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“Fugitive Verses”: The Circulation of Poems in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers

This is a peer reviewed but uncopyedited pre-print of an article forthcoming in American Periodicals 27, vol. 1 (Spring 2017). We provide it by the generous permission of the Ohio University Press. When the copyedited issue is published we will provide a link to the final version of the article here.

“Fugitive Verses”: The Circulation of Poems in Nineteenth-Century American Newspapers

By Ryan Cordell and Abby Mullen

WHEN the lessons and tasks are all ended,
    And the school for the day is dismissed,
And the little ones gather around me,
    To bid me good night and be kissed;
O the little white arms that encircle
    My neck in their tender embrace!
O the smiles that are halos of heaven,
    Shedding sunshine of love on my face!

I. Introduction

Our epigraph is the first stanza of “The Children,” a mostly forgotten nineteenth-century poem in which a schoolmaster muses at the end of the school day on the divinity he sees reflected in his pupils. “The Children” is not collected in The Norton Anthology of American Literature or similar volumes, and has been since unremarked by scholars, but it was an exceedingly popular poem in its day: anthologized in books of poetry; praised by critics, poets, and readers; and widely reprinted in newspapers and magazines. “The Children” was reprinted at least 171 times in American periodicals between September 22, 1864, and December 3, 1899, making it one of the most widely reprinted poems from the nineteenth century thus far discovered by the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University.[1]

Viral Texts employs methods from text mining and corpus linguistics to identify frequently reprinted texts of all kinds, unknown a priori, from large-scale, digitized corpora of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines. We will not in this article dwell on the project’s methods—which we have thoroughly outlined in previous writing—except to offer our computational exploration as, in Lauren Klein’s words, “a technique that stirs the archive” and surfaces patterns of poetic publication across a broad swathe of nineteenth-century newspapers.[2] With Mary Loeffelholz, we are drawn toward “clusters in the data” of nineteenth-century poetry, “typographical galaxies in what otherwise can appear as darkly organized matter,” though our clusters of reprinted texts are created algorithmically.[3] A majority of the most widely reprinted texts thus far surfaced by the Viral Texts study circulated anonymously and exemplify a wide range of genres: for example, news reports, recipes, trivia, lists, vignettes, or religious reflections. We have argued that the idea of a “network author” helps account “for the ways in which meaning and authority accrued to acts of circulation and aggregation across…newspapers” rather than adhering to individual writers. Nineteenth-century newspaper literature must be understood through systems of relationships, “reception, interpretation, and remediation.”[4]

Though the authors of a majority of nineteenth-century newspaper literature were anonymous, poems appear in nearly every issue of nineteenth-century U.S. papers and are often—though by no means usually—attributed to specific authors. This is particularly true for the poems of famous authors, whose names adhered more closely to their poems as they circulated through newspaper reprinting than did those of lesser-known writers.[5] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems, for example, were frequently presented in ways that contributed to his reputation as America’s foremost poet. His poem “The Day is Done” was reprinted in at least 100 newspapers, where it was most often attributed to “Longfellow,” “Prof. Longfellow,” “H. W. Longfellow,” or “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” while we have identified only six instances in which it was printed anonymously.[6] The common abbreviated references to “Longfellow” or “Prof. Longfellow” signal the poet’s celebrity, on which newspapers no doubt hoped to capitalize when printing his work. Such examples seem to replicate familiar, relatively stable literary conventions rather than the network authorship typical of other newspaper writing.

Drawing from a sample of several hundred of the most widely reprinted poems identified in the Viral Texts project, however, we find that accuracy and consistency of attribution were enjoyed by a small minority of the poets whose work circulated most broadly in newspapers.[7] Far more poems circulated anonymously, semi-anonymously, or uncertainly attributed. R. J. Weir and Elizabeth Lorang note that “literary and cultural scholars have tended to regard anonymous publication as a stop along the way to professional authorship, as a mark of inconsequential or ephemeral literature, or as only a puzzle to be solved.” This dichotomy between known and unknown authors, or between consequential and ephemeral literature, does not fit into the messy realities of nineteenth-century print culture. As Weir and Lorang show, “anonymity…was a fundamental characteristic of nineteenth-century American literary culture,” far more common to popular poetry than our current bibliographies and anthologies reflect, and often reflective of complex authorial assemblages that cannot be reduced to a single writer.[8] Local context reshaped readers’ understandings of poems and their authors, as clearly understood citations in one context (such as an editor’s initials) fell away or lost their reference when a poem was reprinted elsewhere. In other words, poetry—perhaps the most explicitly literary genre of nineteenth-century newspaper reprinting—was profoundly shaped by the network effects of the exchange system, from mistakes of fact (or typesetting) that rippled through the newspaper exchanges, to debates over authorship and narratives of provenance crafted to compel readers’ engagements with newspaper poems.

As Michael Cohen argues, “nineteenth-century poems are often most interesting for the ways nineteenth-century people did or did not read them” as “poems facilitated actions, like reading, writing, reciting, copying, inscribing, scissoring, exchanging, or circulating, that positioned people within densely complex webs of relation.” In this article we trace such “webs of relation” through widely reprinted poems, largely focused on “the ways poems were meaningful outside of…literary analysis.”[9] Equally important to the language, structure, or content of poems’ lines were the contextualizing titles, attributions, and introductory prose that framed verses for newspaper readers, and these shifted dramatically as poems wended their ways across the country. We propose a nineteenth-century term, “fugitive verses,” as a conceptual framework for grappling with the textual and authorial fluidity of newspaper poetry, a genre that gestured toward the stability of literary conventions while refracting those conventions through the exchange, selection, and seriality that defined newspaper networks.

II. Fugitive Verses

On first glance we might identify a stable notion of authorship in the history of “The Children,” which was typically represented on the newspaper page as an authored poem. The nature of that authorship, however, was profoundly shaped by the operations of the exchange network. The poem was written by Charles M. Dickinson, a lawyer, newspaper editor, poet, and diplomat who worked primarily in Binghamton, New York, in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Dickinson wrote “The Children” at 19, and it was by far the most popular poem he would pen in a long lifetime. It first appeared in Charles Scribner’s 1864 collection, The School Girl’s Garland, and circulated in U.S. newspapers during the mid-1860s under either Dickinson’s name or his pen name, “the Village Schoolmaster.”[10] Soon thereafter, however, we mark in the Lewistown Gazette (Lewistown, Pennsylvania) of 8 August 1866, the first attribution in our findings to famous English novelist and magazine editor Charles Dickens.[11] In total, we identify 114 newspaper reprints of “The Children” that attribute the poem to Dickens, while only 29 cite Dickinson, 2 cite “The Village Schoolmaster,” and 26 print the poem anonymously. Indeed, a brief but persistent narrative began to grow up around this poem after Dickens’ death in June 1870, as newspapers began prefacing the poem with the claim that it had been “found in the desk of Charles Dickens after his death,” lending an air of mystery and biographical significance to the text. This narrative of postmortem discovery can be traced around the world. Of the 76 nineteenth-century reprints of “The Children” we identify in Australian newspapers, 67 attribute the poem to Dickens—a good many with the accompanying death desk narrative—8 print it anonymously, and only 1 cites Dickinson. Our UK corpus is smaller, but there we identify 8 reprints of “The Children,” 7 of which attribute it to Dickens. Most of these repeat the narrative of the novelist’s near-death composition of this poem, a fiction which became through wide circulation a commonly understood fact about the origins of “The Children.”

