After The Simpsons, The Wire might just be the most essayed-upon television show of our time, with Internet scribes constantly prodding the corpse of the dearly departed HBO show in hopes of uncovering a new, pageview-boosting insight or theory. Yet somehow in all those iGallons of e-ink, no one has written about the true origins of the much-lauded series… until now. Joy Delyria and Sean Michael Robinson’s essay “When It’s Not Your Turn: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s The Wire” delves into the long-forgotten work of Horatio Bucklesby Ogden, whose 60-part serial The Wire was overshadowed in its time by the works of his contemporary, Charles Dickens:
The Wire began syndication in 1846, and was published in 60 installments over the course of six years. Each installment was 30 pages, featuring covers and illustrations by Baxter “Bubz” Black, and selling for one shilling each. After the final installment, The Wire became available in a five volume set, departing from the traditional three.
The serial format did The Wire no favors at the time of its publication. Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before. To consume this story in small bits doled out over an extended time is to view a pointillist painting by looking at the dots.
The essay goes on to dissect The Wire through the lenses of Dickens, the Brontës, Spenser, and penny dreadfuls, literary traditions David Simon presumably drew on in his later television adaptation of Ogden’s work. Sadly, Delyria and Robinson were only able to scrounge up a couple of Bubz’s long-lost illustrations, but the essay is worth reading in full for insights like this:
Literature today is no longer concerned with morality the way it was in the nineteenth century. Unrelenting, bleak images of society are celebrated for their realism, as representations of humanity. And yet, we have very few images, representations, or new and challenging canon that captures the essential helplessness, the inevitable corruption, the deep-lying flaws of both society and humanity in the way The Wire does. Again, I would contend that such a feat could only be accomplished in the Victorian Age, through the serial format, which allowed for such layered complexity. In no other way could such a richly textured tapestry of a city be constructed from ground-level up. In no other way could the faults in the underlying foundations of society’s institutions be exposed. In no other way could our own society be held up for our examination, and found so sadly lacking.