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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005) 196-201

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From The Field:

The Future of American Periodicals and American Periodicals Research

New editors and a more ambitious agenda for American Periodicals represent a new phase for the Research Society for American Periodicals, providing the society's members the opportunity to reflect on its past and future. As a long-time member of the editorial board, I was pleased to be invited to share my reflections on the role of the journal in RSAP's research mission at the 2003 American Literature Association meeting and even more pleased to find, while revising them for publication here, that the editors had already begun implementing them. For me, a key issue is how this relatively new field, potentially interdisciplinary in its methods and topics, shall present itself—even define itself—through its journal. One way to begin is to explore the theoretical underpinnings of our work. Another is to keep in mind that American Periodicals is itself a periodical, with all the usual exigencies, obligations, and opportunities.

Identifying American periodicals as a distinct research area presupposes a number of potentially controversial claims that can give excitement and direction to American Periodicals under its new editors. Most obvious is the assumption that serials developed in the United States differ in kind, historically and editorially, from those of other nations. American exceptionalism aside, it is reasonable to look at how constitutional protections of the press, along with such policies as editorial mailing privileges and changes to the postal system, helped shape the culture of American periodicals generally and affected individual periodicals specifically. Similarly, specialists in American periodicals might also examine how both domestic and international activity has reflected specific U.S. environments for periodicals, including international movements affecting contributors and their work; various local and regional factors; overall subscription, advertising, and distribution practices; and trends in media ownership [End Page 196] and (increasingly) concentration. That is, the RSAP's national orientation belongs in the up-to-date context of the international scene, especially but not exclusively the trans-Atlantic anglophone environment in which editors and contributors participated to varying degrees. Here I am thinking in part of how Punch influenced the original Life magazine as well as my discovery that Paris provided an important link among New Yorker founder Harold Ross, his early contributors, and their readers. International contexts of many kinds would strengthen the historical and ideological foundations of the kind of work American Periodicals has long featured—for example in Mary Corey's 1994 essay on political conflicts between editorial and advertising content in the post-WWII New Yorker. AP's recent publication of Hannah Crawforth's excellent "Surrealism and the Fashion Magazine," on the influence of Man Ray and Salvador Dali on Vogue in the 1930s and '40s, represents a significant step in this direction.

Underlying these issues is a logically prior assumption: that periodicals differ substantially from other publications and that these differences call for new approaches to publications' history and criticism—approaches distinct from operations conducted as literary criticism or journalism history. This assumption gets to the heart of what American Periodicals might undertake in order to maximize its contribution to knowledge.

Although RSAP welcomes historians and critics of journalism and literature, its orientation has tended more toward the literary than the journalistic. Organizational politics have something to do with this, as scholars teaching in journalism schools receive more encouragement to attend the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) conventions than the American Literature Association (ALA) conferences where RSAP usually meets. But research traditions also play a role. Not surprisingly, journalism history typically focuses on the editorial process: it examines periodicals from the viewpoint of insiders, especially individual practitioners. Journalism historians have therefore made a priority of tracking editors' achievements and First Amendment controversies, especially in the context of women's and minority publishing, as in Patrick Washburn's detailed investigation of the FBI's suppression of the black...


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