Most nineteenth-century readers of “The Children” encountered it not in an edited volume, but in their local newspapers, and a majority of them must have understood it as a late or even deathbed composition by Charles Dickens. Jerome McGann describes such a textual scene as “a complex documentary record of textual makings and remakings” (31). In this case, those remakings persist primarily in paratext, which changed not the words of the poem but the cultural situation of those words. “The Children” was remade for many readers into a Charles Dickens poem, a manufactured narrative that nonetheless constitutes an essential component of what D. F. McKenzie would call the poem’s social text. This social text changed not only how readers viewed “The Children,” but also how they viewed Dickens. “Let his own verses attest,” wrote the editor of the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel (15 June 1870), that “Dickens was neither irreligious nor hypocritical!” but was rather “true and staunch—everywhere the friend of humanity.”

Though “The Children” was not for most readers an “anonymous” poem, its authorship is nonetheless complex, refracted through lenses of authenticity, fame, and readerly response. Charles M. Dickinson was practically anonymous for most readers of his poem, hidden behind a celebrity doppelgänger. We might argue that “The Children” is not a discrete poem, but a series of bibliographic events, unfolding in a complex textual ecosystem under fungible standards of originality and attribution. To fully grasp the bibliography of this poem we must account for it as both Dickinson’s and Dickens’s, and make sense of it both as a poem and as a memoriam for a beloved novelist. To read the “The Children” in this way is a kind of “deformance,” in the sense from Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann of “reading poems backward” in ways that allow us to ask “not ‘what does the poem mean?’ but ‘how do we release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning?’” The historical possibilities of meaning for “The Children” were widely various among readers, depending on which newspaper they encountered the poem in, and when in its circulatory life.[12]

To theorize such series of bibliographic events, we borrow a term and critical framework from nineteenth-century newspaper editors: fugitive verses. In the nineteenth century, “fugitive” could mean evanescent or fleeting, while a fugitive bit of writing could be ephemeral or occasional, as when the North Carolina Standard claimed that “some of [Longfellow’s] fugitive pieces may be more brilliant” than Evangeline, though “none are so well sustained” (31 May 1851).[13] In these instances, “fugitive” describes the content of the poetry itself, as when the Woodville Republican (12 August 1851) described the work of “accomplished and beautiful lady authoress” E. W. Foote Cheves’ book Sketches as “a collection of fugitive pieces in prose and verse,” or when the Jeffersonian Republican (7 November 1850) noted that the recently deceased P. M. Deshong—“a mathematician of considerable celebrity”—had also “written many fugitive verses of rare merit and ability.” While in these cases the authors of fugitive verses are clearly identified, at least in hindsight, the term implies that the poems were composed occasionally, even casually. Moreover, in these cases the term “fugitive” shows a contemporary awareness that Cheves’ and Deshong’s poems invoked a particular “fugitive” style, which we will discuss below, and that they were likely printed anonymously in many newspapers.

Newspaper editors often used “fugitive” to describe poems that circulated anonymously, or whose authorship was disputed. For instance, the Burlington Free Press (27 December 1850) introduced an anonymous poem as a “charming little fugitive somnambulist wandering about the newspaper world, wringing its little hands, and imploring to be taken in,” while the Coconino Sun (19 November 1898) described the widely reprinted religious poem “There Is No Death” as a “fugitive poem that many authors claim.” These examples recall the resonances of “fugitive” most familiar from political and legal discourse about enslaved black Americans in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, such connections could not have been lost on period editors, as pages that include discussions of “fugitive verses” very often include discussions of fugitive slaves or the Fugitive Slave Act, as one can see in the Jeffersonian Republican for 7 November 1850.[14] Calling a verse “fugitive” implied that it had escaped its owner, that it was circulating surreptitiously. This definition makes the punch line in the following joke reprinted in the San Saba News (29 May 1891): “De Mascus: ‘Why did he call it a collection of fugitive verses?’ / St. Agedore: ‘Probably because they escaped from the pen.’”

As this jokes implies, the term “fugitive” insists that poems within the exchange system should have authors—or owners—but that the newspaper’s material and social operations undermine such controls. Here we might draw parallels between the status of fugitive verses and Lara Langer Cohen’s reading of William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel. While noting that “the study of literature by former slaves” has in particular “been tightly organized around the author function,” Cohen argues that the “appeal [of such models] was not universal” among former slaves and that scholars’ “attachment to an interpretive model that equates the books and persons of former slaves might likewise speak more to the enduring power of slavery’s market logic than to the evidence of the texts themselves.” Brown, Cohen argues, “seems uninterested in presenting a story” so much as acting as “something akin to…an editor” for whom lines between fact and fiction were largely unimportant. Cohen argues, “Instead of relegating Clotel’s citations to footnotes” scholars should “restore their disorienting presence within the text,” and such a capacious bibliographic process is also required for grappling with fugitive verses.[15]

Fugitivity is both a condition and an outcome of the newspaper’s scene of “textual makings and remakings,” in which poetry circulates outside poets’ direct oversight and through networks of editors and readers. As Herbert F. Tucker argues of British poetry, “The nineteenth century developed the nearest thing that publishing poets have ever had to mass readership, with distributive possibilities and marketing schemes to match, but also new grounds for anxiety about whom a poet was speaking to—indeed, about whether anyone was listening.”[16] The newspaper exchange system was simultaneously the broadest distribution channel and least certain communication channel for poets during the period. Poems traveled far and fast through reprinting, but their form, authorship, and reception were distributed through a highly variable network over which typical literary authorities had little say.

