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  • Magazines, Presentation Networks, and the Cultivation of Authorship in Post-Revolutionary America
  • Robb K. Haberman (bio)

In the New York Magazine for August 1792, Richard Bingham Davis's "Elegiac Ode" appeared in the "American Muse," the periodical's poetry section.1 Although the occasion marked the work's debut in print, it was not the first time that Davis, a twenty-one year old New York City woodcarver and gilder, had submitted the piece for examination.2 A few weeks prior to publication, Davis introduced a draft, "Verses to Imagination," at a meeting of the Calliopean Society, his local literary circle. Following Davis's oratorical exercise, the assembled company both praised the merit of his performance and offered suggestions for improvement. In addition, a review committee provided written commentary before approving the work for periodical publication (Figure 1).3

Successful entry into the New York Magazine, however, did not mark the culmination of changes to either the poem's title or print status. Fifteen years after its periodical appearance, the "Elegiac Ode" reemerged as "To Imagination" in an 1807 collection of Davis' poetry. Sadly, the transition from magazine to book resulted from an earlier misfortune. During the autumn of 1799, Davis was struck down by the yellow fever epidemic then ravaging the city. His untimely demise prompted his colleagues in the Calliopean Society to collect and publish his verse as a commemorative act.4

As a work republished after a substantial interval and in a different venue, the "Elegiac Ode" exemplifies a phenomenon common to the era's periodical literature. Along with hundreds or possibly thousands of other contemporaneous compositions, Davis's poem appeared in numerous formats. This essay focuses on the multiple renderings of works to explore how magazine contributions cultivated authorial reputation in late eighteenth-century America. Citing conditions of low subscriptions, distribution difficulties, and faulty payments, most scholars thus far have viewed magazines from a [End Page 141] perspective of cultural isolation. I do the opposite, however, by conceptualizing magazines as part of what I call a presentation network to show that magazine pieces, far from being ephemeral, appeared and circulated in numerous venues, including literary societies, civic groups, anthologies, newspapers, and theaters. Magazines were thus fundamental to the development of literary culture in the post Revolutionary era.5

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Figure 1.

Detail from the Calliopean Society Minutes, July 10, 1792, Proceedings of Calliopean Society of New York, vol. 2. Reproduced by permission from the New-York Historical Society.

To map out how presentation networks influenced authorial development, I present two case studies of aspiring literati from the early national era. In addition to examining Richard B. Davis at greater length, I look at Benjamin Bridge, a struggling lawyer from Worcester, Massachusetts. While Davis and Bridge hardly exhaust the range of possibilities for establishing presentation networks, their activities lay bare the relationship between literary presentations and authorial personae and the ways in which writing informed and reflected the character and condition of daily life. Moreover, as young unmarried men residing in the Northeast and belonging to the "middling sorts," Davis and Bridge provide an entry point for investigating the social group that formed a core community of magazine contributors. [End Page 142]

Although an important outlet for establishing authorship, magazines functioned differently for Davis and Bridge. For Davis, magazines buttressed and extended an authorial reputation already grounded in his connections with New York's literary institutions. In contrast, Bridge had no such prior institutional connections, and so magazines themselves constituted the hopeful foundation for whatever literary reputation Bridge might achieve.

Exploring how writers like Davis and Bridge developed a literary presence through multiple presentations opens new possibilities for interpreting the social and cultural functions of print, orality, and manuscript in the late eighteenth century. Thus far, the scholarship on this topic has paid insufficient attention to the ways that presentation networks influenced how individuals and groups accessed different communications modes. It has also neglected to account fully for the myriad interactions and intersections that occurred among media formats. Consequently, the scholarship on communications tends to assign a given set of collective values, assumptions, and practices to a literary work based on...


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