- Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers1
When Louis F. Anderson took over the editorship of the Houma Ceres in 1856, he admitted that he was “not … very distinguished as a ‘knight of the gray goose quill,’” but assured 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.”2 Thus, Anderson sums up a set of attitudes toward the production, authorship, and circulation of newspaper content within a system founded on textual borrowing. In the antebellum US context, circulation often substituted for authorship; 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” (111). In both examples, the newspaper’s primary value stems from whom and how it connects.
Antebellum newspaper pages were replete with anonymous or pseudonymous texts, culled from other papers or cited merely as “making the rounds.” In such a textual environment, the value of widely reprinted snippets derived from their movement through the
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exchange system, not the genius of individual creators. Like some viral content online today, which can become noteworthy because of its virality, the system of newspaper exchanges produced a kind of feedback loop, in which texts circulated because of their perceived value to readers, while that perceived value was frequently tied to a given piece’s wide circulation. The social and technological operations of a newspaper network often proxied the author function, as the names of source newspapers stood in place of an authorial byline. Through the process of selection and republication, editors appropriated the collective authority of the newspaper system, positioning their publication as one node within larger political, social, denominational, or national networks, their content as drawn from and contributing to larger conversations across the medium.
The composition and circulation of texts among antebellum newspapers offers a model of authorship that is communal rather than individual, distributed rather than centralized. I propose that an idea of the “network author” accounts for the ways in which meaning and authority accrued to acts of circulation and aggregation across antebellum newspapers. This idea of a network author extends scholarly notions of reprinting, reauthorship, and the social text by identifying composition in terms of writers, editors, compositors, and readers enmeshed in reciprocal, mutually dynamic relationships of reception, interpretation, and remediation. In theorizing a network author function in antebellum newspapers, I mean not to reinscribe the author’s tombstone. Instead, I hope to bring into focus alternative modes of reading and writing that flourished alongside and informed “the more or less constant rise in social prestige” of the term author through the nineteenth century (Pease 108).3 While periodical writers were not often accorded the social prestige of authorship—consider Poe’s biting critique of magazine writing in “How to Write a Blackwood Article”—their work nevertheless circulated more thoroughly than many of their literary counterparts’. Given the myriad ways in which literary authors participated in periodical production and reception—as writers, editors, and certainly as readers—such in-fluence could not have run in a single direction.
Ultimately, the frame for this argument must be comparison, in the mode of “comparative textual media,” as N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman describe the nexus shared by literary history, digital humanities, and the history of the book. Hayles and Pressman propose that “genre conventions can be reconceptualized so they are approached through the ways in which they presuppose and draw on different media functionalities” (Introduction). Here, I negotiate primarily between two mediums: nineteenth-century newspapers and the twenty-first-century digitized corpus of those historical newspapers. Rather than simply a surrogate for the material object, the [End Page 418] digitized...