The Wide, Wide World in Transatlantic Culture

The Ship


Facing Frontispiece and Title Page Vignette of Volume 2 of the 1853 James Nisbet "Author's Edition" Reprint

In April 1853, James Nisbet, a British publisher based in London, published an illustrated “Author’s Edition” of The Wide, Wide World that featured the first illustration of a ship.[1] This illustration was published in various formats by multiple publishers over the next fifty years. While it is unknown who the illustrator was, the engraver of the image was Edmund Evans, a prominent English wood engraver who specialized in illustrations for children’s books. The ship came to represent Ellen’s mother’s journey to Britain and Ellen’s own journey to Scotland through its various appearances, but it also developed into a symbol of the novel’s transatlantic significance. As Jessica DeSpain points out, the ship “became an icon repeated in the novel’s reprints that echoed anxieties about the expanding boundaries of national family so essential to the text.”[2] Ellen, born of a Scottish mother and an American father, is herself a product of a transatlantic exchange, adding another dimension to the novel’s transatlantic significance and the symbolism enacted by the ship. The vessel, as a link between the New World and its former colonizer, stands in for transatlantic relations, changing religious contexts, and evolving ideas about family that appear in the text.

In its first appearance, as a title page vignette paired with a facing frontispiece depicting Ellen riding in an ox-cart guided by Mr. Van Brunt, the black and white illustration of the ship is not used to depict a specific scene but is instead representative of the various Atlantic crossings that take place in the novel. The ship serves as the frontispiece to volume two and faces this iconic Van Brunt scene from volume one, thus connecting actions from both volumes of the novel. It stands in for Ellen’s mother’s journey to England at the suggestion of her doctor and Ellen’s voyage to Scotland to live with her grandmother and Uncle Lindsay. In the two scenes in which the ship appears, it is the means by which Ellen is separated from those she loves and exported to an unfamiliar place. The black and white illustration of the ship attempting to cross a dark, rough, grayscale sea echoes Ellen’s anxiety and the danger of the journey that will ultimately lead to her mother’s death. The lone ship imparts a sense of solitude, which, as Yi-Fu Tuan explains in his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity.”[3] The solitude of the ship forces the viewer not only to experience the immensity of the ocean surrounding it (and nature in general) but also the immensity of the changes taking place in the lives of Ellen and Mrs. Montgomery. 


Title Page Vignette to the 1853 G. P. Putnam & Co. "Deluxe Illustrated Edition" Reprint

In his choice to present the ship alongside Ellen in the ox-cart, Nisbet revealed his interest in focusing on transatlantic divisions. As DeSpain suggests:

Nisbet’s illustrations highlight a transatlantic division even as they present Ellen’s religious practice as the future bearer of Protestantism. In the author’s edition, each volume’s frontispiece and title page provide two facing wood engravings. Those on the left depict Ellen and directly relate to her evangelical role, while those on the right portray travel to or in Britain without specifically representing the novel’s characters. These engravings face out toward the fore-edge of the book—the American illustrations to the west and progress, and the British illustrations to the east and decay. The book’s gutter acts as the Atlantic, the gap that inhibits British and American understanding.[4]

Nisbet, although a publisher based in Britain, saw America as a land of religious growth and opportunity and Britain as an overcivilized nation lacking religious sensibility. As a result, Nisbet’s version of the crossing does not depict a calm, beautiful sea but a rough, dangerous expanse of water—one that would be avoided if possible. Nisbet was a publisher of various religious periodicals, including The British and Foreign Evangelical Review, which, according to religious historian William Enright, included articles expressing concern over the effects of urbanization on religiosity.[5] Nisbet looked optimistically upon the possibilities of emigration and held an aversion to the pretentiousness present in London. He likely used the illustration of the ship to encourage Americans to remain in their newly developed country and to value the opportunities for religious progress and exploration that were available there.[6] This idea is emphasized in the illustration of Ellen in the ox-cart as she travels to a new place where she will interact with nature through pastoral landscapes, establish a firm grasp on her faith, and spread Protestant ideals to those around her. This direct access to religious opportunities sits in contrast to the ship, which takes both Ellen and her mother away from these religious pastoral landscapes and into the realm of Britain’s stunted religious standards as represented by the roiling sea.   

