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.

How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

Continue reading “How Historical?”