'The Wire' Was Really a Victorian Novel

Most people know McNulty and Bunk as characters in David Simon's acclaimed HBO series—but they were actually players in a 19th-century book by H.B. Ogden. Seriously.

powerHouse Books

Most people know The Wire as the HBO police drama set in Baltimore—an intricate five-season exploration of the brokenness of the inner-city's war on drugs, education system, politics, and policing, and one of the most lauded television shows of all time. Fewer people know that it was originally a Victorian serial by the almost forgotten writer H.B. Ogden. Such, at least, was the claim of Sean Michael Robinson and Joy DeLyria, who created a virtuoso analysis of Ogden's work and an airtight argument as to why The Wire, with its serial format, moral message, and sympathy for the downtrodden, was quintessentially Victorian, and could never be reproduced in our own time. They accompanied their text with drawings (by Robinson) from the original Wire, including a striking depiction of Omar Little walking down a London street as urchins scatter around him.

Robinson and DeLyria's essay appeared on my blog, the Hooded Utilitarian, and quickly went viral. A year later, powerHouse books is publishing an entire novel/critique/parody called Down in the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden, out this week. The book resets numerous scenes from The Wire in a 19th-century London setting—whether it's D'Angelo, Bodie, and Wallace discussing processed chicken parts, or McNulty and Bunk investigating a crime scene while spewing colorful Victorian slang. DeLyria and Robinson also analyze the serial's structure, themes, and canonicity—and provide a copious helping of new illustrations I spoke to the two last month about H.B. Ogden and The Wire.

On the copyright page, the book is referred to as a "parody" of The Wire. I presume that that's a legal definition ... but I'm curious to what extent you see this as a parody?

Robinson: The legal aspect of the question is hard to disentangle from the rest. Let's just say that of the accepted applications of fair use, including commentary, educational purposes, and parody, parody has been the one most consistently upheld by courts. And I have no doubt that that the book could be seen as a parody of The Wire—taking the dialogue out of the context of the show and placing it into a cultural context that we see as much more stuffy and restrained as our own creates a very jarring effect that certainly could be seen as some kind of commentary of both.

But I think our intention, anyway, is something more strange and loving than straight parody, although that's present as well. We both have a deep affection for the show, a deep affection for self-referential meta-fiction, for the literature of the Victorian period and serial fiction in general, and legal definitions aside, you could see the book as a big sloppy love letter to all of those things.

So in what ways, or how, is The Wire comparable to Victorian serialized fiction?

DeLyria: Serialized novels came out a chapter at a time. Some chapters were a little more episodic than others; sometimes they featured side-plots or characters. For the most part, however, one would not be content simply reading a single chapter (as one would watching a single episode of M*A*S*H). In this sense, a show like The Wire compares to serial novels due to the way in which it's delivered to the consumer.

The novels themselves sometimes highlighted a single protagonist with a single through-line (think David Copperfield), but even these featured large casts, multiple plotlines, and sprawling narrative focused on many different aspects of life. Serialized narrative in that era (in England as well as elsewhere) also tended to focus on social problems, possibly because the format lent itself to such exploration (due to length), but also probably due to a general zeitgeist. The Wire follows many characters through many plots, and focuses on many of the same themes.

The main way in which The Wire differs from these novels in structure is the "seasons" format. Victorian novels were often split into volumes, but these delineations didn't mark shifts in characters, plot, or theme. While all five seasons of The Wire are connected, each season introduces new characters, follows a new major plot, and introduces another thematic layer. Although a single season is considerably enriched by watching the other seasons, it can be understood by itself. There isn't really a parallel to that kind of structure in Victorian literature.

How serious are you when you suggest that The Wire is comparable as an aesthetic achievement to something like Bleak House? Does The Wire's visual style compare to Dickens' prose, for example?

Robinson: A lot of the strongest statements in the book are intended as provocations as much as actual arguments. That being said, there's no doubt that The Wire is an incredibly complex piece of fiction, that uses narrative in a lot of really interesting ways, and that manages to be persuasive without being didactic. Those are incredibly rare things in any art form, and deserve to be celebrated as high achievements.

Of course, if we're treating prose style and narrative deftness in a novel as analogues to visual style or other formal elements of television storytelling, I don't think The Wire really stands up aesthetically to most of Dickens' work.

So, there are lots of places, particularly visually but also occasionally narratively, that The Wire doesn't hold up as well as one might hope for an aspirant to the category of timeless art, but many of those things are a function of the economic necessities of television—quick turnaround, the massive amount of individual hands needed to create filmed media, all of the tens of thousands of decisions that must be made every day a show is in production. So if the show isn't as visually consistent or flamboyant as a David Lynch film, or occasionally took narrative detours that don't have payoffs, I think those are forgivable sins. Those are not dissimilar in fact to the production problems facing Dickens and other writers of serials—it's an accident of typesetting, for instance, that we have the version of, say, Oliver Twist that we do. He would typically overwrite each installment—that is, write more than he knew would be included in the actual serialization, and mark in the manuscript which portions could be most easily eliminated or trimmed so as to make the page count for each installment.