For example, some contemporary commentators reacted against misattributions of “The Children,” but their protests were lodged largely in literary magazines and books, and thus largely failed to influence the poem’s life in the newspapers. In 1889 Dickinson himself addressed the controversy in The Children, and Other Verses, the only book of his poetry he would publish. He printed a single endnote in the entire volume, attached to “The Children,” which transcribed a letter “from the son of the dead Novelist”:

DEAR SIR: In reply to the letter which MR. WILLIAM HENRY SMITH has been good enough to forward to me, I willingly testify to the fact that “The Children,” which has so often been erroneously attributed to my father, was not written by him; and that, far from having claimed it as his, I have written during the last seventeen years, a large number of letters, and have many times inserted in my magazine, Household Words, answers to correspondents, stating that the story about the poem having been found in my father’s desk after his death was entirely apocryphal, and that I was altogether unaware to whom the credit of the authorship of the verses was due.[17]

In April 1891, the Magazine of Poetry printed a biography of Dickinson alongside six of his poems. Their biography of Dickinson begins with an account of “The Children,” noting that “about 1870, some careless compositor dropped the final letters from ‘Dickinson,’ and since then the poem has gone the rounds of the newspapers ascribed to Charles Dickens.” Despite these and similar attempts to correct the record, however, the “apocryphal” story of Dickens’ authorship proved remarkably resilient. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, for instance, reprinted the poem in March 1869 as Charles Dickens’, an error they corrected in June 1870: “The following pretty poem, which has been repeatedly published in this country as the production of Charles Dickens, is said by the New York Commercial Advertiser to be the production of Charles M. Dickinson, of Binghampton, New York, a talented young lawyer of that city.” However, when the Intelligencer reprinted the poem a third time in November 1872, they attributed it again to Dickens. The pervasive myth of Dickens’s authorship of “The Children” overshadowed the Intelligencer’s attempts to right the poem’s bibliography. Even reprinted newspaper poetry was, by necessity, of the moment in the individual issues in which witnesses appeared. Thus poems’ content and paratext were always fugitive, always in transition.

III. The Occasion of the Newspaper

While “fugitive” began the nineteenth century primarily as a descriptor for occasional poetry, as the century progressed the term’s meaning broadened in ways closely tied to the medium of the newspaper itself. We trace a shift from “fugitive” meaning poems published to mark one specific occasion in time to meaning poems that demonstrate the serial, circulatory, and recursive temporality of newspaper publication and readership. Tucker argues that “in its temporal dimension poetry manifests structure as repetition; the more interwoven and reinforced the repetition, the more a poem’s timing may be said to achieve spatiality, to take place.”[18] We identify repetitions of many kinds at play in widely reprinted newspaper poems. First, they are as a group likely to employ highly repetitive structures across lines and stanzas, which explains also why many fugitive verses were also popular songs.[19] A typical example is Elizabeth Akers Allen’s popular lament, “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother,” which was printed in at least 160 U.S. newspapers and attributed to many different authors as it circulated. Its six stanzas comprise four rhyming couplets apiece and all end with the identical refrain, “Rock me to sleep, mother—rock me to sleep!” These qualities make the poem eminently singable and it was indeed sold in sheet music.[20]

Similar verse structures are common among widely reprinted newspaper poems. As the New York Daily Tribune (18 April 1845) writes of another “collections of fugitive verses by one hand”—in this instance “Amelia,” the mononymous pen name of Amelia B. Welby—“A severe critic would make something of sameness in these Poems,” as well as “faulty rhymes and an occasional platitude.” The newspaper rejects such criticisms as the final word on Amelia’s fugitive verses, however, noting that “The Poems are in the main good; some of them linger pleasantly in the memory; they are artless, and melodious; the simplest can appreciate them; they delight, expand and chasten,” all qualities which will “win an enduring place in our National Literature that is to be.” The Tribune praises qualities that contribute to the “sameness” in Amelia’s poems: they are “melodious” and even “artless,” they “linger pleasantly” while offering entertainment and moral instruction.

In another key repetition, fugitive verses often moralize, and in their chastening or instruction echo and reinforce the lessons of middle-class classrooms, sermons, and parlors. The poem “Tired Mothers,” printed in at least 220 U.S. newspapers between 1872 and 1899, scolds mothers who “do not heed the velvet touch / Of warm, moist fingers, folding yours so tight” because “You are almost too tired to pray tonight,” insisting to those mothers that “it is blessedness!” The narrator recounts over five stanzas how the loss of her own child taught her to treasure the seeming trials of domestic life, so that now, “I wonder so that mothers ever fret, / At little children clinging to their gown.”[21] The poem offers empathy for bereaved parents and an emotional reminder to fortunate parents to value their children while they can. The sentiment of “Tired Mothers,” in other words, is both mournful and conventionally domestic. The poem’s content and sentimental appeal echo other newspaper poems, across both time and space, fostering both recognition and novelty for middle-class readers.

Such pieces were perfectly suited for collection in a scrapbook. Ellen Gruber Garvey demonstrates how clippings from newspapers were preserved in scrapbooks by everyone from the president of the United States to rural housewives.[22] This practice was explicitly invoked by Memphis’ Public Ledger (8 May 1873) when they recommended the poem “Golu” as an “odd and graceful little idyl [sic], which is too dainty to be neglected by the tasteful gleaner of fugitive verse.”[23] This vision of newspaper readers gleaning their subscriptions in search of fugitive verses demonstrates another kind of repetition that asserts both the ephemerality and value of fugitive poems in a continually updating medium. While some newspaper editors used “fugitive” disparagingly, in this and similar commentary we see editors—and by implication readers—trumpeting its importance, as when the New Orleans Daily Crescent (9 January 1856) praised Frank Moore’s Songs and Ballads of the American Revolution as an effort to “collect and preserve the fugitive verse which embalms the spirit of the age that produced it.” In “the absence of any larger embedding structure,” as Loeffelholz phrases it, readers create their own structures.[24] Poems must be gleaned else they disappear into the dustbin, but “tasteful” readers perceive those that should be caught from obscurity as markers of the zeitgeist.

III. Cycles of Reprinting

When nineteenth-century editors deemed poems fugitive, they simultaneously marked their ephemerality and enduring interest. J.C. Hutchieson, editor of an 1878 anthology, Fugitive Poetry, 1600-1878, called his subjects “bread cast upon the waters, found after many days.”[25] Looking at our large sample of reprinted poems, we find that fugitive verses often circulated through multiple waves of popularity, sometimes separated by years or even decades. Texts were sometimes even resurrected from a scrapbook and brought back into circulation, as in the case of the poem “I Am Dying.” The first printing of this poem we have identified is in the Glasgow Weekly Times (23 February 1860), which claimed to be reprinting it from the Memphis Bulletin. The poem circulated for more than 30 years, sometimes carrying the Memphis Bulletin attribution to subsequent papers, though less often as time passed. The editor of the Bolivar Bulletin (15 June 1876) printed the poem along with this introduction: “The following beautiful poem we transfer from our scrap-book. It was clipped from a once-living but now dead Weekly.”[26] In the process of wide circulation, texts were carried along like “bread…upon the waters,” and found, often much altered, by other editors and readers “after many days.” Such examples point to a profoundly complex textual ecosystem, in which newspaper poems circulated not only through editors’ exchange networks, but between newspapers and readers’ scrapbooks over years or even decades.

