How to Solve Problems with Books: Archives and Advocacy

by Abigail Droge
Published February 12, 2019

This week marked a real treat for “How to Solve Problems with Books”: a chance to see Victorian print culture up close and personal in UC Santa Barbara’s Special Collections. Our goal was to reach a better understanding of how Victorian literature was originally produced and consumed. Of particular emphasis was the question of how the materiality of texts might be related to their accessibility by different audiences, particularly readers from a range of socio-economic classes. To encounter the nineteenth-century archive is also to encounter the impact of industrialism on narrative and knowledge – an impact which resonates in every detail, from the feel of mass-produced paper to the commercialism of advertisements. Ultimately, I hope that a trip to Special Collections can give students a new way of understanding possible connections between the texts on our syllabus and the effects of industrialism that still govern our twenty-first-century experiences.

Students were able to see archival materials related to several authors on our syllabus, including William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and William Morris. We also included additional materials to give a sense of nineteenth-century print culture at large, such as the Illustrated London News. (Its oversized pages and powerful engravings of current events usually make a splash with students.) The centerpiece of the session, however, was a selection of Dickensian materials meant to display the “lifecycle” of a novel, from the author’s first scribbled ideas to adaptations and reprints a century later. We approached the lifecycle in four stages, noting at each stage the cost and accessibility of the text and the class status of imagined readers. Such observations can give us a jumping off point for discussing issues of accessibility today (even digitally-disseminated knowledge still remains material in so many ways).

For the first stage, “Manuscript,” students had the opportunity to see a facsimile of Dickens’s working notes for each of his novels, as well as a real Dickensian signature, saved as part of an ephemera collection. We then examined materials pertinent to Stage Two, “Serialization.” Students saw our two main course texts, Dickens’s Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, serialized weekly in their original form in Dickens’s own journal, Household Words from 1854 to 1855. We noted ads for next installments that would prompt a reader to purchase the subsequent issue. I also encouraged students to flip through the weeks to see what other kinds of articles would have been read alongside Dickens and Gaskell in their natural habitat. To demonstrate a different form of serialization, we then saw Bleak House in twenty “parts,” issued from 1852-1853. It would have taken over a year and a half to read the novel in its original form, with one part coming out every month. Students were especially taken with the ads and illustrations.

The presence of “Advertisers” within the pages of each monthly part of Bleak House helped students to begin to see Dickens as a brand unto himself and led us to a crucial conversation about the ironic relationship between Dickens and industrialism. The man who was one of the most outspoken critics of industrialism (especially the poverty that it caused) was also one of the people whose fame was most deeply entangled with it; Dickens’s career was arguably only possible because of the technological advances in printing that allowed for more cheaply produced paper, which could then be widely and inexpensively circulated. How might such a context change our reading of Hard Times, one of Dickens’s most biting social critiques, depicting the ravages of utilitarian thinking in the polluted and impoverished factory city of Coketown? Do we choose to see Dickens as a hypocrite, directly profiting off of the capitalist system he decries? Or do we choose to see him as a canny social activist, using his platform – dependent upon factory production – to leverage criticisms of industrialized poverty that he was sure would reach thousands of readers? Such ambiguity can perhaps help students to see the nuances in social action today as they imagine how best to address issues like economic inequality, education reform, and climate change in the twenty-first century. (See our third assignment for the course, “Creating a Five-Year Plan.”)

In Stage 3 of a novel’s lifecycle, “Bound Volumes,” students were able to see a first edition of Bleak House that had been bound from parts. (If a reader collected all twenty numbers of a serialized novel, it was common practice to take the complete series to a bookbinder, who would then strip out the advertisements and place the illustrations in the correct sequence within the narrative, following a set of guiding notes at the back of the final number.) We also examined first editions of Hard Times, Pickwick Papers, and A Christmas Carol, as well as an American People’s Edition of Little Dorrit. A Christmas Carol was particularly of interest, in its original gift-book form with gilt binding and colored illustrations. Students latched onto the idea that Dickens was an originator of the commercialized Christmas. Once again, we see a deep-set irony: Dickens is both the author with whom we most associate the warm, fuzzy feeling of Yuletide good cheer and generous giving, and the figure who did much to ensure that an obsession with material goods would always remain at the heart of the holiday. Some of the other authors on our syllabus, like Karl Marx or William Morris, may well have found fault with Scrooge’s conversion at the end of the Carol: philanthropy as a proposed solution to economic inequality does little to address the root causes of the problem, and instead allows the capitalist system to run on unhindered (and thus able to support the printing and dissemination of more Dickensian publications). Creating such dialogue between authors is part of our goal.

For the final stage in the lifecycle of a novel, “Later Editions and Adaptations,” students saw beautifully illustrated twentieth-century editions of David Copperfield and Hard Times, as well as a set of illustrated “Character Sketches” from artist Joseph Clayton Clarke (pseudonym “Kyd”), whose career was largely built on producing artistic Dickensian memorabilia. Students resonated with the idea of Dickens as a nineteenth-century Walt Disney, based on the profusion of merchandise associated with Dickens’s characters. I encouraged students to think about the impact that illustrations could make on the experience of reading a text, as well as the differences between these lavish fine press editions and the small typeface and thin paper of earlier cheap editions.

At the end of class, students had time to explore the materials that most interested them. I provided a worksheet with three guiding questions:

1) Pick an object and describe what you find interesting about it. What are some of its physical characteristics? Who might have been its original readers and what might it have meant to them? What kind of reading experience is prompted by the materiality of the text, such as the quality of the paper, the illustrations, the size of the volume, etc?

2) How does this object change or add to your conception of nineteenth-century industrialism or any of the authors on our syllabus? What questions does this object raise for you?

3) Do you see any possible connections between this object and our assignments so far? Could you put this object in conversation with the twenty-first-century issue that formed the basis for your team’s Research Memo? Does it affect how you might choose to portray the perspective of a nineteenth-century author or character in our second assignment, Advice from the Victorians?

To me, the archival experience provides one of the greatest incentives for humanities advocacy. If we can hold in our hands the same texts that nineteenth-century readers held in theirs, some worn to shreds by over-use, then we can truly feel the impact of a narrative and its power to speak across centuries. In a Special Collections session, it is possible to bring the archives forward into direct conversation with current issues, while still preserving the alterity of the texts through their unfamiliar material forms. In this way, students can understand that history might simultaneously be both othered and applicable.

A huge thanks to UCSB Special Collections, especially Daisy Muralles, for generously hosting this session!

This post is part of a series about the ongoing UC Santa Barbara English course “Uses of Literature: How to Solve Problems with Books.” For context, read more about the motivations and design process behind the course. 

The goal of the Curriculum Lab is to ensure a steady dialogue between research and teaching for the WhatEvery1Says project. For more information, see our webpage and this introductory blog post, and stay tuned for more Curriculum Lab posts throughout the year!