periodicals, editing, newspapers, publishing, printing, California, U.S.-Mexican War, Hawaii
Shortly after starting the Californian in August 1846 with his editorial partner, Robert Semple, in the weeks after U.S. forces occupied the Alta California port town of Monterey, Walter Colton wrote in his personal journal, “Who would think, except in the uttermost ends of the earth, of issuing a weekly journal, with only an old tar to set the type, and without a solitary exchange paper!”1 He went on to record that a hunter had recently arrived in town with a copy of the Oregon Spectator that contained news from the United States brought to the Oregon territory “by some overland emigrant.”2 Colton’s private reflections capture what he perceived to be his distance, both spatial—“the uttermost ends of the earth”—and temporal—old news that happened to be transported across the continent and then brought down the coast by some itinerant woodsman—from centers of periodical publishing like Philadelphia, where he had edited the Independent North American years earlier. They can also help us appreciate the centrality of “periodicals” in early American literature and material texts.
First, consider the issue of terminology. Colton refers to the Californian in his diary as a “weekly journal.” In the inaugural issue of the bilingual publication, he and Semple refer to it as a “paper,” a “periodical” in English, and a “periodico” in Spanish (without the accent: “periódico”).3 Periodical generally refers to a print publication issued at regular intervals, weekly in the case of the Californian, but other periodicals appeared daily, biweekly, monthly, and quarterly. The term periodical was used in reference to magazines, reviews, gazettes, journals, newspapers, and many similar publications. A periodical’s editor was not the only one to classify her or his [End Page 741] publication. In the United States, postal rates for newspapers were significantly less than for magazines and other periodicals, so a postmaster’s designation had significant financial consequences for publishers, though postmasters often struggled to make distinctions based on format and content.4 Like many early American magazines, early American newspapers often featured essays, serialized and short fiction, anecdotes, and poems, most if not all of it published anonymously or pseudonymously or reprinted from other sources with or without attribution. And magazines frequently contained news, or “public intelligence of passing events,” as the U.S. attorney general defined it in 1845 when offering guidance for postmasters to follow in classifying periodical publications.5 Therefore, though it is necessary to recognize the variable cultural, political, and economic values given to different types of publications, from ephemeral dailies like the New York Herald to distinguished quarterlies such as the North American Review, they can all be considered periodicals on the basis of their shared trait of periodicity.
Periodicity, according to Will Slauter, “encouraged the formation of a community of readers, which in turn attracted advertisers.”6 Publishing the latest news and serialized novels or other texts in installments prompted readers to subscribe to periodicals. Many periodical readers did not simply consume this content, but produced it as well by submitting their letters, poems, sketches, and other writing to editors for publication, contributing to the sense that they were part of a community. Periodicity also allowed editors to publicize and disseminate a political or cultural agenda in the hopes of uniting different reading publics. Colton and Semple believed that a periodical could work to justify the military occupation to local and distant readers in both English and Spanish. In an August 1846 letter discussing the Californian, for example, Semple writes, “It will be the medium through which the movements of the energetic officers on this station will reach the people, not only in this country but our friends at home.”7 While periodicity [End Page 742] also helped attract advertisers, as Slauter points out, Semple’s observation serves as a reminder that periodical editors and publishers were not always (or exclusively) financially motivated. The military government occupying Monterey backed the Californian (Colton, a U.S. naval chaplain, was also serving as the town alcalde, or mayor), and many other periodicals at the time received significant...