Widespread popular fascination with America, and an appreciation of American culture, was not introduced by Hollywood cinema during the early decades of the 20th century, but emerged during the late-Victorian period and was driven by the popular press. By the 1880s, newspaper audiences throughout the country were consuming fragments of American life and culture on an almost daily basis. Under the impulses of the so-called ‘new journalism’, representations of America appeared regularly within an eclectic range of journalistic genres, including serialised fiction, news reports, editorials, humour columns, tit-bits, and travelogues. Forms of American popular culture – such as newspaper gags – circulated throughout Britain and enjoyed a sustained presence in bestselling papers. These imported texts also acted as vessels for the importation of other elements of American culture such as the country’s distinctive slang and dialects.
This thesis argues that the late-Victorian popular press acted as the first major ‘contact zone’ between America and the British public. Chapter One tracks the growing presence of America in the Victorian press. In particular, it highlights how the expansion of the popular press, the widespread adoption of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, the development of transatlantic communications networks and technologies, and a growing curiosity about life in America combined to facilitate new forms of Anglo-American cultural exchange. Chapter Two explores how the press shaped British encounters with American modernity and created a pervasive sense of a coming ‘American future’. Chapter Three focuses on the importation, circulation, and reception of American newspaper humour. Finally, Chapter Four unpacks the role played by the press in the importation, circulation, and assimilation of American slang.
It makes an original contribution to a number of academic disciplines and debates. Firstly, it challenges the established chronology of Anglo-American history; America gained a significant foothold in British popular culture long before the twentieth century. Moreover, this was not a result of a forcible American ‘invasion’ but a form of voluntary transatlantic exchange driven by the tastes and desires of British newspaper readers. Secondly, it argues that America’s presence in late-Victorian popular culture has been underestimated by historians who have focused instead on domestically produced culture, engagements with Western Europe, and the cultural dimensions of Empire. Whilst the full extent of America’s significance cannot be mapped out in one study, this thesis establishes the extent of America’s cultural presence and makes the case for its insertion into future Victorian Studies scholarship. Thirdly, this thesis contributes to the growing field of press history. It maps out connections between British and American newspapers, exploring how the press served to move information between the old world and the new. Finally, this project acts as an early example of born-digital scholarship; a study conceived in response to the development of digital archives. As such, it contributes to discussions on digital methodologies and debates within the field of Digital Humanities. In particular, it demonstrates that digitisation allows researchers to research and write do new kinds of history; to ask new questions, make new connections, and develop new projects – to do things that we couldn’t do before.