To Book or Not to Book, Harriet Beecher Stowe Edition

Full disclosure: I’m a graduate student writing a dissertation on 19th-century periodicals. I’m going to get up on my soap box now. I know that my objection is tiny and esoteric and navel-gazey in the extreme, but I think this matters. Let me tell you why.

A few months ago, I was watching — and loving — The Abolitionists on PBS’ American Experience. And in general, I think it’s wonderfully well done examination of the people who fought slavery in antebellum America.

Except that in a nearly 10-minute long segment on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Abolitionists made what to my mind is a fairly serious error: they omitted the novel’s serialized history. The narrator gives the publication date as 1852, ignoring the first version of the novel: a 41-week installment in The National Era that ran between June 1851 and April 1852. This morning, PBS’ Makers (which was also awesome) repeated that error in their Twitter feed.

Now, the Era only reached about 50,000 people, which isn’t small potatoes for a periodical in that year but is nothing compared to the millions who would read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in book-form. But there’s no way Stowe’s novel would have been as successful, or as successful as quickly, if it hadn’t already made a big splash as a serial.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s a twentieth-century error to privilege the book as a physical object over other forms of texuality, which is what I think is happening when Uncle Tom’s Cabin is given the 1852 publication date. Until the late nineteenth century when the price of paper fell leading to the rise of cheaper books, books weren’t necessarily the primary way people read. Newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets: all of these were more important. So what I’m saying is that we can’t, or we shouldn’t, look back at the past using our own biases. We should look at publishing in the 1850s in all its glorious nuance, and that includes embracing the serialized novel in a periodical.

Given all the upheavals in publishing today, including the rise of the e-reader, the book may be in the process of being displaced. Non-book serials are certainly making a come-back, see the success of erotic romance writer Beth Kery for example.

At the end of the day, is it really a huge error to give the publication date of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as 1852 and to ignore the serialization? Probably not. What really matters is Stowe’s words — her gut-wrenching, patronizing, moving, troubling, complicated words — but we shouldn’t bring our own biases about what forms matter and how people read to a nearly 162-year-old work.

Thus endeth my rant.

One thought on “To Book or Not to Book, Harriet Beecher Stowe Edition

  1. Oh oh oh! I thought of a better way to explain it: giving Uncle Tom’s Cabin a publication date of 1852 is as if someone gave you the date a movie was released on DVD rather than when it was released in theaters.

    So, for example, it’s as if someone told you the release date for Fahrenheit 9/11 was fall rather than summer 2004. The release date matters, right, because June 2004 (when the documentary did come out in theaters) was a really fraught time, it was at a pivotal moment in a heated presidential election, etc., so giving the later date — a date which is correct but for a different form — gives an alternative, and slightly inaccurate, sense of the text’s history.

    This is a better metaphor.

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