like the rail and telegraph—compressing space and time, linking individuals around the nation by “talk[ing] to you briefly every day of the common weal.”10 In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects.
This book attends to newspaper selections as a dynamic and understudied corpus of popular American writing in order to begin answering broader questions in American literary history, book history, and bibliography. What happens to our accounts of reading and writing in the nineteenth century when we remove, almost entirely, notions of originality and literary authorship? How can we weave the informational and fragmentary textuality of the newspaper into our understanding of contemporaneous literature? How do historical systems of information exchange foreshadow contemporary ideas such as virality, and conversely how might theorizations of online sharing help us rethink the operations of historical media? How should we represent and account for the messy, fragmentary, fungible textual scene exemplified by the nineteenth century newspaper, and how might these challenging questions of representation and argumentation inform the study of more conventional literary-historical objects?
Such disciplinary inquiries lead necessarily to another, meta-disciplinary question: how should large-scale, digitized historical archives restructure our arguments in literary history: not necessarily toward the “longue durée” advocated by David Armitage and Jo Guldi in The History Manifesto, but instead toward a panoramic textual vista for evidencing scholarly arguments?11 Our methods respond to Guldi’s more recent calls for “critical search” that “means adopting algorithms to the research agendas we already have—feminist, subaltern, environmental, diplomatic, and so on—and searching out those tools and parameters that will enhance our prosthetic sensitivity to the multiple dimensions of the archive.”12 In addition to elucidating new texts worthy of scholarly attention, Going the Rounds uses reprinted newspaper texts at scale to begin outlining the larger geographic, social, and technological networks that underlay the period’s print culture. In this way, we provide a macro view of reprinting as an evolving system that connected shifting configurations of publications and readers over the century. At this macro scale, newspaper reprints can provide evidence not only about what kinds of texts people liked and read, but also about how information moved through time and across geographic space. We argue that grappling with the messiness of the newspaper exchange system unlocks vital new perspectives on nineteenth-century print culture. By centering reprinting in its account of the period, the book offers a critical fulcrum for describing textual repetition, fragmentation, and adaptation; for reckoning with selection, aggregation, and editing as both informational and creative practices; and for expanding the geographic, media, and class boundaries of print culture scholarship.
To accomplish these goals, we propose a methodology that bridges bibliography and computation. We name our method speculative bibliography: an experimental approach to the digitized archive in which textual associations are constituted propositionally, iteratively, and (sometimes) temporarily, as the result of probabilistic computational models. A speculative bibliography enacts a scholarly theory of the text, reorganizing an archive, collection, or dataset to model a particular idea of textual relation or interaction. We will detail our computational model of nineteenth-century reprinting in later chapters, but to oversimplify briefly here, our method posits that the historical practice of newspaper reprinting can be modeled in this way:
if passages of text from separate pages contain at least five matching phrases of five-words length and their words overlap each other by at least 80%, they should be considered “the same” and clustered together.
This is a textual model that is agnostic on questions of author, title, genre, or similar categories which are largely absent from either the nineteenth-century newspaper page or the metadata of twenty-first century digitized newspaper archives.13 In other words, this method seeks to address the material and structural realities of both our historical medium and its modern digitized remediations. The anonymity and volatility of nineteenth-century newspaper reprints present fundamental problems for both literary history and computational modeling, and speculative bibliographies offer simultaneous paths forward in both domains.