We can see an example of such prolonged repetition in the history of “Mortality” by Scottish poet William Knox. The first and final stanzas of the poem run thus in the first North American reprint we have identified:

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a fast flitting meteor, a fast flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave—
He passes from life to his rest in the grave.
‘Tis the wink of an eye, ‘tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud—
O why should the spirit of mortal be proud![27]

The poem was first printed in the United States around 1832, but was reprinted only a few times, largely disappearing from circulation after 1835. However, “Mortality” reappeared in 1861 and began to spread rapidly. This strange pattern can be explained by attending to the poem’s attributions in newspapers beginning in June of 1861, when it was printed several times with the attribution, “By Abraham Lincoln, Esq., of Illinois, now president of the United States.[28] Lincoln did publish a few poems as a young man, but “Mortality” was not one of them. It was, however, one of his favorite poems, and the elision of appreciation and authorship was perhaps inevitable.[29]

Unlike the case of “The Children,” this mistaken authorial attribution did not stick, due in part to a detailed, compelling narrative explaining Lincoln’s affection for the poem that emerged following his assassination. Within one week of Lincoln’s death in 1865, the poem appeared in circulation attached to a story narrated by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter who worked in the White House for several months in 1864 and painted the famous First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln:[30]

I have been urged by several friends to send you the enclosed poem, written down by myself from Mr. Lincoln’s lips, and although it may not be new to all of your readers, his dastardly assassination gives it now a peculiar interest. [Carpenter first recounts Lincoln reading from Shakespeare] Relapsing into a sadder strain, [Lincoln] laid the book aside, and leaning back in his chair, said: “There is a poem which has been a great favorite with me for years, which was first shown to me when a young man by a friend, and which I afterwards saw and cut from a newspaper, and learned by heart. I would,” he continued, “give a great deal to know who wrote it, but I have never been able to ascertain.” Then, half closing his eyes, he repeated to me the lines which I enclose to you.”[31]

If we take Carpenter’s account on its face, then “Mortality” should be understood as a fugitive verse preserved in at least one scrapbook and brought back into circulation on the strength of a narrative that gave the poem emotional and moral resonance in the wake of Lincoln’s death. Carpenter’s transcription was the version of the poem that became wildly popular, when it was often reprinted following Carpenter’s story of Lincoln’s recitation.[32] These witnesses change many words and omit two stanzas of Knox’s original, so the most popular version of the poem might be considered a “reauthorship” of “Mortality” by Lincoln, Carpenter, and the newspapers through which this new version circulated.[33]

Over time, myths about the connection between Lincoln and “Mortality” grew. In longer versions of Carpenter’s story, Lincoln reportedly heard the poem from a friend when he was a young man, and thereafter saw the poem in a newspaper and cut it out.[34] Newspaper biographies of the president provided more details about the Lincoln’s attachment to the poem, recounting how Lincoln had discovered the poem after his young love, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835.[35] Though in Carpenter’s retelling Lincoln professed not to know the author of the poem, various editors found that information, and even sometimes included Knox’s name in their reprintings of the poem. Such attributions were overshadowed by the much larger story about the president, and certainly Knox was not the key figure driving the circulation and reception of his poem: in 138 reprints we have identified after 1861, only 11 reference Knox without referencing Lincoln. We can mark the poem’s stemma quite formally: when the poem was reprinted in the context of Lincoln’s biography, it was titled “O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud,” rather than “Mortality.” In the 1890s, Knox’s name began to appear on the poem again without reference to Lincoln, but the title “O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud” remained. This title shift attests a shift in the poem’s cultural meaning. Even a reviewer of a stand-alone publication of the poem acknowledged that Lincoln’s association has “shrouded the author’s individuality” but had also spurred the poem’s circulation.[36]

A broadside version of “Mortality”
A broadside version of “Mortality” printed as “President Lincoln’s Favorite Poem.” From the American Memory Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

“Mortality” is a fugitive verse in many senses. In its most popular form, “O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud,” the poem was occasional, as it was Lincoln’s assassination that brought the poem into wide circulation. When “Mortality” was reprinted thereafter it was often associated with an anniversary, memorial, or new publication related to the former president. For example, in 1895, the Los Angeles Herald published an excerpt from “Sketches from the Life of Lincoln” that creatively retold the night of Lincoln’s assassination in terms of the poem:

Weary with the stories of state, he goes to seek the relaxation of amusement at the theater; sees the gay crowd as he passes in; is cheered and graciously smiled upon by fair women and brave men; beholds the gorgeous paraphernalia of the stage, the brilliantly lighted scene, the arched ceiling with its grotesque and inimitable figuring to heighten the effect and make the occasion one of unalloyed pleasure. The hearts of the people beat in unison with his over a redeemed and ransomed land. A pause in the play—a faint pistol shot is heard. No one knows its significance save the hellish few who are in the plot. A wild shriek, such as murder wrings from the heart of woman, follows. The proud form of Mr. Lincoln has sunk in death. The scene is changed to a wild confusion such as no poet can describe, no painter delineate. Well might the murdered have said and oft repeated…[37]

which transitioned immediately into the text of “Mortality.” As “President’s Lincoln’s favorite poem,” in short, “Mortality” became one of the most well known verses of the nineteenth century.[38]

“Mortality” was a fugitive verse in a broader sense. It was preserved through selection and circulation, by both readers and editors, exemplifying simultaneously the daily changeability and serial regularity of the newspaper medium. Its authorship was shaped by the recursive practices of the exchange networks, shifting from Knox to a more amorphous authorial construction rooted in narrative. Even when it was cited simply as “President Lincoln’s favorite poem,” this framing gestured toward the authorial narrative rather than a specific writer. This poem, like our previous examples, might better be characterized as a series of bibliographic events. Its social text includes the words of the poem; amendments to those words; the many venues of its publication; and the shifting, contextualizing prose that framed it for readers.

