Mark Noonan's new book is a fascinating account of the cultural work of one of the most influential magazines in late-nineteenth-century America. Launched in 1870 as Scribner's Monthly under the editorship of Josiah Holland, the magazine was renamed the The Century Illustrated Monthly in 1881 when it passed into the hands of Richard Watson Gilder, under whose guidance the periodical reached a record number of middle-class readers. Although The Century is often grouped with the other elite periodicals of the age under the rubric of "The Atlantic Group," Noonan's book demonstrates that scholarly insistence on the coherence of such a classification—as well as on the coherence of the social class to which the magazines were presumed to be speaking—does a disservice to the rich literary and social history of the period.
Noonan's project of examining The Century over a period of a little more than twenty years might at first glance seem narrow, but the book is organized to cover a great deal of ground. Over seven chapters, Noonan supplies the economic background of the magazine as well as a history of its editors and their shrewd investments in its appearance and its appeal to its target market. More specifically, Noonan understands The Century as trying to produce a narrative of various social problems, and he thus focuses his attention on how the magazine brokered the careers of women writers even as it maintained a fairly conservative view of emergent feminist ideas, how it promoted regional and national identities, how it encouraged the rise of a masculine realism, and, perhaps most importantly, how it participated in a massive reimagination of the race by paying close attention to the South and the Civil War.
By giving a synoptic view of how The Century constituted quality literary fiction as well as how its editors chose to cultivate and publish different regional voices, Noonan is able not just to tell the usual story about the rise of realism as a force for cultural hegemony, [End Page 261] he is also able to attend very closely to the contradictions that structured how the idea of how literature was understood (especially by Richard Watson Gilder) as an unpredictable social force that had to be carefully directed to achieve the cultural ends the magazine itself was committed to endorsing. In order to do this, Noonan pays close attention to how the dedication of The Century to certain kinds of voices changed over time, especially as those voices became more overtly political and progressive, less suited to the position on race and class that the magazine seemed dedicated to upholding in its other segments.
Here, Noonan provides a snapshot of how a single publication helped to shape the understanding of realism and realist writing as a masculine pursuit, and struggled with how to accommodate the women's writing that at the inception of the magazine had proved to be so valuable to it. Noonan's excellent discussion of the editorial anxiety and changes that bedeviled the serial publication of John Hay's Breadwinners and Frances Hodgson Burnett's Through One Administration, to take two examples, brings out in sharp relief the struggle of The Century to advance a conservative reading of gender and its relationship to class while being unable to fully control how the narratives ultimately unfolded. Noonan's careful explanation of Gilder's anxiety about Burnett's decorous treatment of a woman in love with another man, and his editing of the far more conservative Hay's brief inclusion of a cross-class kiss reveals the cultural work that Gilder tried to achieve as well as the emergence of new social possibilities he stood against.
Similarly, scholars here have one of the most interesting accounts of how plantation-school fiction got its cultural traction when Noonan shows us how closely integrated that fiction was with other features in the magazine: dialect poetry written in the voices of freedmen who miss slavery; illustrations of...