Almost by definition, studying communications media means examining the nature of rationality and the meaning of citizenship. So literary historians generally see the novel, which privileges dialogue and individual subjectivity, as helping to constitute a liberal social order, while political historians see newspapers as essential to various expressions of republicanism and democracy. In The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, Jared Gardner contributes to the history of American citizenship by arguing that early-national American literary intellectuals mostly had their minds on a different print medium – and that they embraced a neglected model of rational public discourse.
In Gardner’s view, scholars uncritically treat the novel as the defining form of literature in nineteenth-century America. This assumption, he writes, turns the literary history of the years between the 1790s and the 1820s into a story of failure – a tale about novels that didn’t happen.
Rejecting this view, Gardner argues that the heart of American literary production between 1800 and 1820 was the magazine, which had developed alongside the novel in the eighteenth century English-speaking world. Unlike the magazines of the later antebellum period, late-colonial and early-national magazines had an avowed public purpose. “For many, and particularly after independence,” he writes, “the American magazine came to be imagined as an ideal form on which to erect a new literary culture” (36). The magazine bore the intellectual burden of uniting disparate cultural elements to create plausible representations of the United States. The magazine contained and managed the country’s contradictions.
Gardner begins by locating the origins of American periodical literature in the New-England Magazine established by Benjamin Mecom, a nephew of Benjamin Franklin, in 1758. It drew inspiration and content from British periodicals – and, as Gardner triumphantly points out, it also drew its motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” from the frontispiece of the Gentleman’s Magazine of London (66-68). From there, Gardner moves on to Noah Webster’s American Magazine, begun in 1787, at Franklin’s suggestion, as a contribution to the Federalist cause, and to Mathew Carey’s and William Spotswood’s Columbian Magazine, which launched the literary career of Charles Brockden Brown. He continues the story beyond Ratification with publications including the New-York Magazine, the American Museum, Joseph Dennie’s Port-Folio, and finally Washington Irving’s Salmagundi (which, Gardner claims, subverted the magazine’s public purpose and marked the path to a new literary era).
Throughout this narrative, Gardner’s argument rests on close readings of these magazines’ contents, excavating persuasive evidence that magazine editors saw themselves as bringing order to intellectual (and potential social) chaos. The argument also takes up certain paradoxes. Gardner asks why so many American writers invested their effort in editing magazines when these magazines invariably failed in short order, especially when many of their contributors were already accomplished in other media. (Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson, for instance, turned back to periodical writing and editing after publishing the novels for which we remember them.) He also considers why the early-national magazine solicited contributions from readers but did not publish letters to the editor (as such), and why contributors generally remained anonymous despite the magazine’s relative placidity. Gardner suggests that the answer lies in the magazine’s particular mode of literary ambition: the magazine subsumed individual authorial contributions and voices under a common editorial project.
Gardner’s study calls to mind some other scholarship on the print environment, including Benedict Anderson’s classic discussion of newspaper-reading, David Henkin’s analysis of New York City signs, Kevin Barnhurst’s and John Nerone’s history of newspaper design, and Patricia Okker’s study of serialized novels. Like these, Gardner’s study locates print’s public significance in its form – specifically, its juxtapositions. Gardner argues that the ordered fragmentation and interpolation of printed messages corresponded to certain perceptions of public authority and belonging. What sets Rise and Fall apart is its argument that the early-national magazine had, by virtue of its form, an inherent partisan bent.
Gardner characterizes the heterogeneity of the early American magazine as a sign of careful editorial control, not anarchy. The magazine was organized around the sensibilities of an editor rather than the skills of authors or the requirements of the political moment. Thus, he writes, it makes sense that “the vast majority of the publishers and editors of the early magazine [in the 1780s and 1790s] were committed federalists,” for the “logic of the magazine” required “centralized authority” (74). The magazine editor imagined himself, as Gardner says Joseph Dennie and Charles Brockden Brown did, as a member of the “natural aristocracy,” responsible for molding the judgment of the nation (20-21).
From a historical point of view, the book’s literary-studies orientation makes it potentially problematic in at least one respect. It’s certainly true that American magazines were dominated by Federalist writers and editors during the period Gardner explores – and by Whigs later in the nineteenth century. It’s less clear, however, that this resulted from the authoritarian editorial “logic” of the magazine. An external cause probably makes more sense.
Most magazines (as Gardner points out) were the outgrowth of pre-existing social circles – generally comprising well-educated urbanites, typically men trained as lawyers. Unsurprisingly, early-national magazines were most common in Boston and Philadelphia. New York, Baltimore, and other towns that did not have the same history of educational excellence or direct ties to federal governance lagged until the second quarter of the nineteenth century. As literary rather than political journals, furthermore, magazines took part in a public conversation that was necessarily transatlantic (or, as a matter of reaction, national), not local. Thus, people interested in editing magazines tended to fit a Federalist social profile already. It’s also doubtful that newspaper editors exercised fewer prerogatives than magazine editors. It may be more historically appropriate, therefore, to discuss editorial Federalism as a feature of the magazine’s origins and purposes, not its editorial function.
Whatever we make of the magazine’s causes or effects, however, Rise and Fall is a welcome attempt to illuminate a dimly understood aspect of the intellectual culture of the early republic. As historians try to recover the full state-building significance of postal communication and partisan newspapers, Gardner’s study suggests that belletristic magazines also deserve a distinctive place in studies of the early U.S. public sphere.
Jonathan W. Wilson is a Ph.D. candidate in American intellectual history at Syracuse University.