Empire and the Literature of Sensation: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction

Empire and the Literature of Sensation: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction

Empire and the Literature of Sensation: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction

Empire and the Literature of Sensation: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century Popular Fiction


Mid-nineteenth-century American literature teems with the energy and excitement characteristic of the nation's era of expansion. It also reveals the intense anxiety and conflict of a country struggling with what it will mean, socially and culturally, to incorporate previously held Spanish territories. Empire and the Literature of Sensation is a critical anthology of some of the most popular and sensational writings published before the Civil War. It is a collection of transvestite adventures, forbidden love, class conflict, and terrifying encounters with racial "others."

Most of the accounts, although widely distributed in nineteenth-century newspapers, pamphlets, or dime store novels, have long been out of print. Reprinted here for the first time are novelettes by two superstars of the cheap fiction industry, Ned Buntline and George Lippard. Also included are selections from one of the first dime novels as well as the narratives of Leonora Siddons and Sophia Delaplain, both who claim in their autobiographical pamphlets to have cross-dressed as men and participated in the Texas rebellion and Cuban filibustering.

Originally written for entertainment and enormously popular in their day, these sensational thrillers reveal for today's audiences how the rhetoric of empire was circulated for mass consumption and how imperialism generated domestic and cultural instability during the period of the American literary renaissance.


“Oh, there is to the guilty something more terrible in memory, than in all other things. It
gives a double terror, for it links the past with the present and the future.”

—Ned Buntline, Magdalena.

The narrator of Ned Buntline’s novelette, Magdalena, the Beautiful Mexican Maid, captures the impulse of Empire and the Literature of Sensation: it is a collection of nineteenth-century popular fiction that reminds us of the early history of U.S. empire-building in the Americas before 1898. Although conventional wisdom often locates the beginning of imperialism in the SpanishCuban-American War at the end of the nineteenth century, the pieces collected here—most republished for the first time—document the intimate, ambivalent relationships between popular literature and the cultures of imperialism from the 1830s through the early 1860s. This was a culture vested in the acquisition of previously held Spanish territories in the Americas, especially Mexico and Cuba, and it is also a legacy that is foundational to the nation’s emergence as a global power. the memory these popular texts invoke, in other words, is of mid-nineteenth-century imperialism, the Manifest Destiny, that, in Buntline’s time, was a repetition of the past and proved to be a harbinger of the future.

Often designated as the antebellum period, the years before the Civil War were marked by violent conflicts over Indian removal, territorial expansion, and slavery. the War of 1812 established the nation’s independence from England, but by the 1830s, a second war with the Seminole Indians in Florida had begun, and U.S. settlers in the Mexican province of Texas rebelled against Mexico and fought the battles of the Alamo, Goliad, and San Jacinto before Texas established itself as an independent republic that the United States annexed in 1845. a few years later, the 1846–1848 U.S.-Mexico War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which doubled the size of the United States by seizing Mexico’s far northern frontier. the war also reignited the filibustering spirit that reached its zenith during the 1850s. Although the word filibuster would take on different meanings in the twentieth century, during the nineteenth century, it referred to efforts by independent agents and groups to take over foreign lands without the official sanction of the state. Many of these adventurers were veterans who joined armed incursions into Cuba and Latin America, most notably the Narciso López campaigns against Cuba and William Walker’s invasion of Nicaragua. By the time the South seceded in 1861, most of the Civil War’s major combatants—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Robert Jackson, Pierre Beauregard, George McAllen, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman, to name a few—had already seen action in the . . .

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