Nineteenth-Century American Periodicals Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Nineteenth-Century American Periodicals

The United States in the nineteenth century saw an exponential rise in the business of periodical publication, a boom that coincided with an era of rapid cultural and geographic growth. New methods of printing and distribution, combined with an increased literacy rate and a developing sense of national identity, helped facilitate this dramatic expansion. Beginning in 1800, when the country supported few periodicals, the industry developed popular readership throughout the country, and by the end of the century the modern mix of general interest and niche publications had been established.

Among the most influential early nineteenth-century periodicals was Joseph Dennie's Port Folio, which appeared for the first time in print on January 3, 1801. Dennie, a native of Philadelphia, hit upon the successful combination of politics and literature to fill the pages of his Federalist weekly. Guided by the strong personality of its editor/publisher, Port Folio set a pattern for future magazines by appealing to a general audience and featuring wit, insightful criticism, political analysis, and a generous amount of fiction and poetry. The magazine reached its zenith in the first decade of the nineteenth century but declined in quality after being sold by Dennie and ceased publication in 1827. The quiet demise of the ground-breaking Port Folio marks the birth of what influential early critic Frank Luther Mott termed the “Golden Age of Magazines” in America. Stretching from 1825 into the 1860s and the opening shots of the American Civil War, the period saw a surge in the number and scope of American periodicals and a dramatic increase in the appetite of audiences for the new monthlies. Prior to this period, the major urban newspapers had established their hegemony over hard news. But as the expanding consumer culture in America came to identify themselves as a nation of readers, the new general magazines met a growing demand for inexpensive, easily available literature that covered topics in a way the newspapers did not. The brilliant entrepreneur George R. Graham launched one of the most successful monthlies of the period. After purchasing two struggling periodicals at the close of the 1830s, he combined them to produce Graham's Magazine, which excelled by producing quality literary offerings between 1840 and 1858. A number of rivals to Graham's appeared at the time, during which hundreds of new magazines exploded on the scene, many with lifetimes measured in months or weeks rather than years. Others, like the New York-based Knickerbocker Magazine (established in 1833), had greater longevity and won audiences by printing the works of such notable American authors as Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

By the 1850s, the American magazine had become a staple of the culture. General monthlies, such as Harper's New Monthly Magazine, featured the latest serialized novels from England and across the country. These existed alongside more specialized periodicals as part of an enormous industry that in its essential qualities closely resembles the diverse magazine market of contemporary times. As Harper's and various other journals gained in readership through the 1850s, new magazines continually appeared. Late in 1857, the first issue of the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly made its debut. In the pages of the magazine appeared the finest and most popular American literature of the era, from the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the socially incisive fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the South, Southern Literary Messenger dominated the periodicals market between 1834 and 1864 while dozens of other Southern monthlies started up and then became defunct just a few years later, seemingly unnoticed by fickle Southern readers. An important element in the success of the Messenger, scholars observe, was the editorship of one of America's nineteenth-century literary luminaries, Edgar Allan Poe, between 1835 and 1837—a brief but influential period that set a new standard of excellence among contributed poetry and fiction. While literature flourished in the South, periodicals in the North had increasingly become forums for robust disputation, with arguments over slavery, political corruption, poverty, and the conditions of industrial laborers frequently spread across the pages of popular magazines. But, as interest grew, economic and historical factors continued to sway the industry. The nation experienced a significant financial panic in 1857, causing a number of the less-established magazines to falter, although titles like Harper's and the Atlantic—already a part of everyday American life—continued unscathed. Only a few years later, the devastating effects of the American Civil War combined to overwhelm a steady stream of magazines, including the Southern Literary Messenger. Still, an astonishing number of publications, particularly many women's magazines, survived the war and emerged with renewed vigor.

The record of publications for women occupies a special place in the history of the American periodical, beginning with the nineteenth-century prototype of the woman's magazine, Godey's Lady's Book. Godey's began publication in 1830 and maintained a loyal readership until its end in 1898. Widely read, the magazine helped define the standards of women in Victorian America, taking the concept of feminine purity, critics observe, to almost mawkish levels. Nevertheless, this sentimentalized formula was highly successful in mid-century America and spawned numerous ladies' magazines that expounded similar principles and defined the mode of life for the middle-class woman by delineating precisely what it meant to be a successful mother, wife, or daughter.

Technological improvements in printing helped assure the continued strength and diversity of the American periodical industry after the Civil War. Between 1860 and 1900 the number of monthly magazines produced in the United States grew more than five-fold to number over 1,800 titles. Additionally, during the period of postwar Reconstruction, a number of magazine editors hit upon a new formula to satisfy the longings for renewed social harmony in war-weary America. Appealing to the tastes of the burgeoning middle-class, editors like R. W. Gilder began to publish the fiction of local color specialists, such as George Washington Cable and Thomas Nelson Page, whose works offered a gentle blend of romanticism, realism, and regional flavor. Gilder, first at Scribner's Monthly and later as editor of the Century, presided over the vogue in local color fiction and the new ‘genteel’ tradition in American letters, a combination that proved highly successful for publishers of literary magazines into the twentieth century. Meanwhile, others had taken advantage of new demands and interests among female readers. Among the most influential of these new periodicals aimed at women was the widely popular Ladies' Home Journal, founded in 1883 by Cyrus H. K. Curtis, a man recognized as a pioneering figure in the use of targeted print advertising. During the last decade of the nineteenth-century, editorial control of the Journal was taken over by Edward Bok. A master of the publicity campaign and a shrewd manager, Bok steered Curtis's magazine into a position of unprecedented popularity among women readers and effectively displaced the older generation of ladies' magazines. The Ladies' Home Journal became an American icon and is one of several examples of nineteenth-century magazines that have survived in some form through the end of the twentieth century.