Pet Book #6: Seriality and Distribution

I’ve written (at some length) before about the division of Astoria into two volumes. This might not constitute seriality as-such, since our information about the publication is limited. In each of the two volumes, the listed publication date is in the same year. The speculative question might be whether the printers produced the two-volume set together, or whether the second volume was printed afterwards (and making the original publication of Astoria ‘serialized’). The presence of the map in only the second volume may well suggest the latter: such an undertaking would have been an expensive process, and if the printing house were unsure whether the book would be especially popular, it stands to reason that they would test the market with the first volume.

However, the presence of the “continental”, single volume edition of Astoria (which is mentioned at length in a previous post as well) would suggest the opposite, since its publication date is listed as less than a year after that of the first edition. Did the printer (and it is the same printing house which produced the original and this edition meant for sale in the booksellers of Paris and Europe) expected that this book would perform better in the European market, and so printed a single volume edition all at once? That seems unlikely: the book’s content (a narrative of pioneering and of rugged survivalists) seems to fit quite well into the American colonial imaginary of the first half of the 19th century, and I would tentatively expect that it performed quite well in the US (or, more specifically, that it would have sold better in the US).

Notably, the division of volumes (or, to play with the notion of seriality invoked here, installments) of Astoria feels arbitrary. There is no structural or narrative reason for the way the volumes are divided.

The quite brief span between the two publications (less, really, than a year) also suggests that there would not have been time to begin the lengthy and involved process of printing a second edition for European markets, were such an edition’s printing contingent on the performance of the first volume of Astoria in American markets. This, too, suggests that the original two-volume publication was an aesthetic or stylistic choice, rather than a practical one. While I do not have a copy of the second edition on hand, and the scans online do not feature the maps included in the first edition, I would be interested to know whether the European edition contains a map, as that, too, would speak to this question.

What are the implications of the (lack of) seriality for Astoria? It’s possible that, were it published serially, it may have had a more lasting impact (although this, too, is wildly speculative). Much of Irving’s own fame came from his early work as a magazine editor; such publications may well have offered an interesting venue for a story such as Astoria – serial publications, whether in magazines or newspapers, allow for an interesting deployment of suspense, which, even in the nonfiction of Astoria, is a critical structural component.

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