Pamphlets and Pirate: Popular Print Culture in Antebellum America


The first half of the nineteenth century can be considered a golden age of print culture in the United States. Newspapers, magazines, tracts, and pamphlets inundated American readers with sensational (and sometimes scandalous) stories, popular poetry, reformist appeals, apocalyptic sermons, and even outright hoaxes. Nathaniel Hawthorne complained that “the pamphlet and periodical system” had “broken up all regular literature,” but he owed his fame to the very system he decried. Indeed, many of the authors we now know through carefully edited scholarly editions—e.g. Hawthorne, Stowe, Poe, Whitman—established their careers in the volatile world of periodical publishing, where they shared venues with authors who have since been largely forgotten—e.g. T.S. Arthur, Fanny Fern, George Lippard, E.D.E.N. Southworth. In this class we’ll delve into the raucous world of antebellum print culture: its social networks, its vicious debates, its runaway bestsellers, and its ignominious flops. We’ll read poems, short stories, novels, and essays that found their first readers through the periodical and cheap presses. We’ll also look at the news, editorials, religious tracts, and advertisements that jostled with literary texts during this period in order to consider how such textual relationships may have shaped antebellum readers’ understanding of literature. Assignments will include participation in a class research blog, a presentation, and a final research project.