IV. Authorship as Narrative

As our examples thus far have shown, fugitive verses were defined as much by prose as by poetry. This prose could be a single, short line, such as the one describing the supposed postmortem discovery of “The Children,” or paragraphs-long discussions about a poem’s origins, as in the case of “Mortality.” In these narratives we can trace the network operations of the newspaper system framing readers’ understandings of its most literary content. As poems circulated, narratives around them were changed, expanded, disputed, and again revised. The literal truth of these authorship narratives was ultimately secondary to their affective or explanatory powers. Here again we might note the paradoxical situation of newspaper poetry, which more than other newspaper genres gestured toward notions of authorial creation and ownership while in practice upending those notions. We might note also the importance of pursuit to the metaphor of fugitivity; poems were “fugitives” not simply because they were anonymous or semi-anonymous, but because readers and editors pursued them, communally assembling narratives of authorship that provided lurid interest, fostered sentimental identification, or otherwise helped readers connect with the poems.

Both lurid interest and sentimentality spurred the spread of one of the most popular newspaper poems of the nineteenth century. Between 1859 and 1895, a poem named “Beautiful Snow” circulated through more than 276 periodicals and across continents and oceans, and is currently the single most widely reprinted poem identified by the Viral Texts project. Certainly “Beautiful Snow” was one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century, though it appears in no scholarship, critical editions, or classroom anthologies that we have been able to identify.[39] Indeed, the poem deserves more sustained critical attention than we can give in this article; its reflections on gender roles and sexuality alone merit closer analysis. For the purposes of this argument, however, we note how profoundly the bibliography of “Beautiful Snow” illustrates the role of narratives in prompting interest in circulating newspaper poetry. These narratives are essential to our understanding of fugitivity, as they rely on newspapers’ networked interactions and the regularity of periodical publication cycles to sustain conversation about particular poems.

“Beautiful Snow” begins as a light winter lyric, delighting in the scenery during a winter snowfall:

O! the snow, the beautiful snow,
Filling the sky and the earth below;
Over the housetops, over the street,
Over the heads of the people you meet;
                    Skimming along.
Beautiful snow! it can do nothing wrong.

Soon, however, the poem’s mood shifts, as its speaker is revealed to be a “fallen” woman, who compares the new falling snow to her lost purity:

Once I was pure as the snow—but I fell:
Fell, like the snow flakes from Heaven—to hell;
Fell, to be trampled as filth of the street;
Fell, to be scoffed, to be spit on, and beat!
                    Dreading to die,
Selling my soul to whoever would buy.[40]

The narrator ends the poem fallen, frozen, and alone. Many editors praised the poem for its sentiment and its pathos, some even quoting the London Spectator as naming it the best poem written in America, while others lampooned it as popular tripe.[41]

“Beautiful Snow” seems to have been first printed anonymously, leaving its authorship open to many claimants. It circulated only a short time before editors began disputing the identity of the true author. By the 1870s, editors and readers had formed camps around five potential writers: the famous actor and socialite Dora Shaw; respected newspaper editor Henry Faxon; a “gentleman,” William Sigourney; another writer, James W. Watson; and an unnamed Cincinnati prostitute.[42] While these names dominated the debate in most papers, other candidates were named occasionally, enough that one British paper wryly observed, “In the United States of America there are 6,000 people who wrote the poem ‘Beautiful Snow’ under a nom de plume, and they are increasing at the rate of forty-three monthly.”[43]

These potential authors were only as interesting as their stories—and editors spilled much ink arguing for the competing stories that gave “Beautiful Snow” pathos.[44] Editors printed not just the name of their preferred author, but usually a story explaining the circumstances of the poem’s composition. In some cases the prose preceding “Beautiful Snow” is longer than the poem itself. Most of these stories were tragic, bolstering the poem’s melancholy tone with terrible accounts of how the alleged author (or his or her loved ones) exemplified the downward personal and social trajectory of the poem. For example, the unnamed Cincinnati girl “had once been possessed of an enviable share of beauty; had been, as she herself says, ‘flattered and sought for the charms of her face’; but alas, upon her fair brow had long been written that terrible word–prostitute! … Having spent a young life in disgrace and shame, the poor friendless one died the melancholy death of a broken hearted outcast. Among her personal effects was found in manuscript ‘The Beautiful Snow.’”[45] The authorship narrative for William Sigourney claimed that Sigourney’s wife, who had been involved in an affair and then abandoned their marriage, had been found frozen in the snow, mirroring the once-virtuous woman in the poem, whose life ends in a snowdrift.[46] Of the five major claimants, only James W. Watson’s claim is never, within the bounds of our current findings, accompanied by an origin story for the poem. Watson’s biography was sometimes printed with “Beautiful Snow,” however, and of the living claimants to the poem, he most aggressively claimed authorship for himself, including publishing an 1869 collection titled Beautiful Snow, and Other Poems.

The controversy over “Beautiful Snow” traveled not just through the United States, but also to Central America, Great Britain, and even India.[47] The poem was so popular that it became an in-joke for editors, who by the 1870s did not need to print the poem in order to engage in the controversy around it (though plenty of them still did).[48] For example, it was only necessary for the Public Ledger (22 February 1871) to write, “Another of the authors of ‘Beautiful Snow’ is dead,” assuming its readers would know several of the claimants were already dead.[49] Readers knew not only the content of the poem, but also the salient points of the dispute, and so could follow the arguments without seeing the actual poem. Even editors who had come down in favor of a particular candidate still used the poem as a metaphor for uncertain origin. After a few decades of debate, some editors expressed weariness with the whole question of authorship, as when the New North-west (11 January 1884) republished the following:

Oh! the snow, “The Beautiful Snow,”
Filling the papers where’er we go
Over the latest news, over the “ads,”
Over the cut of the last liver pads;
                    Knocked into “pi,”
“Beautiful snow” evermore meets the eye.
Flying to kiss the waste-basket’s cheek,
Lunched on by goats in a frolicsome freak,
“Beautiful Snow,” coming in by each mail,
Makes every editor quake and turn pale.[50]

This parody turns immediately to the authorship controversy around the poem: “Oh! The snow, ‘The Beautiful Snow!’ / How all the people who wrote it blow; / Claiming each verse as their own priceless gem— / Nemesis waits for the last one of them.” A variety of other parodies, as well as shorter witticisms about the writing of the poem, appeared in newspapers across the country, while many papers continued printing the poem in its entirety.[51] As with “viral media” online today, we should take these mocking engagements as perhaps the truest sign of the poem’s cultural ubiquity. Not only do parodies assume readers’ deep familiarity with the poem and the debate over its author, but through their reinvocations of the poem mocking editors kept “Beautiful Snow in the public eye even as they claimed to wish it gone.

