Friday, September 21, 2012

"A Drift-Log on the Mississippi" (1849-1850)

Or, a literary curiosity from The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist, 1849-50.

Here's a fascinating find - or rather, here's a find that I find fascinating: a thrilling story set on and along the Mississippi River, published in a British magazine across the last months of 1849 and the early months of 1850, attributed to the euphoniously named "Zebedee Hickory." I wish I'd encountered it when I was writing my first book. Come to that, I wish I'd encountered it when I was writing my second book, too, because it's a fascinating chunk of Americana - even down to the author's pen-name - produced for British readers in the middle of the nineteenth century, which paints a compelling composite portrait of both the Mississippi and New Orleans.

I can't find any other trace of this story or its putative author. But it is possible to reconstruct some of the circumstances that must have given birth to it. Foremost among them is the presence in England of John Banvard's moving panorama of the Mississippi River from late 1848 to early 1849. For anyone not familiar with this quintessential Victorian entertainment, there's a nice article on Common-Place here which will give you a good sense of the medium (or I've written about them here). Suffice to say that this pictorial representation of the Mississippi attracted thousands of visitors during Banvard's time in England (including a command performance for Queen Victoria), as well as this laudatory review by Charles Dickens. It seems likely, then, that "A Drift-Log on the Mississippi" was inspired, probably in large part, by Banvard and the popularity of his moving picture of America's great river.

Another clear line of influence can be traced to the manifold travel accounts of America - and the Mississippi in particular - that proliferated at this time. I'm thinking particularly of those written by Frances Trollope, Frederick Marryat and Charles Dickens himself. And inspiration has clearly been taken from American writers like James Fenimore Cooper. There's also some food for thought in the fact that this story was published in The New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. At this point in its history, the magazine was owned and edited by William Harrison Ainsworth, best known as a popular historical novelist. But Ainsworth clearly had a penchant for American themes of the sort on display in "A Drift-Log on the Mississippi." In 1837, Ainsworth edited the first European edition of Robert Montgomery Bird's Nick of the Woods, and noted appreciatively: "It is filled with adventure of a kind which could only have arisen in the vast and primeval forests of North America." Could "Zebedee Hickory" really be Ainsworth himself? Who knows. Any ideas very welcome. Here's the complete story:

"A Drift-Log on the Mississippi":
Part 1 (October 1849), Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7 (April 1850)

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