The ship’s debut coincided with the first appearance of a preface to the novel written by Susan Warner’s sister, Anna. Anna Warner addresses the criticisms of those who accuse her sister of a “want of patriotism”[7] and ends her preface with a quotation adapted from Charles Lamb, an English writer and essayist, which reads, “The weary waste of waters between us oppresses the imagination. It is difficult to conceive how a scrawl of mine should ever stretch across it!”[8] Lamb’s words convey the distance, both literal and metaphorical, that existed between America and Britain at this time and emphasizes the difficulties presented by that distance, a difficulty most keenly felt by Ellen and Mrs. Montgomery upon their separation. The “weary waste of waters” aligns with the sea’s dreary, expansive surface in the ship illustration. There is also a hint of irony in Anna’s use of Lamb’s quotation. He expresses uncertainty that his ideas will ever make it to the opposite Atlantic shore, and yet only a few decades later The Wide, Wide World arrived on the scene as a bestseller in both America and Britain. Anna likely saw Lamb’s poetry as an expression of the struggle the two countries faced while attempting to improve transatlantic relations and maintain their own identities.    


Title Page Vignette to the 1869 J. B. Lippincott & Co. "New Edition" Reprint

In his November 1853 “Deluxe Illustrated Edition,”[9] George Palmer Putnam, the novel’s original New York publisher, repurposed Evans’ engraving of the ship as a black and white title page vignette. In this edition, Putnam chose not to include the facing frontispiece of the ox-cart from Nisbet’s reprint. With the removal of the religious significance associated with the facing frontispiece, the illustration encourages the viewer to focus more on the Atlantic itself as the barrier between Britain and the United States. The dark, surging sea remains a symbol of the distance between America and Britain. Distance, as Sara Ahmed explains in her book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, is “the expression of a certain loss, of the loss of grip over an object that is already within reach, which is ‘losable’ only insofar as it is within my horizon. Distance is lived as the ‘slipping away’ of the reachable, in other words, as the moment in which what is within reach threatens to become out of reach.”[10] Distance involves the reorientation of the body with certain objects. As something becomes distant, the body’s proximity to it must shift, forcing the mind to shift as well in order to cope with the change. The object that is “already within reach” can, in this illustration, be interpreted as America, a country that was once a possession of Britain and is now, through the development of a national identity distinct from Britain, slowly moving further and further away from its former colonizer. The object could also be Ellen’s mother, a person who was within Ellen’s reach but quickly moves into a space only accessible through letters that she rarely receives, creating a distance Ellen finds unbearable. When her mother dies, the distance is expanded such that it can only be overcome through faith, a faith which itself oscillates in its closeness to Ellen throughout the novel as she seeks to become more pious and to display the virtues of a devout Christian. Conversely, the distancing between Ellen and her mother introduces the opportunity for Ellen to move away from the strict concept she has of family as biological relations. As she creates her own family among the occupants of the Hudson River Valley, where she goes to live with her Aunt Fortune, she moves closer to a more expanded idea of family. The ship symbolizes all aspects of these various distances as it moves away from the viewer in the illustration, distancing itself as it tacks against massive, heaving waves of the Atlantic. The ship continued to appear as late as 1891, evoking these resonances in the American editions of J. B. Lippincott, who purchased Putnam’s plates and began publishing the novel in 1862.


Title Page Vignette to the 1880 J. B. Lippincott & Co. "New Edition" Reprint

Despite its many American appearances, it was not until 1886 that a shift occurred that would again repurpose the illustration for a new meaning, diminishing the sense of loss and despair and instilling a sense of hope into the image, a sense of hope that would carry into the last decade of the nineteenth century.

When James Nisbet published his “New Edition, Golden Ladder Series” reprint in 1886, the illustration, appearing on page 62a of the novel, finally appeared in color (it also appeared in his 1887 reprint, although the colors are less bold). In this reprint, the illustration took on a specific role in its representation as it was placed in the text alongside the scene that tells of Ellen’s mother’s departure to Britain with a caption that reads “Far From Home,” a phrase that emphasizes the despondency of Mrs. Montgomery’s situation as she travels to England. With this specific placement, the water takes on a new meaning. As Barbara Novak explains in her monograph, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, water, when presented as calm and gentle, evokes a sense of stillness and peace, standing in for an untroubled, unburdened spirit.[11] The turbulent waves that accompany Mrs. Montgomery’s journey suggest her troubled soul, as she is forced to leave her only daughter and travel across the treacherous Atlantic. The massive waves call upon the power of the sublime, which was a common theme in American landscapes, in order to remind the viewer of nature’s (and God’s) influence over the spirit through its ability to evoke awe, fear, and amazement. Both Mrs. Montgomery and, more important, Ellen must succumb to the influence of nature/God or else be overcome by their distressed spirits.


