A Literary Lab: Exploring the Columbian Magazine

Keri Holt

Utah State University

I introduced The Columbian Magazine to my students at the end of a survey course on Early American literature. We had just wrapped up the final unit, which focused on the literary culture of the early United States, covering canonical classics such as Franklin’s Autobiography, Charlotte Temple, and The Contrast. By that point, my students were tired, stressed out, and ready to be finished with all things “early American.” I was tired too and a little bit apprehensive moving on to The Columbian Magazine, which was a text I’d never taught before. I was also curious about how much my students had actually learned in our last unit. There is so much political and social history to cover in order to provide context for reading works like Charlotte Temple and The Contrast, and I was worried I’d spent too much time lecturing during the past few weeks, rather than providing my students with opportunities to engage with the material in more active or curious terms.

The Columbian Magazine was the perfect way to wrap up the course.  I ended up presenting The Columbian Magazine as a kind of “literary lab” where my students could experiment with the knowledge and skills we’d been working on and test out their own hypotheses regarding what the magazine has to say about early American history, politics, and culture. Before I introduced the text, I told them about the JTO project as a whole. We looked at the webpage and discussed the project’s goals, particularly regarding the effort to reconsider the existing literary canon. The idea that the canon could be challenged and transformed was very appealing to my students—“You mean there’s other stuff to read, besides Charlotte Temple?” asked one student (who had not been a fan). “Sign me up!” We ended up having a great conversation about the value of studying works that aren’t often studied or taught. I was very honest that we were going to be working with a text I hadn’t taught before and didn’t know all that much about, which was, in itself, energizing to my students. All of a sudden, I had a new classroom dynamic on our hands. Instead of looking to me for answers, my students felt we were on more equal footing, heading into what one of them described as “a joint expedition into the unknown.”

So into the unknown we went. Before sending the class into the magazine on their own, I decided we should read a few things together first. We began with Jared Gardner’s excellent introduction, which provided useful background regarding the history of the magazine, its form and content, and the political, cultural, and economic conditions surrounding magazines in the early US. After that, I assigned two specific articles, Benjamin Rush’s article on “Phobias” and a short story titled “The Contemplant,” which gave us our first taste of the magazine’s content.

Rush’s “Phobias” article was an immediate hit. My students loved its humor—“Stephen Colbert would really like this guy,” commented one student, and they were particularly struck by Rush’s irreverent and playful approach to religion with his description of  “Church Phobia,” which offered a nice contrast to the more serious accounts of faith and morality we’d been reading all semester. The humor in the article also made the late eighteenth century seem more approachable and understandable to my students. “My roommate has the solo phobia,” remarked one student, and, drawing on the Colbert references, many others remarked on the political dimensions of Rush’s humor, noting, for instance, the article’s reference to tensions in Massachusetts in the description of “Power Phobia” and divisions between North and South in the description of “Church Phobia.” My students also really liked how Rush was playing with academic language and poking fun at overly serious or overly scientific language. Several students remarked that “there seems to be something self-reflecting” about the article’s focus on this language and fearful behavior, offering “a way of looking critically at yourself, but with good humor, which makes it easier to find ways to change or improve things,” which gave the students a new way of thinking about the ideas of self-reflection, self-improvement, and individualism that we’d first encountered in Franklin’ Autobiography.

“The Contemplant” was both surprising and familiar to my students. “You were right about these early Americans being really into sentiment. This story sounds just like Charlotte Temple, with everyone crying and wailing all over the place,” remarked one student. “Yeah, except that this time, it’s the guys who are doing all the crying and weeping and wailing,” responded another, an observation that launched a great conversation about the role that sentiment played in the early republic for both men and women, which was an issue I’d really struggled to convey when we’d been working with Charlotte Temple. More surprising to my students, though, was the story’s focus on the Middle East. “I didn’t think people in the US were even aware of the Middle East during that time,” commented several. Even more surprising was the way that Islam wasn’t condemned in the story or presented as a religion of “infidels.” Many students noted how the story seemed to highlight similarities between Christianity and Islam, presenting Islam as a religion that exemplified moral behavior and feelings of sympathy, which was an eye-opening surprise for many of them. “I didn’t know early Americans thought about the world in such global and thoughtful terms,” said one student. This experience—of questioning assumptions and finding out that traditional expectations can be revised and reversed—was something I’d been working hard to cultivate all semester, and the magazine did a great job of transforming many of their expectations about early American literary and political culture.

This surprise of discovering ideas that were new and unexpected became a powerful motivating factor as we moved to the next assignment where, instead of assigning specific articles, I set them loose and asked them to choose three articles on their own—any article that they found interesting, compelling, confusing, or surprising. I then asked them to write a short summary of their chosen articles and present some hypotheses regarding what these articles told them about early US culture, which they would then share with the rest of the class.

Given that it was the end of the semester, I didn’t set my expectations very high. I figured that a lot of students would cut corners and just read the three shortest articles or the first three articles of the magazine. Much to my own surprise, however, my students ended up taking a pretty comprehensive look at the whole magazine. When I tallied their responses, nearly all the articles were represented, and their responses were far more detailed and thoughtful than I was expecting.