The kind of pattern matching we employ in Viral Texts—identifying overlapping strings of characters across tens of millions of newspaper pages—would be far beyond the collation capabilities of a human researcher or the operational capacities of an individual archive. The project relies on digital archives that federate newspapers physically distributed around the world, which means an analog effort along these same lines would require more time than any researcher possesses, an incredibly intricate indexing system, and enormous geographic mobility. We draw on data from the following collections of newspapers and magazines: Library of Congress’ Chronicling America (https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/), Gale’s Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers (https://www.gale.com/c/nineteenth-century-us-newspapers) and British Library Newspapers (https://www.gale.com/intl/c/british-library-newspapers-part-i), Trove Newspapers (https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/), Europeana Newspapers (https://www.europeana.eu/en/collections/topic/18-newspapers), and Cornell University (https://collections.library.cornell.edu/moa_new/index.html), and the University of Michigan’s Making of America collections of journals and magazines (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/moagrp/).14 Such diverse data sources result also in “divergent interpretations of key bibliographic and conceptual categories” across collections, such that researchers hoping to compare textual features must wrestle with inoperable metadata.15 Speculative bibliography recognizes that a unique affordance of digital media is the ability to rapidly reorganize or reconfigure its contents and seeks to identify meaningful patterns for exploration within collections that are often messy and unevenly described. In the Viral Texts model, textual relationships are determined by the formal structures internal to the texts themselves, but our algorithm is nonetheless a bibliographic argument. One goal for this book is to bring both our method and results into dialogue with domain experts, as we see our computational and humanistic work as inextricable from each other in our arguments.
Though it entails some anachronism, as we will outline later in this chapter, we named our project Viral Texts because we do mark distinct similarities between news, rumors, anecdotes, recipes, and a host of other texts “going the rounds” of newspapers in the nineteenth century and videos, tweets, memes, or other media “going viral” on the internet in the twenty-first century. Both phrases identify media itself as the primary actor in its own circulation: poems “go the rounds” and music videos “go viral,” both as if of their own volition. The constant discernment of editors—their scissors and paste journalism—are subsumed beneath an idea of texts’ rhetorical velocity, which we adapt from Dànielle Nicole Devoss and Jim Ridolfo.16 The phrase “going the rounds” also reminded readers that their local paper was connected to many others and provided a rationale for some of the editors’ selections, lending the authority of circulation and currency to political news, opinion pieces, poems, home remedies, and all the other genres that made up the newspapers’ miscellany.
Editors invoked a collective sense of composition and aggregation: not a single “imagined community,” or even “a specific imagined world of vernacular readers” perhaps, but an overlapping set of local, regional, political, national, and communities through which the creation and reception of the newspapers’ many genres were distributed.17 As Trish Loughran argues, US readers in the nineteenth-century experienced a “world…becoming more temporally and spatially commensurate with itself, with dispersed populations feeling not just connected by a mass affect that was nevertheless grounded in a secure local identity…but a more connected world in which temporal and spatial divides were being managed and collapsed in order to engineer mass experiences with others (elsewhere).”18 Each day many thousands of texts crisscrossed the nation, prompting local expressions of collective experiences, from sympathy and piety to outrage and mockery. The exchange system’s editors were primary engineers of mass experiences in the period, while their scissors and paste—alongside the post and telegraph—were its primary technologies of mass affect.
What were editors looking for as they read their exchange papers in search of selections to reprint? The texts that thrived in nineteenth-century newspaper networks were marked by their malleability in form, content, and interpretation. As Garvey writes,
Newspapers contained more than battle and political news. They were full of the fragmented or “morselized” information that became particularly popular in the press of the second half of the nineteenth century. Papers provided troves of tidbits and factoids—household hints, information about word origins, geographic one-liners, and scientific or historical or agricultural items. Columns of miscellany asserted the preciousness of facts and raw information. . . .19
Such “morselized” texts pervaded the newspaper medium, but are rarely remarked by scholars, save as context for lengthier genres of writing. Too ephemeral or occasional for historians and too diverse or trivial for literary scholars, the very ubiquity of newspaper selections has rendered them invisible to most analyses. In Going the Rounds, we outline methods for sorting, evaluating, and analyzing newspaper selections, illuminating genres of popular nineteenth century reading and writing and exemplary texts from these genres, as well as tracing patterns of circulation and information exchange across the exchange system.
This book—and the Viral Texts project from which it emerges—propose that newspaper selections were ancestors of modern “viral media,” embedded in an early platform of mass cultural production. Biological viruses were not named until the nineteenth century was nearly over, and so the word viral is necessarily anachronistic when applied to the period’s newspaper texts. The “viral media” metaphor is a twenty-first-century neologism linking the spread of content or information online to our understanding of contagion and containment (an especially strange metaphor, to be sure, as we write in 2021). In this book we argue that nineteenth-century poems, fiction, news stories, travel accounts, trivia, and jokes “went viral” in newspapers in analogous ways to the tidbits that tile our Twitter feeds today. We posit virality as a comparative framework useful for thinking broadly about the exchange of texts in nineteenth-century newspapers.
