This was supposed to be an entry on the “Global” but there was too much to say—which both begs the question of the usefulness of the term and speaks to the degree to which we've left the nation behind as a literary paradigm. “Global” is vexing because it encompasses a wide range of more specific paradigms (such as imperial, international, transnational, global South, Oceanic Studies, postcolonial, geopolitical) and thus flattens out and depoliticizes the uneven terrain across which literature travels. Antoinette Burton has argued, for instance, that the term often masks the imperialism or neoimperialism that is the context for the creation and circulation of literature designated global.Footnote 1
Rather than try to make literature fit into one of these frames, then, we might focus instead on how texts create frames themselves—through their use of literary conventions, rhetoric, and styles of address—and how their modes and means of circulation produce reframings that change not only their meaning but sometimes their genre. Texts that travel transnationally trace specific routes across regions, continents, and bodies of water. Taking stock of these routes and the way they resonate within and across texts can help us to avoid the leveling and oversimplifying effects of grander but looser terms such as global or imperial.
The case of Henry Kendall is instructive. In early 1861, settler Australia waited for news of Robert Burke and William Wills, explorers attempting to traverse the Australian interior from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The goal was to conquer not just the temperate Australian coastlines, but the entire continent—and in so doing, to prove that “alien whites” could eventually “transform … from sojourners into settlers.”Footnote 2 The early 1860s saw multiple efforts to explore the continent's dry and punishing center. John McDouall Stuart led several expeditions from Adelaide, returning each time in defeat—“white-haired, exhausted and nearly blind”—yet still determined to further the work of European expansion.Footnote 3
Burke and Wills’s fate—their death from malnutrition in the outback—would not yet have been known when the Sydney Morning Herald published Kendall's “Fainting by the Way” in August 1861:
Swarthy wastelands, wide and woodless, glittering miles and miles away,
Where the South wind seldom wanders, and the winters will not stay;
Lurid wastelands, pent in silence, thick with hot and thirsty sighs,
Where the scanty thorn-leaves twinkle, with their haggard, hopeless eyes.Footnote 4
Kendall's poem reflects a general wariness of Australia's bleak and forbidding interior. Readers in 1861 likely would have overheard in the poem's trochees Longfellow's wildly popular Hiawatha (1855), the tetrameter lines of which are here doubled up. Like the white colonialists of Hiawatha who eventually overcome the Native American chief, Kendall's explorers triumphantly conquer the landscape, ultimately reaching “flowery hollows, where [they] heard a far-off stream / Singing in the moony twilight”: an optimistic conclusion to what for Burke and Wills was in fact a tragedy.
Once Burke and Wills’s demise was known, Kendall's elegiac triumphalism made the poem useful to Australian colonialists. Wollongong's Illawarra Mercury published the poem in October, adjacent to an article on the “Reported Discovery of Burke and of his Companions.”Footnote 5 In the specific context of the Mercury, the poem's tone reflects a broader Australian effort to recuperate the expedition's failure, to find value in the explorers’ deaths.
None of this contextual framing was evident a year later when the London Athenaeum published “Fainting by the Way.” Printed under the title “Verses. By Henry Kendall. (Unpublished.),” the Athenaeum editors find in Kendall a promising specimen of colonial poetics: “a wild, dark, Müller-like power of landscape-painting” that suggests the author “may hope … to be heard of again in the world of letters.”Footnote 6 In the hands of the London editors, a nation-building poem about the white man's conquest of inner Australia, epic in its aspirations, becomes merely picturesque, like the English landscape paintings of William James Müller. In reframing Kendall's poem, the Athenaeum editors undermine its original colonial prerogative.
The shift from the specificity of local Australian print media to the London metropole, then, changes the political and aesthetic valences of the text and how the space within it is imagined: as static or expanding, global or local. In this case, the location of the periodicals in which the poem was published is crucial to the way it makes meaning. But the way periodicals themselves structured the relationship between global and local was also fluid and affected by the way they traveled between colony and metropole and the texts with which they interacted in each space.
Consider for example W. T. Stead's audacious Review of Reviews, which in 1890 took the encyclopedic comparativism of the Victorian periodical to its logical conclusion by publishing extracts from a vast array of European, American, and colonial literary reviews for a mass audience. The imperialist motivations of Stead's ambitious project were bluntly laid out in his first editorial: by creating a global union of newspaper readers educated in the affairs of the world, the Review of Reviews would help to “save the English Empire.” The fact that this editorial was addressed to “English-speaking folk” was significant, for he used this term as a synonym for white Anglo-Americans.Footnote 7
But the Review also generated an unofficial, anti-imperial spinoff. In 1905, its synthesizing format was borrowed by a Calcutta publication entitled The Indian World. This journal was explicitly and cannily derivative of Stead's, but it adapted the global purview of his journal to the ends of Indian nationalism. Rather than surveying reviews from around the world, it collected articles about India from a series of British and European reviews and also reviewed the contents of noteworthy English-language Indian periodicals, thus creating a holistic picture of Anglophone Indian nationalism. Gaining Stead's approval (he wrote a notice to the editor saying, “I should esteem it a privilege to assist in the success of your admirable undertaking”), it simultaneously gained itself an entrée into the global forum of journalistic discourse his Review was attempting to shape.Footnote 8
While the Indian World was partly inspired by Stead's journal, it had an uncanny effect on it. By imitating Stead and asking him for a letter of commendation, the journal drew itself into his orbit and became one of the informants on developments in India he cited most often. The Review’s form and its claims to worldliness allowed the Indian World to mask its anticolonialism as print culture cosmopolitanism, and to contest Stead's imperialist and white supremacist visions on the global platform he had specifically designed to promote them. Stepping onto this platform through its address to Stead (and thus its subsequent appearance in extracted form in his journal), the Indian World was able to address a larger public, disrupting the whiteness of the international reading public that Stead was trying to materialize. Furthermore, by becoming part of Stead's world, the Indian World eventually influenced his views of India and press censorship, unsettling his complacency about the progressive potential of liberal imperialism and making manifest the fissures in his influential vision of a global public sphere.
In both these examples, the high-stakes contest to determine the scale of the text's frame—global or national, imperial or colonial—is shaped not only by its own politics but by its shifting location and its relation to other, framing texts. The rapid reprinting that defined imperial print circulation in the nineteenth century meant that texts were constantly in motion across the uneven spaces of empire. While writers often anticipated and shaped the way their traveling texts addressed multiple audiences across these spaces, reproduction could destabilize the ground of power, thus reframing and recontextualizing the text's work. If form, content, and context are crucial components of literary interpretation, so too is circulation.