Illustration on Page 62a of the 1886 James Nisbet & Co. "New Edition, Golden Ladder Series" Reprint

In the color illustration, the sea, still rough and ominous through its grey, green, and tan hues, becomes somewhat balanced by a light sky, gentle clouds, and a bright orange sun, and transforms into an image that urges the viewer to be optimistic about the prospect of death (what Mrs. Montgomery’s journey will ultimately lead to) and the access it allows to the Creator. While the Atlantic is still depicted as a dangerous barrier, the introduction of color inserts a new religious significance into the illustration. This insertion, made possible by such new technologies as chromolithography and mezzotint, coincided with expanding ideas of religion. Not only was nature being viewed as a source of God’s power, but also Christianity was permeating into the everyday lives of individuals, including the children and young adults of the Sunday School audience that Nisbet’s “Golden Ladder” series was intended for. The presence of numerous prize plates from Sunday Schools across America and Britain in this series is evidence of Nisbet’s intentions and the success of his plans. The new sense of hope available in the color illustration plays well with this audience as it presents a cheerfulness that would have appealed to the sensibilities of a younger generation. The brightness of the image was likely intended to place a more optimistic view on religious study, which Nisbet, a publisher who produced many religious texts, would have been interested in stimulating. In the illustration, the sky, now brightened by a light blue, evokes the presence of light, which, as Novak explains, is, “more than any other component, the alchemistic medium by which the landscape artist turns matter into spirit.”[12] The color, which lightens the tone of Mrs. Montgomery’s journey across the Atlantic, emphasizes that both Ellen and her mother can cling to their faith in God as a means of surviving the hardship that follows their separation. The clouds, now highlighted by shades of pink, add another level of religious significance as explained by Denis E. Cosgrove when he states, “Clouds…mediate between the infinite void of space which reveals the certainty of God’s judgment, and the changing atmosphere of the earth which similarly indicates the flexibility of divine mercy.”[13] The clouds are transformed into a symbol of God’s presence as a guiding force for Mrs. Montgomery and the ship as they cross the perilous waves of the Atlantic, making this image more hopeful when compared to the black and white versions. Ultimately, that presence leads the ship to the safety of British soil, and, though bittersweet, delivers Mrs. Montgomery to the location of her death and the beauty and promise of heaven when she succumbs to her illness. 


Illustration on Page 62a of the 1887 James Nisbet & Co. "Golden Ladder Series, New Edition" Reprint

The sun, which is present in the black and white illustrations of the ship but overwhelmed by the dark ocean and clouds, becomes a central focus in the color illustration. The pale orange sun (it is unclear whether it is rising or setting) sits before the ship as a beacon of hope, a bright spot in an otherwise dismal situation. In Political Landscape: The Art History of Nature, Martin Warnke explains:

The sun too was invested with religious significance, as the light of truth and justice, but the image of the sun could also represent moral concerns: suppressed passions could be expressed by the sun’s rays caught up in clouds. The beloved, hopes for the future, a new century—anything that struck a positive note—might be likened to the sun.[14]

This “positive note” helps to balance the despairing tone created by the Atlantic and suggests to the reader that hope still exists for both Ellen and her mother as they part and begin separate lives. The insertion of a more hopeful religious significance through color echoed the growing connection that people were feeling between God and nature. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, as Cosgrove explains, people began to see nature as a place where “humans could commune directly with God and feel the unity of Divine purpose and human insignificance.”[15] It is not surprising, then, that Nisbet would seek to include a suggestion of God’s presence in the illustrations of a novel endowed with religious teachings in the text itself in order to support his goal of enticing young readers toward religious devotion. Through a more hopeful image of this landscape, Nisbet encouraged children and young adults to seek God in the world around them.


