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Wright American Fiction 1851–1875
Created and Maintained by Nine University Libraries led by Indiana University; Perry Willett, General Editor.
Reviewed Dec. 16–20, 2002.

In a book note on Lyle H. Wright’s American Fiction, 1851–1875: A Contribution toward a Bibliography in March 1958, an editor for the Mississippi Valley Historical Review suggested that those entries in Wright’s bibliography that were accompanied by short descriptive notes would prove “of particular value to historians,” citing as examples the notes “‘Anti- Catholic,’ or ”A Temperance Tale,’ or ‘Ridicules Lincoln’s Civil War Policies,’" (p. 766). Four and a half decades later, a historian can now search for particular words or phrases in the full texts of nearly three thousand titles listed in Wright’s bibliography on the Wright American Fiction 1851–1875 Web site. A scholar can instantly locate passages from eleven individual works that used the exact term “anti-catholic.” A search for “temperance” returns, not surprisingly, over 700 results (searching for titles containing the term “temperance” returns five works). Using the site’s proximity search feature, “Lincoln” can be found within 120 characters of “Civil War” in six works.

Modeled on and complementing the Making of America site, the Wright American Fiction collection currently contains scanned facsimiles of nearly all of the 2,923 titles listed in Wright’s printed volume. The aim of the site’s editors, led by Perry Willett, is “to include every novel published in the United States from 1851–1875” in their online collection. (They appear to be following Wright’s bibliography to the letter, and in so doing have made at least one problematic editorial decision: the inclusion of Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in their fiction archive.) Optical character recognition (OCR) software has been used to make these scanned texts searchable. The editors are in the process of adding facsimiles of the few remaining titles from Wright’s bibliography to the site and working through the electronic texts produced by the OCR software, correcting errors to produce accurate e-texts.

As of December 2002, 424 texts have been proofread, edited, and encoded. Anyone interested in using the site to read in its entirety a nineteenth-century novel that is otherwise difficult to obtain can view, save, and print the e- text version of these works. Unfortunately, the scans of these works and those yet to be edited and encoded, which make up the vast bulk of the collection, can only be accessed page by page, making it an onerous task to read online or download and print the facsimile version of a novel. While having access to almost four hundred thousand individual PDF (portable document format) images of versos and rectos is tremendously useful, it is a shame that the editors have not yet made downloadable PDFs of entire works available (perhaps they were concerned about the difficulty some users might experience attempting to download such large files). If they address this issue, this site will prove a valuable teaching resource, enabling faculty to assign out-of-print or otherwise unavailable novels in their classes. Wright American Fiction is already an extraordinary research archive. The Universities and librarians editing this site are doing the scholarly community a great service in making this vast collection of texts freely available.

Robert K. Nelson
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, Virginia