- “Metamorphosis of the Newsboy”: E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand and the Antebellum Story-Paper
“Reading a newspaper is like reading a novel whose author has abandoned any thought of a coherent plot.”– Benedict Anderson
Critics of U.S. literary culture have begun to chip away at the validity of Benedict Anderson’s longstanding, influential claim that nations (“imagined communities”) emerge out of print culture.1 In one of the most sustained oppositions to this thesis’ applicability to the American context, Trish Loughran has recently argued that the nation dissolved at precisely the moment when mass print culture exploded.2 As she demonstrates, the emergence of print networks, as well as railroads and other technological routes, in the mid-nineteenth century seem to have had perhaps the inverse effect on the institution of the nation. She writes, “Contrary to truisms that link the production of collective affect to the existence of material institutions (from post roads to print culture), the golden age of U.S. nation building did not in fact lead to a golden age of U.S. nationalism but instead ushered in the era of high sectionalism that is now marked in official U.S. history by the most divisive of adjectives: ‘antebellum.’”3
As a print form that rose to prominence during this discordant period, antebellum story-papers provide a singular point of entry into the variable and uneven relationship between print culture and nationalism in the United States. Contributing to previous efforts to uncover the multivalent politics of this enormously popular print form, this [End Page 29] essay argues that the hybridity of the antebellum story-paper operates as a register for the era’s anxieties about the breakdown of the nation as well as the gender conventions that female authorship threatened to overturn.4 Serialized in a story-paper on the eve of the Civil War, E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand, or Capitola, the Madcap (1859), in particular, exploits the uncertainty and generic indeterminacy of the story-paper form in order to dramatize the dissolution of the categories of nation and gender. Unlike its sentimental contemporaries, Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850) or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which seek to foster sympathetic bonds across racial and regional lines and promote normative femininity, Southworth’s novel relies upon the form of the story-paper to disrupt gender norms and national coherence, cultivating chaos instead of domestic calm.5 By examining how her most popular novel, and one of the best-selling novels of the century, exploits and even heightens the notion of crisis, this essay suggests a major revision of our understanding of Southworth’s thinking about Union. Furthermore, it uses the story-paper to offer an alternative model for conceptualizing the relation between print culture and nation in the context of mid-nineteenth century sectionalism.
Following the ascendance of the penny press in the 1830s and 1840s, newspapers increasingly began to appeal to wider audiences, taking their cue from the familiar tone, style, and content of penny papers like the New York Herald, which had proven so successful in democratizing newspaper reading in the previous decade. According to Paul Starr, “The success of penny papers provided a model for a new format for cheap fiction, so-called ‘story papers,’ produced in a newspaper format to obtain cheap postal rates for national distribution.”6 Story-papers first emerged in the American print marketplace in the late 1830s and grew to prominence in the 1840s and 1850s.7 The earliest story-papers relied on reprinting English and European fiction, for which they paid no royalties. However, innovations in printing technology and transportation, the growth of the reading public, and a cultural desire for nationalistic content made it profitable to publish original work by American authors.8
The papers were generally either four or eight pages, with fiction on the front page and short editorial columns on the second page as well as readers’ letters and snippets of news and more stories on the third and fourth pages. They were largely devoid of advertisements, as they subsisted heavily on subscriptions, which...