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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.2 (2005) 142-162

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Harper's New Monthly Magazine and the Civic Responsibilities of a Commercial Literary Periodical, 1850–1853

As American literary criticism has shifted to investigate diverse contexts of production and consumption of literary works—what Richard Brodhead calls the "history of literature's working conditions"—the scholarly conversation devoted to periodical publication has grown particularly evocative.1 Over the last ten years, scholars have excavated periodical and print culture both to reclaim literary texts overlooked by scholarship and to problematize discussions of literature's interactions with its cultural and historical surroundings. As such studies as Michael Lund's America's Continuing Story: an Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850–1900 (1993), Kenneth Price and Susan Belasco Smith's Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America (1995), and Patricia Okker's Social Stories: The Magazine in Nineteenth-Century America (2003) testify, this scholarly movement seeks to validate periodical literature's importance across an array of scholarly discourses about American literary and cultural experience, and to theorize methods of interpreting periodical literature in various material contextual domains. The difficulties of this theoretical endeavor, which Okker describes as a balancing of the "coherence and dissonance" of different readers' attitudes on one hand, and of diverse materials published in the same periodical on the other, betoken their rewards.2 In striking this balance, scholars can describe with greater accuracy and richness the role of communities in shaping literary form, meaning, and interpretation: as Okker puts it, "If reading a magazine novel in the nineteenth century was comparable to enjoying a feast, [. . .] it must have been a very lively feast, marked not just by the slow pacing of many courses, but also by the spirited conversation and debate of the guests."3

In addition, periodical study allows scholars to scrutinize long-held critical presumptions about the responsiveness of American literature [End Page 142] to commercial forces and about literature's complex relationship to "high" or "low" cultural standards, traits, and mores.4 And, as Okker's recent study indicates, such scrutiny further shows how communities and institutions involved in the material production and consumption of literature likewise participated in a broader cultural dialog concerning the development of national, and national literary, identity and belonging.5 My study addresses this last implication—the formation and development of print and literary "conversations" over national identity and belonging—by theoretically considering the materiality and conventionality of the apparatuses presumed to carry and foster these conversations, that is, the periodicals themselves. It takes for its subject one strikingly powerful commercial magazine, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and limits itself to interrogating the first three years of Harper's Monthly's circulation from 1850–1853, when it became the first literary monthly capable of sustaining an unprecedented national readership, even on a global scale. However, unlike studies that emphasize how periodicals historically "balanced" commercial, political, and aesthetic pressures by appealing to potentially ambiguously defined reading "communities," I will argue that commercial periodical apparatuses in the United States were more invested in manufacturing discourse about nationhood's relationship to literary consumption, than they were in being public repositories for conversations about American nationhood or the production of a nation's literature. As Harper's demonstrates, American literary periodicals needed to devote themselves to stabilizing the social environment where literary production occurred, civic conditions rendered unstable by the dramatic technological, economic, demographic, and political developments of the 1840s and 50s. Specifically, Harper's achieved its popularity through identifying and reproducing an educational system on how, locally, readers should encounter, identify, and consume literary materials distributed nationally: by proscribing certain modes of writing for certain kinds of authors, who fit certain ways of reading for different types of readers, who belonged to an audience constructed as national. And as the contents of Harper's show us, its concomitant efforts to stabilize the conditions of literary consumption nationwide and commodify the materials...


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