In her article on Walt Whitman’s poetry in the Saturday Press, Amanda Gailey demonstrates how Whitman’s reputation was bolstered by paratexts placed in the paper by himself and the editor, Henry Clapp, Jr., as “the poet’s own writing” was frequently “set against responses or implied endorsements by others.” Indeed, not all of those responses were positive, as Whitman and Clapp seemed to understand that controversy would drive readerly interest perhaps better than unequivocal praise. In unpacking the “complex, symbiotic alliance of poet, periodical, and publisher” that helped establish Whitman’s reputation, Gailey describes also a process that unfolded less concertedly around poems such as “Beautiful Snow” (148, 154).[52] While editors’ relationships with the author of “Beautiful Snow” might not be thought of as symbiotic, it was certainly their continued engagements with the poem that kept it before the public, and brought it a measure of fame or infamy. One editor wrote of “Beautiful Snow” that it “seemed destined to be one of those melancholy songs which wander about the world, which go mouth to mouth, and which, beautiful as they are, bring no recognition to him who has made them. They live, as all true poetry must live, simply because they are beautiful.”[53] This sentiment clearly recalls other editors’ framing of fugitive verses, characterizing “Beautiful Snow” as a beautiful vagabond.

In the context of other fugitive verses, we read the cultural and bibliographic tenacity of “Beautiful Snow” as due to more than innate beauty, though many nineteenth-century readers certainly found it beautiful. About two-thirds of the reprints we have identified are accompanied by paratext regarding the author or the author’s unknowability. As Ellen Gruber Garvey argues of Civil War era poems attributed to dead soldiers—often from both sides of the conflict—“The anonymity function offered readers and editors a vote on the most appealing or useful version of authorship, and even which stanzas to use…The vacuum of anonymous publication sucked authoring possibilities into it. It allowed shadowy, specific, or multiple attributions to be applied to a poem.”[54] Such authorship narratives constitute another form of occasionality in fugitive verses. In short, these narratives, generated by the networked operations of the newspaper, turn the poem itself into an occasion for commentary and other engagements. Reprintings of the poem, along with debate about its origins, invoke the linked networks of periodicals that either agree or disagree with a particular editor’s theories, while the poem’s repeated surfacings in the press mark the temporality and recursiveness of newspaper publication itself. “Beautiful Snow” comes in not once but “by each mail”; it is not a poem, but a series of events.

V. Conclusion

Fugitive verses that circulated widely in the nineteenth century have, for the most part, been ignored by twentieth- and twenty-first-century critics and literary anthologies. In that sense, they have lived up to the ephemeral denotation of “fugitive.” In the era of Google Books and digitized newspaper collections, however, we can trace the ways these texts resurface in modern culture, along with the controversies and ambiguities surrounding their provenance. “Beautiful Snow,” for instance, appears in a book of poetry for use in sermons published in 2000, along with the paratext attributing the piece to the unnamed Cincinnati prostitute, which was most popular among nineteenth-century readers.[55] The Wall Street Journal published a piece about “Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem” on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday in 2012, bringing the poem known to most nineteenth-century readers as “O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud” back into circulation on the strength of its connection to the president.[56] In such cases, the authorship narratives that emerged in the networks of the poems’ first changeable medium ripple through our own. In such cases, the authorship narratives that emerged in the networks of the poems’ first changeable medium ripple through our own.

In many ways, fugitive verses embody the nineteenth-century newspaper. They are fluid, adaptable for new contexts and audiences. They blend the literary with the informational, as the poems’ texts and authorship narratives interweave to appeal to readers. Like other species of newspaper texts, fugitive verses were preserved through circulation, and through dynamic interplays among the networks of writers, editors, and readers who composed, recomposed, excerpted, and remediated them both in newspapers and closely related media, such as scrapbooks. The social texts of fugitive verses offer important interpretive purchase for understanding how nineteenth-century readers understood and valued newspaper poetry. Fugitive verses were occasional and occasions, they were “artless, and melodious,” they were meant to “delight, expand and chasten.” In this way they were, like so many other newspaper genres, a species of useful writing, applied as well as appreciated. The popular, affirmational poem “What I Live For,” for instance, circulated primarily as an excerpt of its first stanza, which was cited in sermons, obituaries, dedication ceremonies, and even, in the opening days of the Civil War, in the Staunton Spectator and General Advertiser (9 July 1861) as part of a proposed “Appropriate Pledge prepared and proposed for Every Southern Volunteer.”[57] This poem’s “possibilities of meaning” shifted dramatically over space and time, as editors and readers actively inserted the poem—or parts of the poem—into new social and textual contexts. The uncertainties and slippages that defined fugitive poems also suited them to such wide appropriation, adaptation, and application, both within the newspaper and in related media.

The term “fugitive verse” was itself fungible through the nineteenth-century. While it began the century meaning—and indeed continued in certain instances to mean—occasional or even casual verse composed by a known author, over time it accrued other meanings closely tied to the network operations of the newspaper itself. Thus this joke from the latter half of the century—itself reprinted several times—explicitly linked fugitivity with literary property, or the absence thereof: “Peronella Maguffer writes to inquire, ‘What is fugitive verse?’ Fugitive verse, nowadays, Peronella, is that which makes the author a fugitive from avenging editors” (Abilene Reflector, 7 April 1887). By turning on what fugitive verse means “nowadays,” the joke gestures toward a change in the term’s connotations, from occasionality to anonymity or pseudonymity. To make sense of such poems we must reckon with their complex bibliographies and social texts. Fugitive verses were both deeply familiar, in form and theme, and evergreen, in their specific topics or controversies. They were, in short, a product and symbol of the newspaper itself, which was both always new and founded on consistency, a regular serial that ordered intrinsically unordered events. Though poems were the newspaper’s most explicitly literary genre, they were shaped in profound ways by the network effects of the exchange system. As scholars, we should not seek to disentangle poems from the exchange network, but to account for the histories and counterhistories that drove the circulation and reception of popular poetry. Indeed, we must analyze any given fugitive verse in terms of “all the people who wrote it,” including those who didn’t.


