Siân Silyn Roberts
Queens College, CUNY
Producing an edition of the Columbian Magazine for JTO was a gamble that, in my opinion, really paid off. This reading elicited some truly outstanding, creative insight from my students, and they responded so well to the questions the magazine invited. This was definitely my favorite JTO assignment yet! Part of its success, I think, lay in that fact that I changed the pedagogical aims of the assignment from previous readings. In the past, I’ve included JTO readings to augment specific literary-critical sections of a syllabus (St. Herbert in a section on the captivity narrative and the gothic, for example, or Amelia; Or, The Faithless Briton as part of the sentimental tradition). This semester, where I taught an upper division elective on literary nationalism in early America, the Columbian Magazine seemed to offer a somewhat different opportunity. I used this project to reflect more generally on the critical stakes of recovery itself, and to ask students to think about the construction of an archive and the politics of canonization. Since most of my students are often unfamiliar with early American literature before they take a course on it, I decided to place that unfamiliarity center stage by making the JTO project and its aims an integral part of the syllabus.
To this end, I included the Columbian Magazine as part of a larger section on print culture and the reconstruction of neglected texts. So I positioned the JTO reading between two auxiliary activities: first, a field trip to the New York Public Library for a tour through the early American archives of first edition novels, newspapers, and magazines; and second, an assignment in which they were asked to edit and footnote an edition of George Watterston’s neglected novel Glencarn (1810). I asked my students to think about the more ephemeral nature of publication in early America, and how this has changed the way we perceive the archive now. The field trip to the library proved particularly useful: students could compare the visual presentation of text in magazines vs. newspapers vs. novels, and they encountered firsthand the bewildering array of information included in early American ephemera. Most of them had never handled rare materials before, let alone ephemera that were so discernably different from present-day information culture.
After the trip, I paired the Columbian Magazine with a chapter from Jared Gardner’s excellent The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, as well as Charles Brockden Brown’s essay “Novel Reading.” These readings were intended to give my students a sense of how different cultures of letters were prepared and received in the early Republic. This prompted them to reflect on the changing nature of readerships, which in turn proved useful when I asked them to edit Glencarn by imagining themselves preparing a modern edition for readers much like themselves. Jared’s discussion of the “editor function” proved particularly useful for both their Glencarn assignment and their approach to the Columbian Magazine. I asked my students to reflect on the whole magazine, but I also assigned each student a specific article. I then asked each student to report back to the group on their article, and we used this to brainstorm about how the arrangement of the articles in the magazine might be as important as the articles themselves. Using the idea of the editor’s “centralized authority,” my students imagined how each article related to the others in such a way that might connote a nationalizing narrative that attempts to organize seemingly unrelated and cacophonous material into a more coherent whole. We used this idea to reflect on the magazine’s construction of information as “democratic” (and again, Jared’s series of questions at the end of his introduction to the Columbian Magazine were particularly helpful in prompting this discussion: “As you prepare to make your way in this new world, what comforts, pleasures, and value might you find in this issue?” etc.). This in turn allowed my students to think about the editor function in the novels we were reading. I had them compare footnotes from three modern editions of Wieland, and we discussed what kinds of interpretations different footnotes elicit from their readers. They then brought this insight to bear on their editorial work on Glencarn.