J. Gerald Kennedy notes briefly in his introduction to Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture that “first-hand news reports from ‘correspondents’ circulated with viral alacrity, even though no organized system for gathering and distributing news yet existed,” but he does not further develop an idea of how the viral metaphor might illuminate textual exchange within the “more leisurely and inconsistent pattern” of early nineteenth-century circulation.20 A robust and historicized theory of virality, however, developed from corpus-level text analysis, offers a critical perspective that allows us to understand the nineteenth-century newspaper exchange system not as “arbitrary” or “irregular transmission,” but instead as a complex but comprehensible system of textual exchange and influence that operated through distributed, rather than centralized or hierarchical, authority. In order to make this leap, however, we must think of texts in granular and dynamic ways difficult to square with notions of authorship or literary bibliography. We discuss authorship more fully in Chapter 2, “The Network Author,” and so we turn here to virality as it relates to bibliography.
A viral theory of textuality foregrounds circulation and reception, describing not static textual objects but instead the ways texts moved through the social, political, literary, and technological networks that undergirded nineteenth-century print culture. Virality focuses on textual similarity and repetition rather than originality or novelty, tracing the way ideas, instantiated in media artifacts, are inscribed and reinscribed in culture. Viral textuality argues that repetition has as much to tell us as innovation, particularly about the ways that ideas—whether in the dominant culture or within particular subcultures—pervade and assert themselves. We argue that virality’s attention to similarity and repetition is a necessary critical reorientation for considerations of mass media, whether the nineteenth-century newspaper or the modern socially-oriented internet.
To “go viral” today is to be widely and quickly shared—to move rapidly from obscurity to ubiquity—through interrelated platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tiktok. In Going Viral, Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley offer this useful definition of virality, which they describe as:
[A] social information flow process where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own [social] networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in a sharp acceleration of the number of people who are exposed to the message.21
The most successful viral phenomena provoke a range of reactions from their audience, provoking viewers or readers to respond and share widely, but for different reasons and toward different ends. The most successful viral media are interpretively flexible and highly adaptable rhetorically, aesthetically, politically, or otherwise. While we often consider virality at massive scale, focusing on media that pervade popular culture across communities and platforms, social media researchers remind us that viral media primarily serve as means for “forming and signifying communal belonging,”22 and thus operate at different scales. Some media “go viral” globally, while far more go viral within particular communities of identity, interest, or profession.
Nahon and Hemsley use the term “viral events” to describe the constellations of engagement that emerge around viral media. A viral event includes not only an origin piece that is widely shared, but also the rich ecology of media that emerges around it—responses, reviews, remixes, mash-ups, and so forth. In January 2021, for example—during the height of worldwide lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic—Nathan Evans’ rendition of the nineteenth-century whaling ballad “The Wellerman” on the social media platform Tiktok became, in a matter of days, ubiquitous online. While some commentators were mystified that sea shanties and related songs (experts quickly pointed out that “The Wellerman” itself is not, technically, a shanty) would surge in popularity in 2021, others pointed out that the original purpose of these songs, to bring a community together to work through a tough task, suited the pandemic moment well.23 While Evans’ performance of the ballad was undoubtably catchy and impassioned, what made the song into a viral event were the “duet” and “reaction” functions on Tiktok, which allow users to layer their own contributions and responses to an existing video, expanding the material and exposing the audiences in their feeds to the original. The chain of duets for “The Wellerman” grew rapidly, as other users added their voices, instruments, and effects to the song; different versions proliferated, as did reaction videos showing users experiencing the phenomenon.24 Those videos crossed over to other social media platforms and, eventually, television and radio, so that “The Wellerman” spent several weeks at the top of the U.K.’s popular music charts.25 “The Wellerman,” then, should not be thought of as a single, discrete song, but an event of collective attention across platforms and media.