  • We write “at least” because we have through the Viral Texts Project computationally identified 182 reprints of this poem across five digital corpora for the US in the period: the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper archive, Cornell University’s and the University of Michigan’s Making of America magazine and journal archives, ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series Online, and Gale’s 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. The former three are public archives with open-access data for computational work, while the latter two are commercial products for which our library had to negotiate data-level access. The larger Viral Texts study also includes international corpora such as the Australian National Library’s Trove Historical Newspapers; Gale’s 19th Century British Library Newspapers; and German-language newspapers from the State Libraries of Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, as well as the Austrian National Library. We will occasionally refer to results from these international corpora to indicated the broader reach of poems under discussion, but we will confine ourselves primarily to US periodicals. Even with such a large set of corpora, our study of course draws from only a portion of the digitized newspapers from the period, many of which exist in corporate databases unavailable for data mining, while digitized newspaper corpora represent only a fraction of the total newspapers produced during the period, many of which can only be found on microfilm or in archives, and many more of which are lost. In general, however, we have found that texts widely reprinted in our corpora are highly likely to be found widely represented in other digitized archives; our automatically generated findings, in other words, seem representative of larger trends.  ↩
  • Lauren Klein, “The Carework and Codework of the Digital Humanities,” talk delivered at the Digital Antiquarian Conference, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts, May 2015. For more on the methods of the Viral Texts Project, see the project website and the article “Computational Methods for Uncovering Reprinted Texts in Antebellum Newspapers,” which published online by American Literary History (August 2015).  ↩
  • Mary Loeffelholz, “Anthology Form and the Field of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry: The Civil War Sequences of Lowell, Longfellow, and Whittier,” ESQ 54.1-4 (2008), 217.  ↩
  • Ryan Cordell, “Reprinting, Circulation, and the Network Author in Antebellum Newspapers,” American Literary History (August 2015), 2.  ↩
  • For scholarship on the circulation and reception of specific authors’ work, see Meredith McGill, “Walt Whitman and the Poetics of Reprinting,” in Walt Whitman: Where the Future Becomes Present, ed. David Haven Blake and Michael Robertson, Iowa Whitman Series (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008); Eliza Richards, “Poe’s Lyrical Media: The Raven’s Returns,” in Poe and the Remapping of Antebellum Print Culture, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy and Jerome McGann (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012); Caroline Gelmi, “‘The Pleasures of Merely Circulating’: Sappho and Early American Newspaper Poetry,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 69.2 (2014); Bob Nicholson, “‘You Kick the Bucket; We Do the Rest!’: Jokes and the Culture of Reprinting in the Transatlantic Press,” Journal of Victorian Culture 17.3 (2012); and Fiona McWilliam, “Louisa May Alcott’s ‘My Contraband’ and Discourse on Contraband Slaves in Popular Print Culture,” Studies in American Fiction 42.1 (Spring 2015).  ↩
  • We identify at least 100 U.S. newspaper reprints of “The Day is Gone” between 1845 and 1898 and more than 90% of them identify Longfellow as its author. We have seen similar trends with poems by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  ↩
  • As an outgrowth of our work on this article, we have begun curating a digital edition of the most popularly reprinted poetry from the Viral Texts study at These poems are transcribed and lightly encoded, meaning we are trading some of the intricacies of large-scale digital editing projects—which typically encode using XML or TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) markup—in favor of making as many poems as possible available as quickly as possible. This work is very much in progress and the collection will continue expanding for sometime as the Viral Texts project develops, but we hope through it to give other scholars access to a wider selection of “fugitive verses” than we can directly reference in the space of a single journal article.  ↩
  • R. J. Weir and Elizabeth Lorang, “‘Will not these days be by thy poets sung’: Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864,” Scholarly Editing 34 (2013),  ↩
  • Michael C. Cohen, The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 7.  ↩
  • The first full newspaper printing of “The Children” we have identified is in the September 22, 1864 issue of the Maysville Weekly Bulletin of Maysville, Kentucky, where it is attributed to “The Village Schoolmaster.”  ↩
  • All of the data that supports our claims in this article can be found online at, along with some explanatory text about how to read the data.  ↩
  • Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30.1 (1999), 28.  ↩
  • OED, definitions 4a and 5.  ↩
  • This page was chosen as a particularly dramatic example of these juxtapositions, which are common throughout the corpora in our study. The page can be found (with search highlighting that emphasizes our point) at  ↩
  • Lara Langer Cohen, “Notes from the State of Saint Domingue: The Practice of Citation in Clotel,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 162-164.  ↩
  • Herbert F. Tucker, “Of Monuments and Moments: Spacetime in Nineteenth-Century Poetry,” Modern Language Quarterly 58.3 (September 1997), 271.  ↩
  • Charles M. Dickinson, The Children, and Other Verses (New York: Cassell and Company, 1889), 141., Accessed 24 May 2015. This letter was also published in several newspapers around the same time.  ↩
  • Tucker, 280.  ↩
  • We see this pattern in “The World Would Be Better For It,” which the Marshall County Republican (13 May 1866) declares to be the work of M.H. Cobb, despite its publication in sheet music as the work of the more famous author Charles Mackay.  ↩
  • We reproduce the refrain from an early reprinting, in the Emporia News (Emporia, Kansas) of 14 July 1860, which notably attributes the poem to Florence Percy, Elizabeth Akers Allen’s pen name. One example of the poem set to music can be found in the Duke University Library’s Digital Collections. Mark Twain satirically invoked the authorship debate around “Rock Me to Sleep, Mother” in The Innocents Abroad, when his narrator creates a speculative encyclopedia entry for Ulysses S. Grant “in the Encyclopedia for A. D. 5868”: “Uriah S. (or Z.) Graunt—popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say flourished about A. D. 742; but the learned Ah-ah Foo-foo states that he was a cotemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet, and flourished about A. D. 1328, some three centuries after the Trojan war instead of before it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’” in Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 266.  ↩
  • Vermont Phoenix, 7 September 1872.  ↩
  • Ellen Gruber Garvey, Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 10.  ↩
  • The Public Ledger attributes “Golu” to “W. L. McD.,” though it was written by Irish-born journalist, writer, and political exile John Boyle O’Reilly and published in his 1874 collection Songs from the Southern Seas (Boston: Patrick Donahoe).  ↩
  • Loeffelholz, 219.  ↩
  • J. C. Hutchieson, ed., Fugitive Poetry, 1600-1878, Compiled and Ed. by J.C. Hutchieson (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1878), 5.  ↩
