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Serial Fiction, Part 1.

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During the 19th century, people read serialized novels the way we watch episodic TV. Momentum was built with each installment and readers tuned in each week (or month) to find out what happened after the last cliffhanger. This is part 1 of a 3-part series that spans the history of serialized fiction in periodicals.

Newspaper clipping of the text: "The next chapter of this marvelous, magnificent, stupendous, superb and super-colossal episode will be presented here next week!," At the corner of the image is the signature: "Willard."
“Moon Mullins by Frank Williard,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), November 26, 1939.
Illustrated comic strip of a sea serpent with the text "To Be Continued."
“OAKY DOAKS,” The Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1941.

Serial fiction is a single larger work of fictional literature released in sequential installments in a periodical publication, such as a newspaper or literary magazine. Historically, each installment (sometimes called: number, part, or fascicle) was a self-contained short story or novella, with loosely connected narratives. The installments were often revised before being published together in book form. Serialization might have also begun with a single short story that was subsequently turned into a series. Readers found the serial novel appealing because the purchase of a newspaper or magazine was less expensive compared to the purchase of a complete book, making novels accessible to a wider audience. Writers benefited as well since they were guaranteed a more stable income.

Although the publication of serial literature started long before, Charles Dickens is often credited with kick-starting the serial novel craze during the Victorian era with The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. The Pickwick Papers, as it was more commonly known, was published as a series of 19 installments from 1836 to 1837.

One of the first monumental American works to be released in serial format was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel was published over a 40-week period, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue, in The National Era, a weekly abolitionist newspaper.

A detail from a newspaper with the text: "The National Era;" and underneath: "Washington, June 5, 1851." Legible text below: Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly."
“UNCLE TOM’S CABIN,” The National Era (Washington, DC), June 5, 1851.

A significant discovery of a previously unknown serialized novel by Walt Whitman was made by researcher Zachary Turpin in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room at the Library of Congress in 2016. The novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography, had been serialized in six parts from March 14 to April 18, 1852 in the newspaper, New York Sunday Dispatch.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, a novel by American writer Mark Twain, was serialized in the illustrated monthly, The Century Magazine from 1893 to 1894, before being published as a novel in 1894.

A page from a black and white magazine with the text: "Pudd'nhead Wilson, A Tale by Mark Twain." To the left of the text is an illustratration of a woman figure with two children. Above the text is an illustrated cotton plant.
PUDD’NHEAD WILSON by Mark Twain. The Century, 1893-1894, pg. 232. Retrieved from HathiTrust. 

Short stories were also often serialized, most notably those featuring famed detective Sherlock Holmes, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Strand Magazine in the UK published the first Holmes story–“A Scandal in Bohemia”–in the July 1891 issue and within two years, the combination of the Sherlock Holmes and the Strand had made Conan Doyle one of the most popular authors of the age. In total, fifty-six Holmes stories appeared in the magazine from 1891 to 1927, many famously illustrated by Sidney Paget. Sometimes the Strand published simultaneously, before, or after in U.S. magazines. For instance, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the third of the four crime novels, was first published in the title’s UK edition in August 1901 and first appeared in the title’s U.S. edition in September 1901. It was later printed as a novel in March 1902 by George Newnes Ltd. in the UK and in the U.S. by McClure, Philips & Co. The Strand also published short stories of other well-known authors, such as Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse.

The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Conan Doyle. The Strand, September 1901, p.123. Retrieved from HathiTrust.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s story written for a younger audience, The Secret Garden, was first published in ten issues (November 1910 – August 1911) of The American Magazine.

The novel, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man by Irish writer James Joyce, was first serialized in the London literary magazine The Egoist in twenty-five installments from February 2, 1914 to September 1, 1915. The Egoist also published three and a half parts of Joyce’s controversial Ulysses in 1919, which was first serialized in the American avant-garde magazine, The Little Review, from March 1918 to December 1920.

Page from a magazine with visible text: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. The Egoist, February 2, 1914, p. 50. Retrieved from Modern Journals Project.
Magazine cover with visible text: The Little Review, A Magazine of the Arts. Handwritten text: March 1918. Text at the bottom of the page reads: Ulysses by James Joyce.
Cover, The Little Review, March 1918. Retrieved from Modern Journals Project.

Metropolitan Magazine serialized American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, in late 1921 before it was later published by Scribner’s Magazine in March 1922. Fitzgerald’s fourth and final novel, Tender Is the Night, was first published in four issues of Scribner’s between January and April 1934.

And that’s not all; there’s much more to come! Stay tuned for part two of this series. In the meantime, I invite you to search the Chronicling America* collection of digitized historic newspapers for more undiscovered serial novels. Try using search terms such as “chapter 1” and limit your search to newspapers published around the turn of the 19th century. Let me know what you find in the comments!

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.



Comments (11)

  1. I love the information you are providing of my long ago memories.
    We waited each day for our grandmother to turn the radio on for Stella Dallas.
    And that is just one of many radio and printed serials.
    It is a fond memory of my grandmother who is now gone.
    Thank you
    Bobbi Marvel

    • Thank you for reading, Bobbi! Glad it brought up fond memories!

  2. Thank you, Amber! This post was extremely insightful for me. I’m experimenting with serialization my own fiction online (Substack) and the historical perspective you provided is great fodder for educating my own audience. I also appreciate that you have such impressive credentials to be speaking on the subject! Best, Ashley Mark Adkins

    • Thank you so much, Ashley! We wish you the best of luck!

  3. The “FictionMags” index has many thousands of short stories, novels, etc. indexed with author, publication date, periodical name. Of which hundereds/thousands are from serialized fiction.

  4. Hello!

    This is great. I hope to use this for teaching purposes–are Parts 2 and 3 available somewhere?


    • Thank you, David! Please stay tuned. :-)

  5. Part 2? I assigned this to some of my students who are fans of web comics and serial fiction. Great stuff. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Jane! Yes! Stay tuned later this summer. :-)

  6. Just came across this fantastic piece of journalism. Curious, I know this is a few years old, but is there a part 2? Would love to continue reading about the history of serialized fiction.

    • Thank you for reading! Yes! Stay tuned. :-)

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