Scott's Waverley Novels and their Midwest Legacy

Published anonymously in 1814, Walter Scott's first novel Waverley; Or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since met tremendous acclaim and inaugurated a series that became known as the Waverley novels, because Scott signed subsequent novels by "The Author of Waverley” until he publically acknowledged authorship in 1827. His novels soon became the first modern bestsellers. In 1815, one year after Waverley was published, three American editions appeared, and by 1830, Scott was the most popular author in the United Kingdom and United States (Cayton 8). By the end of the nineteenth century, his fiction had been published in hundreds of editions.

The Waverley novels clearly intrigued Americans settling across the United States, particularly in the Midwest. From the Mid-Atlantic region through the central United States, towns named Waverly multiplied between 1830 and the 1880s, as settlers established ports, canals, and railroads to access major waterways and undeveloped prairies. They also connected nineteenth-century readers across the world as Scott’s oeuvre grew to immense proportions and became an “all-pervasive point of reference,” as Ann Rigney argues (2). Together, towns named Waverly formed an aggregate of communities visible on maps, signs, and letters sent with Waverly postmarks.

Today, evocative signs still welcome travelers to towns named Waverly. Newcomers may ask, what or who is Waverly? Scott himself established at least six referents when he began writing fiction. Living on an estate called “Waverley-Honour” in his youth, Edward Waverley is the protagonist in Scott’s first historical novel, entitled Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since. In addition, the collection of twenty-seven novels became known as the Waverley novels, since they were written by an anonymous author who called himself the Author of Waverley! In other words, the name refers to a place, character, family name, novel, series of novels, and anonymous author. 

This digital exhibit offers answers to the following questions: Why did Scott's novels appeal to readers, especially Americans?  When and where did towns named Waverly appear? What themes connect Scott’s stories and Midwest cultures? How can the past inform present and future communities? These are their stories!!