DeLyria: As Sean says, visually, it lacks panache, although there's a perfectly valid argument to be made for a style that doesn't call attention to itself. The idea behind Hemingway's writing is that the narrator falls away; the action becomes the center of the reader's focus, rather than the telling of it. The Wire (unlike a Victorian novel) was going for that journalistic style, and for the most part succeeds.

However, Hemingway's style still manages to be idiosyncratic (as you say, does Dickens's), and I don't think The Wire manages that. In order to remove the narrator and highlight the action, the show's visual effects are for the most part mundane.

Sean, I wondered too what you were using as touchstones for the illustrations? And also, specifically, how much you relied on the television show for the visual style?

Robinson: Halbot Knight Brown, a.k.a. "Phiz," was the chief model for the illustrations. It seemed appropriate—he was Dickens' chief collaborator, his work was readily available to me, and he was enough "of the time" stylistically that he was completely passe and unable to find work after a few decades of popular acclaim. As prep before we started the book, I sat down and copied a whole range of his drawings in pencil, just trying to internalize his stylization and visual tics. Some of my own tics and limitations kept creeping in too, but for the most part I think I nailed the look pretty closely—although I used a lot looser of a line than would be typical of him, in keeping with the reputation for the Wire's grittiness, and because it happens to be something I do well and it seemed a shame to not exploit one of my strengths.

I'd take a look at the scenes in question as a starting point for the illustrations, but with the exception of the crime investigation scene, I can't think of any that were actually useful as visual reference. The serial was supposed to have begun in 1846, which is just a completely different world, visually speaking, from our own culture. If you look at illustrations from the time period, you would hardly ever see close-ups on subjects, or have significantly high or low views on a scene, or even have elements exiting the side of illustration. These are all elements that would be much more common after photography was ubiquitous, not necessarily because illustrators would be using photography as an aide in their drafting, but because seeing photos for a lifetime trains you to see in a fundamentally different way. It would have seemed strange and alien to a working illustrator from the time period to have critical elements of a picture cut in half by the border of their image, or to frame a subject really tightly, unless it was a portrait or a bust or some already accepted stylization. So there goes most of the shots used in television or film.

The racial politics of contemporary Baltimore are obviously a lot different than the racial politics of Victorian England. Was making that translation difficult?

DeLyria: In my opinion, this is the biggest failure of the book. If there's one reason you shouldn't make The Wire into a piece of Victorian literature, it's race. There is no way of getting around that question, and attempts to do so ignore some of The Wire's central messages. There's no way to really deal with it either, though.

One of my favorite parts of The Wire was a scene I attempted to rewrite for the book. D'Angelo is at a fancy restaurant with his girlfriend; he looks around and asks whether she notices how different they are. His girlfriend seems surprised; she doesn't think that other people really care that they're African American. D'Angelo says, "It's not even about that." The trouble is, The Wire isabout that, but its treatment is rarely so simplistic as to merely address outright, recognizable bigotry. The Wire isn't about race and racism in a vacuum; it's about class, how class is inextricably linked to all the aspects of our culture and ourselves.

Now, we can certainly talk about class and classism in Victorian literature, so I did. We can also talk about how class is about a lot more than just money, but I couldn't explicitly state that it was about race. Race was a big part of classism in Victorian England also, but to claim that it exactly parallels modern America would be both facile and offensive. Instead, I could only hint that there was a lot more to the issue than what the text stated, and implicitly ask the reader to compare these two different societies. Sean drew the characters as the race they were in the show in order to highlight this, constantly reminding the reader that a Victorian novel is not the perfect analogue for The Wire after all.

Robinson: I think even if race and class are not wholly analogous, we still owed it to our argument to make the comparison as thoroughly as we were capable. It generates an interesting effect, not dissimilar to the trick of displacement in regards to the dialogue. It's also worth noting that during the Victorian period, the idea that class was an inherent, and inherited, set of characteristics was still the prevalent view, and complete pseudo-scientific systems, physiognomy et al, seemed to exist only to butress that view.

You talk a bit about reality and The Wire. Is The Wire more realistic than its contemporary Victorian novels? What makes it so, or what makes it feel so?

DeLyria: Not having lived in Victorian England, this question is hard to answer. I haven't lived in Baltimore either, but I can say I've been in classes similar to those portrayed in the show's fourth season; I've read articles similar to those published in the fifth, and I've heard voices like Bunk's and McNulty's.

I think that people tend to be more idiosyncratic and three-dimensional in both real life and The Wire than they are in some of Dickens' novels. Other Dickens novels and literature from the time do portray characters who are multi-dimensional, but they still do not feel as fleshed out as they do on The Wire.

I also do think that The Wire is bleaker than most of the novels of the time. It offers no solutions. Dickens had no solutions for how to change the social structure of London, but he did suggest that kindness and charity had a direct correlation to the improvement of the life of an individual. In The Wire, solutions are a lot less direct and visible than that, which I think is closer to the way real life works.