Title Page Vignette to the 1891 J. B. Lippincott Company "New Edition" Reprint

While the color illustration was circulating widely among Nisbet’s intended Sunday School audiences, the black and white version of the illustration reappeared in an [1890] reprint published by Frederick Warne & Co., a publisher based in London.[16] For the first time, the ship was placed on page 516a, illustrating the scene of Ellen’s own journey to Great Britain to live with her Scottish relatives, the brother and mother of Mrs. Montgomery. In this reprint, the illustration is paired with a caption that reads, “The voyage was peaceful and prosperous,” a line taken from page 516 of the text. This caption lightens the negative connotation of the rough waves, and, along with a sun that appears to be more defined than in any of the other black and white illustrations, dispels some of the aversion to the crossing of the Atlantic. Warne looked upon Ellen’s journey more favorably than the text, a journey that Ellen undertakes in a state of peace and under no threat of danger according to the caption. A sense of vastness and solitude remains, but Warne clearly made an attempt to reenvision the illustration to make it look more positively upon Great Britain, which makes sense when viewed through a larger historical context. Several years after the appearance of Warne’s illustration, America and Britain would enter into what is now referred to as the Great Rapprochement, a period of time extending from approximately 1895 to 1915 that saw a significant shift in the relationship between the two countries as the social, political, and military objectives of each began to converge. This period extended into the beginning of World War I during which the two nations were allies.

Warne’s illustration also relates to expanding ideas of family as the ship transports Ellen to her biological relations and away from the family she has created through affection in America. As Cindy Weinstein explains in Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, consanguinity demands priority from Ellen, and her expanded ideals of what the word family means are called into question. The ship acts as a link between America, which comes to represent family created through choice and affection, and Scotland, which stands in for the consanguineous ties that define a biological family.[17] This dissolution of stiff concepts of familial relations carries the optimism of the illustration forward because it imagines an impending future in which family would not be confined to biological ties.

18CIA_Lippincot_1891_Vol 1_001J_ed_web.jpg

Illustration on Page 516a of the [1890] Frederick Warne & Co. Reprint

The ship, through its various appearances in The Wide, Wide World, was used to suggest contrasting views of the relationship between America and Britain as well as the identities they were creating for themselves. In many of the illustrations, the Atlantic represents the growing distance between the two countries but also provides a source of permanent connection as a body of water that flows between them. DeSpain argues that the “Atlantic acts as a barrier of both space and time that is recapitulated as a hindrance to personal connection.”[18] Mrs. Montgomery and Ellen both confront this hindrance as they struggle with separation, loneliness, and death. Born of a Scottish mother and American father, Ellen must face her inherited connection to Great Britain when she travels to Scotland and must learn how to adapt to a country and a people she finds strikingly different from the United States, a land of growing religious tolerance and ethnic diversity. The Atlantic provided the means by which America  and Britain were able to cultivate identities independent from—yet intimately connected to—each other.



[1] The earliest advertisement for the 1853 Nisbet reprint appeared in The Literary Gazette, April 8, 1853.

[2] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 70.

[3] Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 59.

[4] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 101.

[5] William G. Enright, “Urbanization and the Evangelical Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Scotland,” Church History 47, no. 4 (1978): 400-407.

[6] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 74.

[7] Anna Bartlett Warner, preface to The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell [Susan Warner] (New  York: George Palmer Putnam, 1851; London: James Nisbet, 1852), ii.

[8] Anna Bartlett Warner, preface to The Wide, Wide World by Elizabeth Wetherell [Susan Warner] (New  York: George Palmer Putnam, 1851; London: James Nisbet, 1852), ii.

[9] The earliest advertisement for the 1853 Putnam reprint appeared in the New York Observer and Chronicle, November 24, 1853.

[10] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 166.

[11] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1980), 40.

[12] Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture, 41.

[13] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 247.

[14] Martin Warnke, Political Landscape: The Art History of Nature. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 119.

[15] Denis E. Cosgrove, Social Formation and Symbolic Landscape, 185.

[16] The date for the [1890] Warne reprint is based on a reader plate inserted into the novel, dated 1893, and advertisements in the reprint, including Master Roley, which has a publication date of 1899, and Tregeagle’s Head by Silas Hocking, which has a publication date of 1890.

[17] Cindy Weinstein, Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 130-158.

[18] Jessica DeSpain, Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting, 70.