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Fireside Chat: Steady Sellers and the Problem of Inequality in 19th-Century America (Emily Gowen)

What can we make of the fact that Robinson Crusoe was invoked in an 1835 issue of Mechanics’ Magazine in an article extolling the economic power of labor? Or that Harriet Jacobs patterned parts of her autobiographical slave narrative after Samuel Richardson’s Pamela? Or that The American Sunday School Union issued a cautionary poem about little girls’ tendencies to misread Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as an adventure tale and strike out on their own unsupervised pilgrimages? “On the Margins” examines how early novelistic fictions made their way into the reading lives of American readers who were disempowered along lines of race, gender, age, and economic status, and argues that we can begin to answer the questions posed above by attending to the material reconfigurations of these works in the emerging mass-print marketplace of the antebellum United States.

This project sits at the intersection of novel theory, histories of reading, and histories of the book, and like many transatlantic studies of popular literature, is interested in the way reprinting, editing, and imitation transform a work across time and space. This presentation will focus on the ways abridgements, adaptations, chapbooks, children’s editions, and visual culture invocations of each of these novels influenced their reception, generic status, and canonization in the nineteenth century, and reveal ways readers resisted or subverted prevailing accounts of both the risks and benefits associated with evolving projects of literary inclusion.

Emily Gowen is the current Albert M. Greenfield Dissertation Fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia and a Ph.D. Candidate in Boston University’s department of English. Essays adapted from her dissertation project are forthcoming in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists and American Literature. Her work has also been supported by fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the McNeil Center for Early American Studies, and she will be a 2021-22 Fellow at the Boston University Center for the Humanities. She is also an affiliate at Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

Talking in the Library will serve as an audio platform for researchers to share the incredible work they’re pursuing using the rich collections at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Talking in the Library is hosted by Will Fenton, the Director of Scholarly Innovation, and produced by Ann McShane, the Project Digital Asset Librarian at Emory University.

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