The photograph, video, or text that spawns a viral event can quickly become subsumed by waves of new, responsorial media, linked by a particular artistic, aesthetic, or thematic idea. As Kate M. Miltner and Tim Highfield summarize, popular media forms online rely on a subtle mix of repetition and novelty: “Familiarity and repetition are key…to meme cultures, where memes are repeated and remixed by many, adapted for different contexts yet maintaining the same beats.”26 The “viral event” of a meme comprises all the materials that a savvy reader or viewer would identify as related to the meme—sharing some key formal or thematic elements—but which build on or rework those elements in ways that perpetuate continuing interest in the event for subsequent readers or viewers.27 For critics, viral metaphors are flawed because they occlude human agency, portraying the transmission of ideas as a deterministic, quasibiological process rather than as the result of individuals’ tastes, choices, and social interactions. Henry Jenkins calls “viral media” a term “at once too encompassing and too limiting,” conveying an idea of “circulation as the empty exchange of information stripped of context and meaning.” He prefers the term “spreadable media,” which in his view recognizes “acts of circulation as constituting bids for meaning and value” that “shape the cultural and political landscape in significant ways.”28 In chapter three, we will delve further into the ways that measuring historical virality aligns, or does not, with measuring virality and meme cultures online. In this introduction, however, we note simply that “viral media” has resonated in cultural discourse in ways alternative terms have not. We chose the name of the Viral Texts project in order to suggest analogies between the reprinted nineteenth-century newspaper and magazine snippets we are studying and more recent forms of media sharing online. Many of the models developed to describe online virality can illuminate rhetorical and systemic features of widely circulated nineteenth-century texts that are not readily apparent when described using established bibliographic or literary-historical models.
Rhetorical Velocity in C19 Newspapers
Considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets as a species of “viral media” allows us to frame their spread in terms of “rhetorical velocity,” a term first developed by Jim Ridolfo and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss to describe online composition practices in which writers assume their work will be reused and remixed and compose with an eye toward facilitating such reinterpretive acts. Such writers take as their primary assumption that a piece will be recomposed by others—reprinted or otherwise remediated. Ridolfo and DeVoss propose that “when academics uphold distinctions between author and producer, we are left in an uncomplicated, often acontextual space that does not provide the tools we need to best negotiate the ways in which production and authorship become more slippery in digital spaces and within remix projects.” They argue, “The term rhetorical velocity means a conscious rhetorical concern for distance, travel, speed, and time, pertaining specifically to theorizing instances of strategic appropriation by a third party.”29 In other words, “rhetorical velocity” posits “the text” through multiple dimensions, charting its uses and movements—both social and geographic—alongside its evolving content. What’s more, a piece need not be consciously crafted for a wide audience to have rhetorical velocity; if it is compelling, concise, and easily modified, then it can go with rounds with or without its creator’s knowledge. To return to “The Wellerman,” we might note how the sea shanty or whaling ballad structures, as musical forms designed for multiple voices, explicitly invite the participation of other Tiktok users in ways the platform’s duet feature also facilitates. Those two factors did not guarantee this song would go viral—certainly there are many more songs, similarly structured, that never do—but they did facilitate the rhetorical velocity of “The Wellerman” once it started to spread.
While Ridolfo and DeVoss refer specifically to composing practices online, their frame of rhetorical velocity helps us understand one dimension of what we have been calling here viral textuality, and in turn helps us characterize the motive force of reprinted newspaper content during the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century editors relied on the exchange system to provide engaging content, and they in turn composed (or solicited) original pieces with an eye toward their readers and those of the papers with which they exchanged. In the first post–Civil War issue of the Pulaski Citizen, for instance, editor Luther W. McCord apologizes for the sorry state of “The News” in the paper because “we have no exchanges yet, from which to make up our news items. Our readers can readily appreciate,” the squib continues, “the impossibility of making an interesting paper without something to make it of.” McCord then assures readers that they “hope to have a full list of exchanges by next week and, per consequence, a more readable number of the Citizen” (January 5, 1866). This apology amplifies a common idea among editors, who touted newspapers that aggregated content from exchanges as of higher and more consistent quality than newspapers written entirely by locals. McCord assumes that his primary job will be selecting and propagating writing from elsewhere—contributing to the rhetorical velocity of content written in and for a distributed network—and in important ways not composed for individual newspapers.
