Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Reading England's Mail: Mid-Century Appropriation and Charles Dickens's Traveling Texts

Academic journal article Dickens Quarterly

Reading England's Mail: Mid-Century Appropriation and Charles Dickens's Traveling Texts

Article excerpt

Charles Dickens habitually connects two Victorian industries that regulate texts traveling to America and creates an image of British words in danger across the Atlantic. Both international copyright law and the reformed British post office have received excellent treatments in isolation, most notably by Lawrence Houtchens, Gerhard Joseph, Richard Hank, Meredith McGill, Catherine Golden, and Kate Thomas, but critics have yet to explore the relationship between the two, either in Dickens's work or in transatlantic print culture. In the mid-nineteenth century, Dickens identified himself as a vocal supporter of stringent international copyright regulations and of England's new Penny Post. In travel narratives, novels, and periodicals alike, Dickens's use of reprinted articles and lost letters reveals a common fear of textual and--ultimately--national violation. Supporters of international copyright did their best to stop American publishers from claiming England's texts as their own, while the Penny Post promised to do the same for private letters, preventing interpersonal communication from being redirected, read, and published on American soil.

To some extent, both fears were overblown. The American postal system did not misplace an unusually large number of English letters, and many British authors used American reprinting practices for their own benefit. Why then, we might ask, do Dickens's novels and essays demonstrate ongoing--and intertwined--anxiety about public and private textual appropriation? More importantly, why does that anxiety conflate two forms of American textual piracy, suggesting that English words are not safe abroad? The linguistic threat of appropriation lies deep within Dickens's canon, structuring and inflecting his characters' relationship with "Brother Jonathan." (1)

My critical intervention responds to Amanda Claybaugh's call for a "new transatlanticism" that investigates material networks between the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, and the Americas (439). For the moment, I limit my inquiry to links between Britain and the United States, but I can imagine a productive extension of similar questions to other locations on the Atlantic rim. My exploration of postal and periodical appropriation also consciously begins from a British perspective and spreads outward. Like McGill, who addresses transatlantic reprinting from an explicitly American perspective, I start within a national archive and use a transatlantic mode of reading to emphasize the textual networks that call national boundaries into being and call those same boundaries into question. By attending to transatlantic "flow and exchange," I hope to explore intersections between postal and periodical appropriation that, until recently, literary studies was too specialized to acknowledge (Flint 270). After tracing how the post office and the periodical press increasingly stand in for national identity, and the intersection between the two transatlantic systems in Charles Dickens's career, I turn to three telling moments. The first from American Notes for General Circulation, the second from Martin Chuzzlewit, and the third from a Household Words article co-written by W. H. Wills entitled "Valentine's Day at the Post Office," collectively imply that the problem of unsafe texts may not limit itself to American shores.

Between 1830 and 1860, both the British postal system and the periodical press were on the rise, and, during that same period, both became increasingly associated with an English identity. On January 10, 1840, England introduced the Penny Post, which standardized the postage rate, gave senders the responsibility for payment, and facilitated the reliable delivery of personal mail. Postal reform may have begun as a practical necessity, but a successful promotional campaign transformed it into what Kate Thomas would call an "instrument and metaphor" of national unification (11). As an "instrument," the post expanded the horizon for England's communication and organization. …

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