- The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture by Jared Gardner
This erudite, incisive, and important book traces the history of magazine culture in America from its eighteenth-century origins through the early nineteenth century, when niche periodicals and romanticism transformed and obscured an intellectually-ambitious tradition that has been largely neglected or misunderstood ever since. The first American magazines, like their English models, were deeply committed to principles of anonymity, collaboration, and heterogeneity. They rejected the celebrity of authorship, depended on “correspondence” from readers, and opined on an enormous variety of topics, often in a cacophonous, fragmentary voice. As Gardner explains, this multivocal form of literary expression was idealized by publishers, editors, and contributors as a radical new vehicle for cultural citizenship, which explains why so many of them devoted time and resources to an endeavor so fraught with financial and logistical challenges and so unlikely to succeed. But it is also why contemporary scholars who impose post-romantic assumptions on the history of literature and authorship have long overlooked such magazines as objects of inquiry. Gardner, who implicates his own excellent monograph on early American literature in his critique, seeks to correct this error not only by recovering the early magazine’s history and specifying the concepts most central to its construction, but also by exploring the broad significance in early American writing of the “editorial function,” the narrative organization of multiple texts and points of view. This account of the magazine’s complex investments explains persuasively the indefatigable ambitions of colonial and early national publishers, editors, and writers. Yet it also gives us new ways of thinking about [End Page 95] the “ambiguities,” “contradictions,” and “excesses” of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century literature generally, especially of the novel. By making the novel fundamental to an argument about magazines, Gardner makes his book relevant to a larger audience than it perhaps might otherwise have been. By thinking across genres, however, he also uncovers ways in which magazines and magazine-like forms of prose narrative elaborated representational possibilities that the univocal novel foreclosed.
Considering the two traditions dialogically, Gardner demonstrates that magazines offered “alternative models to the political and literary choices that were being narrated and naturalized” (3) in the early national period. He also reveals how what scholars have called early American “novels” often function like magazines, using a “mode of presentation in which the author governs the events and source materials as adjudicator and compiler” (14). Hannah Foster’s The Coquette, for example, is narrated by a “complex nexus of voices and sources from a position that perhaps more closely resembles that of editor than autonomous author” (9). In this way, Gardner finds in the editorial function a vital source of the formal strangeness of early American fiction. But he also offers a revisionist account of why “most of the ‘pioneers’ of the early American novel ended by largely abandoning the ‘novel’ entirely for anonymous periodical work at the end of their careers” (28). Rather than assuming, as many scholars have, the embittered retreat of failed novelists to safer, more conservative periodicals, he sees in the latter expressions of a “bold attempt” to redefine the “authorial role” (23). He also suggests that the anti-novel discourse so often found in early American fiction represents not a “canny strategy” to appropriate the proscriptions of “cultural gatekeepers” (25) but an authentic rejection of the novel itself. Writers like Foster, Gardner intriguingly submits, thought they were doing something altogether different.
The book’s main chapters explore the English and colonial origins of the magazine and the work of early national publishers, editors, contributors, and readers, observing that “nearly every major literary and political figure in [eighteenth-century] America participated in some way . . . in periodical culture” (36). The first chapter, for example, reveals the surprising importance of magazines to Benjamin Franklin’s life and work, not only his short-lived General Magazine, but also the publication of his experiments with electricity in the Gentleman’s Magazine and his investment in his nephew Benjamin Mecom...