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Serial Politicization: On the Cultural Work of American City Mysteries, 1844-1860

Sub-Project 7

The success of European feuilleton novels (Eugène Sue, Les Mystères de Paris, 1842-1843; George Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 1844-1846) spawned a new American popular genre: the city mysteries, written between 1844 and 1860 by authors such as George Lippard, Ned Buntline, George Thompson, and Osgood Bradbury. Their thematic concerns and media practices positioned these series as influential players of (and within) an emergent American popular culture in the antebellum era. Utilizing sensationalistic and melodramatic techniques, the city mysteries made a case for social reform at an explicitly national level, thus contributing to the self-reflections of a rapidly modernizing and territorially expanding society. Their thematic repertoire comprised urbanization as fascination and threat, the fate of republican and regional-democratic ideals in a nationalized public sphere, the relationship of populist agitation and party corruption, the exploitation of the working class by powerful capitalists, etc. However, these critical negotiations of antebellum modernity relied on a media practice that itself was essentially modern, viz. serial, commercial, and transregionally active, and that can therefore be seen as an important origin of popular-serial culture in the United States.

The subproject views the city mystery genre as an influential actor within a dynamic network of cultural practices. It investigates (1) an early form of popular seriality at the moment of its explicit advocacy of an imagined national community, holding (2) that, due to their serial production, distribution, and reception, city mysteries not only represent the conflicts of their era but make politics (possible): they structure the field of political agency and participate in the genesis and reproduction of practical politics in the decades before the Civil War. The subproject thus investigates the politicizing dynamics of popular seriality, i.e. the interconnections between serial genre development and modern practices of the political (translocal and transregional party organization, forms of publicity, agitation, etc.), focusing on a compelling but hitherto understudied textual corpus of American literature.


Director: Dr. Daniel Stein, American Studies, University of Siegen