The most popular article, by far, was “Some Thoughts on Real and Imaginary Evils,” which examines the origins and effects of “imagined” emotions such as fear, which may respond to threats that do not, in fact, exist. My students were really interested in its focus on the mind and the imagination, particularly regarding the experience of the “imagined evils” which, even though they were not “real,” were still given value and importance.  My students also really appreciated the way the article tried to redefine emotions traditionally considered “negative,” such as anger and fear. Many wrote about how this emphasis on “transforming old assumptions” and “rewriting traditional definitions and experiences” fit within the post-revolutionary dynamics of the early republic. Others wrote about how the article seemed to reflect an Enlightenment-era emphasis on the individual, and many connected its focus on the power of the mind to define and control identity and experience to the writings of Franklin, Equiano, and Judith Sargent Murray.

The second most popular articles that my students selected were those that involved science—namely, “An Account of the Effects of the General Thaw,” “A Short Description of the Crotalus Horridus or Rattle-snake, and the “A Short Dissertation on Eclipses.” Once again, these articles generated a lot of surprise, with students commenting that they didn’t realize “how important science was for general American readers.” Many of them posed hypotheses about the “the depth and detail” of these articles, particularly regarding the “Rattlesnake” piece, which, as one student wrote, implied an audience that was not only interested in science, but also “well educated and curious about the world around them.” In the case of the “Thaw,” many students commented on the underlying values at stake in this article regarding practical problem-solving and community-oriented improvement. And, with regard to the “Eclipses,” article, my students were struck by its attention to both God and science and its efforts to imagine scientific principles and religious faith in cooperative terms, which many contrasted with contemporary debates about evolution and creationism in public schools. “People seemed more focused on how science and religion can work together, rather than posing one side against the other,” wrote one student.

Also on the subject of science, a number of students zeroed in on the article about “Prizes Proposed by the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture” and “Mr. Bordley’s Account of his own and Mr. Singleton’s Experiments.” Here, students were again impressed their scientific focus, but many also wrote about how these articles highlighted the extent to which the early US was an agricultural community whose strength was dependent on developing successful farming practices. A number of students also wrote about the emphasis on improvement which, in the case of the farming prizes, offered rewards for both the individual and the community. References to Franklin abounded here, and I think it was helpful for students to see these ideas at work in a text that was for a mass audience, rather than the highly individualistic, exceptional example set by Franklin, allowing them to see the influence of these ideas within US culture more broadly.

Fiction was the other major area where my students focused their attention, particularly regarding the short stories of “The Discovery” and “Perrin and Lucetta.”  All of them were struck by the sentimental dimensions here, and it was exciting to see how this allowed them to better grasp and understand the ideas of sentiment and moral philosophy that I’d introduced with Charlotte Temple. “Hey! What you said about all that emotional stuff is true!” wrote one student. “Those early Americans were sure obsessed with sentiment, and you can tell by reading these stories that they really thought that writing about emotions did some important work.” Many of my students commented on the “over the top” and “unrealistic” dimensions of these stories and their representation of emotion, which, as several wrote, seemed “much more extreme” than the sentiment represented in Charlotte Temple. “This story gives me a better understanding of Charlotte Temple. I can see now how that novel now seems to be asking tougher questions and presenting a more complicated picture of the world than I first thought when I compare them to these stories,” wrote one student. In the case of “The Discovery,” my students were both surprised and interested in the British focus of the story, which tells of the experiences of a British soldier during the Revolution. Many saw this focus as indication of the lack of American authors and a strong, independent literary market, which had also been noted in Gardner’s introduction. Others wondered how the story’s British focus would have been received by American readers in the aftermath of the Revolution, which brought forward a great opportunity to discuss the transatlantic dimensions of early American culture.  “It is strange that this story would feature in a magazine that claims to provide readers with a uniquely American literary culture, “wrote one student, “I can’t imagine this was well received by the American public since it shows so much sympathy for their enemies. The story also shows the difficulties of breaking ties with England (economic, cultural, literary, or otherwise) after the Revolution. And yet, it also shows that values like honor, family, and integrity were important to both countries, and its attention to these shared feelings shows that the underlying vales of these two countries was closer than one might think.”

By allowing students to explore the magazine on their own and present their own interpretations, this final assignment provided an excellent opportunity for them to draw on and apply the knowledge they’d gained during the semester and, more importantly, to test out their own ideas and theories about early American values, beliefs, and experiences. Again and again, students wrote about their feelings of surprise as they discovered new and unexpected ideas and topics in the magazine, and it was wonderful to watch them find ways to work these discoveries into their existing frameworks for understanding early America, particularly when they had to revise or refine those frameworks to account for their discoveries. Teaching the Columbian Magazine really allowed my students to engage with texts with a freedom that felt they didn’t always have with the other texts I’d assigned, and the surprises they encountered as they worked with the magazine enabled them to end the course with a new sense of energy about studying this material, as opposed to the tiredness I more often encounter at the end of the semester. As one student wrote to me in an email, “After working on the Columbian Magazine project, I get why you get so excited when you talk about early American literature. I never thought it could be so interesting and fun! The difference was getting a chance to see what it’s like to read new things that bring up so many questions and then I’m the one who gets to try to come up with possible answers. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure, and I definitely want to do more!”

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