Commentary by Melissa Homestead
Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:
Readers who had followed Uncle Tom’s Cabin through twelve installments and eleven chapters were destined to be disappointed when they picked up the 21 August 1851 National Era looking for the next installment. Instead of finding Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the front page in the left column, they found the fifth installment of Patty Lee’s Ill-Starred. A tiny notice on page two told them: “Chapter XII of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ reached us at too late an hour for insertion this week. Mrs. Stowe having requested that it should not be divided, our readers may look for the entire chapter in the next Era.”
As twenty-first-century readers pause in their reading of the serial e-text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it’s worth pausing to think about how extraordinary it was for Stowe and the Era to produce this novel serially for the reading public over the course of nearly a year (about 11 months). Some nineteenth-century novelists who serialized their fiction approached magazine editors with complete (or nearly complete) manuscripts in hand. Stowe, however, was writing her novel week-by-week, just as her readers were reading it week-by-week. She was also, notably, writing the novel in Brunswick, Maine, while running a large household. The challenges of balancing her writing and her domestic role certainly might have delayed her writing of the installment, and the notice implies that she may have sent the installment late with instructions to delay its publication to the next issue rather than including only part of it.
However, consider the challenges of sending each manuscript installment by U.S. mail or private express from a small town north of Portland, Maine, to Washington, DC (then called “Washington City”), where Gamaliel Bailey edited and published The National Era. Bailey also had to conduct an elaborate juggling act, securing enough—but not too much—content to fill the Era’s four large newspaper-format pages, getting the content typeset and laid out in time for printing and mailing. Even though the Era was published in newspaper format and contained news content, particularly about slavery and abolition, much of the work of producing each issue, and especially typesetting installments of serial fiction, would have begun well in advance of the issue date on the masthead.
Emma D. E. N. Southworth, Stowe’s contemporary, fellow National Era contributor, and eventually friend, published serial novels in weekly papers in this fashion for nearly forty years. Southworth’s serial novella Hickory Hall: Or the Outcast. A Romance of the Blue Ridge, a gothic tale about how slavery destroys an elite Southern family, appeared in the Era shortly before Uncle Tom’s Cabin (November 1850 through Janaury 1851). Southworth’s Mark Sutherland: or, Power and Principle, the title hero of which becomes an abolitionist politician, appeared January through August 1853, after Stowe’s novel concluded. Southworth occasionally started a serial late or failed to fulfill an obligation to contribute to a paper, but she never missed an installment once a serial began. In 1850 and 1851, when she contributed serials both to the Era and the Saturday Evening Post, she lived in Georgetown, making for easy delivery of the manuscript to the Era editorial offices and a relatively short and direct mail delivery to Philadelphia (where the Post was edited and published). Later, she contributed to the New-York Ledger, both from Washington and while living in Yonkers, a New York suburb, again, making delivery of manuscript relatively fast and straightforward. In contrast, Stowe’s weekly packages of manuscript pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had to travel more than 500 miles.
So let us pause and marvel at the fact that only three times in eleven months did installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fail to reach the offices of the National Era in time for regular serial publication.
Check out the top news stories, this week in 1851, here!