This essay argues that a combination of the frequently opposed methods of book history and reception studies, on the one hand, and those of formal analysis and close reading, on the other, is needed to illuminate the cultural work done by and with novels. Taking as my example the surprisingly extensive antebellum engagement with Bleak House on the part of African Americans and abolitionists, I show how such a combination of methods enables us to tease out the determinants, mechanics, and implications of readerly identification and appropriation across racial and national lines. African Americans and abolitionists found in Bleak House a material and imaginative resource for their efforts to tell the stories they wanted to tell and build the communities they sought to build. They did so even though Bleak House not only fails to imagine a community that includes Africans, African Americans, and slaves but goes so far as to consolidate the community it does imagine by means of their exclusion. I focus in particular on the reprinting of Bleak House in Frederick Douglass' Paper and its rewriting in, or as, The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts.