English 3960, sec. 2
Junior-Senior Seminar:
Street Ballads

Spring 1997 / MWF, 1:25-2:15 p.m.
Lind Hall 215 / Michael Hancher

THE BEST-SELLING works of English literature early in the nineteenth century were written not by such famous authors as Wordsworth or Byron or Austen or Scott, but by anonymous hacks, who often worked under time pressure at the counter of a local pub. There they wrote ballads, songs, and "news" reports that were sold on the streets to the urban poor, by impoverished hawkers, for a penny a sheet. Thousands of these works, usually "illustrated" by eye-catching wood engravings, were printed in the slums of London and the provinces. Some were recycled from oral tradition; some purported to be what TV now calls Eyewitness News, and were pitched at the same level of sensationalism. The most sensational street ballads sold hundreds of thousands of copies. (The printers, who dealt in hype, sometimes claimed millions of copiesˇthis in a country with a population of eleven million people, many of whom could not read.) Because these ballads were so cheap, so plentiful, so popular, so subliterary, and so low-class, they have almost entirely disappeared. Amateur collectors saved the relatively few survivors: these are now mostly housed in scattered research libraries, from London to Minneapolis. Only a few have been reprinted.

This seminar will study samples of this literature, placing them in historical context. We will focus on several scrapbooks of street ballads that are owned by the Department of Special Collections and Rare Books, Wilson Library. Much of the work of the seminar will involve selecting particularly interesting items from those scrapbooks, finding out as much about them as we can, and editing them for electronic publication on the World Wide Webˇwhere they may once again find readers in the thousands, if not millions.


Course packet includes the following items: Primary documents: Some relevant books:
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Michael Hancher
Department of English, University of Minnesota
URL: <http://umn.edu/home/mh/prosstre.html>
Comments to: mh@umn.edu
Created 4 March 1997
Last revised 29 June 1997