Decoder Ring

The Stowe-Byron Controversy

What cancel culture looked like in the 1860s.


Episode Notes

Lord Byron in a cartoon style.
Illustration by Benjamin Frisch

Decoder Ring is a podcast about cracking cultural mysteries. Every episode, host Willa Paskin takes on a cultural question, object, idea, or habit and speaks with experts, historians, and obsessives to try and figure out where it comes from, what it means, and why it matters.

The romantic poet Lord Byron was arguably the first modern celebrity; more famous for his persona than for his work. His exploits were gossiped about in person and in the papers: his fashion, his diet, and his affairs. His reputation rose and fell and rose again, culminating in his ultimate redemption in death fighting for Greek independence. But when Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an exposé of Lord Byron’s incestuous affair in 1869, it nearly destroyed the Atlantic Monthly and threw the reputations of two literary icons into chaos. This is a story about 19th-century scandal, cancel culture, and Bad Literary Men that isn’t so different from how these stories play out in our own time.

Some of the voices in this episode include Slate’s book critic Laura Miller; Joan D. Hendrick, author of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life; Miranda Seymour, author of In Byron’s Wake: The Turbulent Lives of Lord Byron’s Wife and Daughter; and Susan Goodman, author of Republic of Words: The Atlantic Monthly and Its Writers, 1857–1925.


This episode was produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch.


About the Show

In each episode, host Willa Paskin takes a cultural question, object, or habit; examines its history; and tries to figure out what it means and why it matters.

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