Though they would not have named it as such, nineteenth century newspaper editors were concerned with the rhetorical velocity of what they published. In this book we will draw on the Viral Texts project’s extensive data about reprinting to identify pervasive conventions of structure, genre, content, and affect among widely-reprinted selections, speaking to writers’, editors’, and readers’ shared ideas about what features would drive viral engagement. A newspaper whose content was regularly reprinted in other newspapers would soon be added to more exchanges, as editors further down the line sought the source of the pieces they encountered in intermediary papers. Some editors even solicited reprints, as we can see in an article, titled “The Apology,” from Raleigh’s North-Carolina Standard (13 November 1839). The piece is a reprint, but is prefaced “We find the following marked in the Greensboro (Alabama) Republican, which amounts to a request to copy it.” The Standard does not explain fully what is meant by “marked,” but presumably their exchange copy of the Republican arrived in the mail with “The Apology” highlighted, perhaps circled or otherwise indicated in pen or pencil. The Standard’s editor reports to be chagrined by the blatant request, writing, “We have neither time nor room to spare for such a game” but reprints the article anyway, noting, “but we do not wish to disoblige the editor of the Republican.” The article itself upbraids the editor of a different Raleigh paper, the Raleigh Star culminating in the Republican’s editor noting “Having no more occasion for waste paper, we directed our publisher some months since to erase its name from our exchange list.” We would note two specific ways this reprinted article attempts to induce rhetorical velocity: once, from the original paper ostensibly marking an article they hoped an exchange paper would reprint, and second, an exchange paper reprinting a selection with ostensible reluctance that critiques a local rival. In this case, both the original article and the preface to its reprinting are composed for recomposition.
Indeed, when considering nineteenth-century newspaper snippets, we might speak of “composing for recomposition” in a more technical sense, using “composition” not only in its modern meaning, as a near synonym for “writing,” but also as a printers’ term of art, where it referred to the work of assembling movable type to prepare a text for printing.30
As scholars such as Gruber Garvey have shown, texts were reprinted in newspapers to help editors compose entire daily or weekly newspapers with a very small labor force. “By yoking together scattered producers who shared labor and resources by sending their products to one another for free use,” the network of newspapers sustained the proliferation of its medium.31 In other words, reprinting existed in large part to meet the material needs of publication. Many of the changes introduced into texts as they circulated through the newspaper network—a line removed here, two lines added there—were motivated by these practical considerations, as a given newspaper’s compositors shaped exchange content to fill empty spaces on a nearly composed page. It seems reasonable to presume that as a newspaper’s compositors prepared their pages each day or week, they expected—perhaps even hoped—that other compositors in their exchange networks would later recompose their texts, extending the texts’ rhetorical velocity to reach distant audiences. The popularity of reprinted texts about the print shop itself, such as the “Take the Papers” selection we began this chapter with, signals that one significant audience for any paper’s reprints was the broader guild of newspaper workers in the exchange circuit.
As with modern viral media, sometimes newspaper selections were recomposed in more metaphorical ways. Then as now, one of the clearest testaments to the rhetorical velocity of a text in the nineteenth century was the emergence of parodies. A parody assumes widespread audience familiarity with the original piece it mocks (or enlists in the service of mockery)—otherwise much of its humor would be lost on readers. In rewriting the piece for comedic or satirical effect, the parody is both a distinct bibliographic artifact and essential component of the viral event—or the viral text—of the text it parodies. Consider, for instance, “The Inquiry,” by Scottish poet Charles MacKay. The original poem meditates, through four stanzas, on the difficulties of earthly life. In each of the first three stanzas, the speaker questions the “winged winds,” “mighty deep,” and “serenest moon,” asking whether there is on earth “some spot / Where mortals weep no more” or “Some valley in the west . . . free from toil and pain” where the “weary soul may rest.” To these and similar questions, nature answers “No!” in each stanza’s closing couplet. Finally, the speaker asks “my secret soul,” “Is there no happy spot / Where mortals may be bless’d, / Where grief may find a balm / And weariness a rest?” To this final inquiry, the speaker receives a new response: “Faith, Hope, and Love, best boons to mortals given / Wav’d their bright wings, and whisper’d—‘Yes, in Heaven.’”