  • This statement might refer to the Memphis Weekly Bulletin, which seems to have gone out of business in the mid-1860s, though the daily edition persisted. See Chronicling America’s listing. The Memphis Bulletin continued to be credited as the source of this poem occasionally into the 1890s, so it was preserved by several editors who clipped a version that included the Bulletin attribution.  ↩
  • “Mortality” was first published in Knox’s 1824 collection, Songs of Israel, and we identify the first U.S. reprint in the Philadelphia Album and Ladies’ Literary Portfolio of 25 August 1832. We transcribed stanzas from this version here. In total, we have identified 185 U.S. reprints between 1832 and 1899.  ↩
  • As in the Marshall County Republican (27 June 1861).  ↩
  • For more on the relationship between the poem and Lincoln’s life, see Douglas L. Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln’s Indiana and the Spirit of Mortal,” Indiana Magazine of History 87, no. 2 (June 1, 1991): 155–70.  ↩
  • Our first record of the poem reprinted with Carpenter’s story is the Indianapolis Daily State Sentinel (22 April 1865), exactly one week after Lincoln’s assassination. It is reasonable to believe this story originally appeared even sooner after Lincoln’s death.  ↩
  • This version of the story appeared in the Howard Union (Glasgow, MO) on 15 June 1865.  ↩
  • It is reprinted along with parts of Carpenter’s story at least 23 times. Carpenter eventually wrote down his story in a larger book about his experiences in the White House. Francis Bicknell Carpenter, The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln : Six Months at the White House (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1868),  ↩
  • For more on the idea of “reauthorship,” see Leslee Thorne-Murphy, “Re-Authorship: Authoring, Editing, and Coauthoring the Transatlantic Publications of Charlotte M. Yonge’s Aunt Charlotte’s Stories of Bible History,” Book History (2010).  ↩
  • Note here again the link between preservation by removal and preservation by circulation. Lincoln’s removal of the poem was ultimately responsible for its wide circulation.  ↩
  • The Columbus Journal (8 August 1888), for example.  ↩
  • The County Paper (2 February 1883).  ↩
  • Los Angeles Herald (8 July 1895). Other papers printed this excerpt as well.  ↩
  • Indeed, as a fugitive verse attached to Abraham Lincoln’s myth, the poem continues to replicate today. Most online versions of the poem repeat its connection to Lincoln, while the second sentence of William Knox’s modest Wikipedia page notes, “He is known for writing Abraham Lincoln’s favourite poem, Mortality (sic), which Lincoln often recited by memory” Accessed 29 May 2015.  ↩
  • We have automatically detected more than 300 reprints of “Beautiful Snow,” but given the familiarity editors assume their readers have with the poem (and with debates about it), we confidently extrapolate that even more reprints must exist.  ↩
  • We first identify the poem, printed under the title “Once I Was Pure,” in the Dallas Herald (23 March 1859). We transcribed stanzas from this version here.  ↩
  • For instance, the Andrew County Republican, 10 January 1871. We have been unable to verify this quote in the Spectator itself, so their assessment of “Beautiful Snow” may itself be a myth about the poem.  ↩
  • Dora Shaw disavowed her authorship of the poem (see Nashville Union and American, 23 February 1872) through the attribution persists, and is mentioned (quoting Mark Lause) in Shaw’s entry in the Vault at Pfaff’s digital archive. Henry Faxon died during the Civil War at the very beginning of the authorship controversy, though Faxon seems to have had some powerful advocates, for example, George D. Prentice (see Nashville Union and American, 31 January 1872). William Sigourney and J.W. Watson both promoted themselves as the author of the piece. The unnamed Cincinnati prostitute, both anonymous and dead, could not speak for or against her claims to the poem.  ↩
  • (London) Era, November 16, 1895.  ↩
  • Editors were not the only ones invested in the authorship claims: readers were just as interested, and they wrote often to express their views. As the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer put it on 28 March 1889, “The Cleveland Leader commits itself to the statement that ‘James W. Watson was the author of Beautiful Snow. Now stand off and behold the bombardment of the Leader office.’”  ↩
  • Andrew County Republican, 10 January 1871.  ↩
  • See, for instance, Gallipolis Journal (Gallipolis, OH), 4 November 1869. Sigourney was something of a con man. He falsely claimed the authorship of a number of poems, as well as claiming to be the nephew of the famous author Lydia Sigourney and faking his own suicide. He was finally unmasked in 1919 (Washington Times, 15 October 1919).  ↩
  • The Weekly Gazette (Middlesborough, England) of July 28, 1877, gave the poem to William Sigourney, as did the Western Times (Exeter, England) of August 15, 1871. The Daily Chronicle of Georgetown, Guyana, cited the unnamed Cincinnati prostitute on July 26, 1885. the Pioneer (Allahabad, India) published for William Sigourney on May 28, 1872. Accessed through Nineteenth-Century British Newspapers, South Asian Newspapers, and Latin American Newspapers digital collections.  ↩
  • In addition to periodical reprinting, “Beautiful Snow” was anthologized in dozens of volumes from the 1870s on; though these tended to minimize paratext, some of them still published their chosen author’s story of woe. Our database of reprints referenced in this article does not record pieces that mention the poem but do not reprint it. However, we have found hundreds of instances in which the authorship controversy around “Beautiful Snow” is referenced without printing the full text of the poem.  ↩
  • Public Ledger, February 22, 1871. This statement too was reprinted several times in various newspapers.  ↩
  •  ↩
  • The Democratic Northwest of Napoleon, OH (18 November 1886), wrote, “A writer in the Findlay Jeffersonian wants the editor to publish the Beautiful Snow poem. Don’t you do it, Balsley [the editor of the Jeffersonian], you are too young to die.” For an example of witticisms, in a list titled “What We Would Like to See,” the County Paper (Oregon, MO) put “All poems on ‘Beautiful Snow’ buried in the waste basket” (25 November 1882). Parodies appeared in, e.g., the St. Paul Daily Globe (24 December 1883): “Once I was pure as the Beautiful Snow, / But now I’m hunting a saloon, you know!”  ↩
  • Amanda Gailey, “Walt Whitman and the King of Bohemia: The Poet in the Saturday Press,” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 25.4 (2008).  ↩
  • San Francisco Bulletin, May 7, 1870.  ↩
  • Garvey, 45-46.  ↩
  • The Poetry of Preaching (Sword of the Lord Publishers, 2000), 95.  ↩
  • Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012,  ↩
  • “What I Live For” was reprinted in at least 214 newspapers between 1853 and 1900. It was written by British editor and writer George Linæus Banks, but frequently published anonymously and, as described here, in partial form.  ↩
Published inPoetryReprinting


  1. Are you aware of any use of the term in the early 20th century, particularly as relates to the outpouring of poetry in response to the First World War? I write a blog on forgotten poets of the war (Behind Their Lines at and am greatly interested in your research.

    • Ryan Cordell Ryan Cordell

      Hi Connie, thus far we’ve cut off our research at 1900, more because of our period expertise than for any other reason. It could be quite interesting to turn our reprint detection tool toward early twentieth century newspapers at some point. We’re always interested in potential collaborations around this research, so send us an email if that seems like a possibility!

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