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  • The Arabian Nights in the English Popular Press and the Heterogenization of Nationhood:A Print Cultural Approach to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities
  • Rasoul Aliakbari

“By no means, Madam,” replied Mr. Stanley; “but I will venture to assert that even story books should not be founded on a principle directly contradictory to them, nay totally subversive of them. The Arabian Nights, and other oriental books of fable, though loose and faulty in many respects, yet have always a reference to the religion of the country. Nothing is introduced against the law of Mahomet; nothing subversive of the opinions of a Mussulman. I do not quarrel with books for having no religion, but for having a false religion. A book which in nothing opposes the principles of the Bible I would be far from calling a bad book, though the Bible was never named in it.”

-Hannah More (1745-1833), English Evangelical writer

I. Aims and Scope

This article investigates the popular print culture of the Arabian Nights1 in nineteenth-century England in order to challenge Benedict Anderson’s standpoints on modern nation-building in his now-classic Imagined Communities. There is a growing body of research on the Nights, its sources, its literary character, its cultural significance, its translations, its adaptations, and its continuing popularity in contemporary cultures throughout the world. Ulrich Marzolph’s website provides an extensive list of [End Page 439] representative scholarship on various aspects of the Nights in its various pre-modern, modern, and contemporary contexts (The Arabian Nights Bibliography). However, reviewing the literature of the Nights on his website and elsewhere, one notices a relative lack of scholarship on the uses of print editions of the Nights to converse with theories of print capitalism and modern nation-building. Responding to this lacuna, this article mainly aims to investigate publications of the Nights for lower-class readers in nineteenth-century England, in order to offer a heterogenized picture of the formation of modern English nationhood.2 In particular, I will explore the print circumstances of Edward Lane’s translation of the Nights as well as some reproductions of, and responses to, the Nights in nineteenth-century British cheap popular periodicals, to develop a critical dialogue with Anderson.3 This dialogue includes revisiting, challenging, and complicating some dimensions of Anderson’s discourses on print capitalism, the formation of the modern nation as an imagined community, and official nationalism. By examining the uses of the Nights for and among British lower classes and the expanding bourgeois readership of the time, I will demonstrate that, unlike Anderson’s conception of nationhood as homogeneous, steady, and solid, the formation of modern English nationhood is heterogeneous, porous, borderly, and conditioned at the intersection of social classes and the oriental literariness of the Nights. In other words, rather than arguing for the impact of the Nights on European literary modernity or nation-building, this essay seeks to demonstrate some of the uses of this tale collection in the English enterprise of nation-building, including the dissemination of ‘wholesome’ reading matter and the establishment of British sovereignty over lower-class and mass readership in England during the nineteenth century.

II. Anderson’s Print Capitalism and Imagined Community

Anderson examines the emergence of the modern nation in the context of the decline of dynastic rule and religious orthodoxies. The weakening of religion in Europe was accompanied by a corresponding decline in the status of Latin as a unifying language of sacred and learned texts, and the proliferation of printed works in vernacular languages. The rise of printed books, which are considered to be “the first modern-style mass-produced industrial commodity,” facilitated the decline of the old ethos and inspired fundamentally new ways in which the literate population regarded themselves and related to one another (34, 36). Particularly, as the market for the European elite community of Latin readers was saturated, print capitalism had to target the potentially extensive community of monoglot readers (38). Moreover, unlike the old, manuscript culture, in which knowledge circulated in arcane languages and in vertical, hierarchical, and esoteric molds, print-as-commodity culture encouraged the [End Page 440] massive, horizontal dissemination...


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