MacKay’s sincere affirmation of mainstream Christian ideas of the afterlife was widely loved and shared, appearing in several hundred newspapers and also in many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century poetry anthologies. The poem also sold well set to sheet music.32 As we will discuss in detail in the next chapter, according to many of his biographers, “The Inquiry” was a particular favorite of Abraham Lincoln, who may have purchased the sheet music for the piece during his time in Springfield. But the poem also provided rich fodder for satirists, who copied its basic structure and many of its central images but recomposed its details for comedic effect. On March 4, 1857, the Grand River Times (Grand Haven, Michigan) printed “A Parody. By an Old Bachelor,” which reworks MacKay’s devotional lines into a bachelor’s misogynistic lament. This speaker inquires also of the wind, the waves, and the moon in turn, but he asks if there is “some spot” where, for instance, “women fret no more,” “babies never yell,” “hoops are out of place,” “muslin is not known,” or “weary men may find / A place to smoke in peace.” As in MacKay’s original, all three forces rebuff the speaker, though this time with colloquialisms: “Nary place,” “Yeou git eout,” and “Pooh!” And the parody borrows the final couplet of MacKay’s poem almost exactly, as the speaker learns from Faith, Hope, and Truth—not Love, perhaps appropriately—that “females never go” to one place that “bachelors are blessed” and “may dwell in peace”: “in Heaven!” Here the conventional piety of MacKay’s poem becomes a punchline about domestic tranquility, or the lack thereof; this parody too “went the rounds” of the papers.
This first parody was not the last recomposition of “The Inquiry.” On June 23, 1857, the Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) printed “Parody Parodied,” which the editors introduce as written by “some fair writer” who “thus retaliates on the parodist whose production we published some days since.” The editors continue, insisting that “both sides must be heard, and we give the lady a chance.” In this poem, the speaker again queries the elements, wondering if a place exists where “bachelors come no more,” “no moustache is seen,” and “cigars are not,” a place where “weary girls may find / A rest from soft dough faces” continually wooing them. Again after three denials—one tinged with temperance rhetoric, as the sea murmurs, “Not while brandy smashes live”—the three angels of the final couplet assure the speaker that she will find rest from men in heaven. This parody is twice removed from MacKay’s original poem; it is a recomposition of a recomposition. Nevertheless, it clearly belongs to the same viral event as “The Inquiry,” both exploiting and feeding back into the rhetorical velocity of MacKay’s piece. We argue these poems are all part of the same viral text, witnesses of a text’s evolving or even fragment life across its culture.
This viral text was in fact so widespread that the central images and structure of “The Inquiry” would eventually be invoked without any direct reference to MacKay’s original, and even without the visual markers of poetry. For instance, the Raftsman’s Journal of Clearfield, Pennsylvania, first printed this satirical squib as a prose block rather than in poetic lines:
Query.—Tell me ye winged winds that round my pathway roar, do ye not no [sic] some quiet spot where hoops are worn no more? Some lone and silent dell, some Island or some cave, where women can walk three abreast along the village pave? The loud winds hissed around my face, and snickering answered, “nary place.” (4 November 1857)
This is the entire piece, and we might imagine it as written and then reprinted primarily to help compose the page—to fill a small gap. That MacKay’s poem was chosen for this short joke, however, tells us much about the extent of the text’s virality, the practical force of its rhetorical velocity. Editors who printed this squib in their newspapers expected readers to get the joke, quickly and without additional context. Moreover, they could make the joke in shorthand, offering what is in effect a one-paragraph prose poem in place of the four stanzas of the original text or its first parodies. Clearly “The Inquiry” had gone viral to such an extent that an offhand, even oblique, reference could be expected to be recognizable to and resonate with readers. Like a ubiquitous online meme today, “The Inquiry” was so familiar that recomposing it became a performance of simultaneous affection for and ironic distance from the original work.