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Mark Noonan's Reading the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893, chronicles the foundation, rise, and decline of Scribner's Monthly. The magazine was founded in 1870, renamed the Century in 1881, and "sailed into oblivion" in the early twentieth century. While other illustrated magazines—most notably Harpers and the Atlantic Monthly—might be more familiar to readers today, Noonan argues that Scribner's/Century was particularly emblematic of a late nineteenth-century American journalism characterized by writers', editors', and publishers' ongoing attempts to make "a better, newer America" through prose, poetry, history, and commentary (xix). In describing Scribner's/Century's attempts to make that America, Noonan also points to moments when the publication of remarkable writing overshadowed the magazine's espoused aims.
Scholars of periodical studies, mass communication theory, and the American press will find Reading the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine a useful and thought-provoking case study. Many will also be interested in Noonan's call for a holistic approach to periodical studies, which looks beyond individual writers and their works in order to take into account publications' entire bodies of work, and the ways in which editors, publishers, or literary conventions changed a periodical's character over time. As a result of this approach, Noonan's work intersects with historical processes that will be of interest to a wide range of scholars, including American expansion, national memory, gender norms, and race.
Although the title suggests that readers' experiences might be a central focus of this book, Noonan's main characters are actually the writers and editors who shaped Scribner's/Century's message. The book is divided both temporally and thematically. Two sections, "the Holland Era, 1870-1881" and "the Gilder Era, 1881-1909," suggest the overarching importance of editors to the magazine's development. According to Noonan, Scribner's founder and first editor, Josiah Gilbert Holland, saw the magazine as a vehicle to "market" American moral values and history. The passage of editorship to Richard Watson Gilder in 1881 was marked by stylistic shifts which corresponded to changes in American literature more broadly, including a decline in women's fiction and a rise in "serious fiction"; an increased emphasis on realism; and the rhetorical production of a cohesive American identity accompanied by the "whitewashing" of American memories of the Civil War. These themes structure parallel chapters within each section. [End Page 85]
Noonan argues that Scribner's was particularly noteworthy for the role that female writers played in its early years. In chapter two, he credits Helen Hunt Jackson, Mary Mapes Dodge, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Constance Fenimore Woolson with Scribner's initial success. Under Gilder, Noonan explains in Part II, the magazine saw a transition from the "alleged sentimentality of women's fiction" to "works written by men and for men" (90). Chapter four focuses on this shift, exemplified by the serialized publication of William Dean Howells's anti-sentimental A Modern Instance and Henry James's "famously antifeminist" The Bostonians (102). Chapter five complicates the transition by focusing on two authors—Burnett and John Hay—whose works seem to condone adultery and excessive violence, respectively. Ultimately, Gilder asked both Burnett and Hay to tone down the objectionable aspects of their work. In doing so, Noonan argues, Gilder solidified the magazine's project: to perpetuate middle class, genteel, white, and Victorian mores; and to prevent "coarse" or subversive material from circulating through the genteel press.
Both Gilder and Holland also believed that Scribner's/Century should educate readers about American history and inculcate a genteel, cohesive American culture. In the 1870s, the magazine began to publish examples of "local color," focusing particularly on the South. The third chapter draws out a conflict between writers like Edward King, who effectively policed the boundaries of American culture by telling only the stories of white Americans, and those like George Washington Cable, who included the voices of non-whites in his fiction. Ultimately, Scribner's also asked Cable to...