Heterogenity and United States Public Formation

Michael Ditmore

Pepperdine University

I sandwiched Columbian Magazine into an upper-division survey of eighteenth-century American literature, 1730-1830 (“The Great Awakening to Rip Van Winkle and Nat Turner”), between Crevecoeur and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason/Thomas Jefferson’s Bible(s); we devoted a week to the magazine.

Truth to tell, as much as I admire the Just Teach One project, virtually every text, with the possible exception of Franklin’s Autobiography, felt like a “neglected” text. The Contrast? Letters from an American Farmer? The Coquette? Wieland? The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon? As familiar as these are to scholars-teachers, for my well-read undergrads, not so much. They knew some titles from earlier surveys; they’d read an excerpt or two; but otherwise, there was little-to-less-than-little familiarity. I can’t say they were ready to appreciate a “neglected” early American text. Please don’t misunderstand; I had a very sharp group of undergrads, but they didn’t enter with a built-in background for early American culture.

The Columbian definitely proved to be a rewarding challenge. I asked the class to read the entire issue, in sequence, as one would read a novel (not typically how magazines are used); I then developed framing contexts (brief history and rise of magazines, in England and America; connecting to magazines in 2015), when I had very little such background myself. We developed a magazine hermeneutic on the fly – how to handle a multi-generic, non-authorial, multiple-authored text (how to read editorial intentions, complicated by their ignorance of the editor[s]); how to read visuals (locally produced engravings but a general lack of visual design); how to read semi-ephemerality; how to read something produced in a series – and all of this stemming from a single, unfamiliar example.

I asked the class to conceptualize the magazine’s readership: a single reader eventually tracking every article in a month or two, or some assemblage of readers in which some would read some parts and ignore others? Which articles would have gotten rereadings (or reprintings), and which not? What kinds of writers submitted material; how was it handled by the editors? How would such a magazine reach an emerging nation of readers across state lines? Who bought/subscribed, and how was it purchased? I supplemented with the preface to the first issue, the proprietors’ introduction, “Queries submitted to our CORRESPONDENTS for a fair and candid Discussion,” and acknowledgements; additionally, I also distributed the first announcement/advertisement in the Pennsylvania Herald and General Advertiser, Sept. 2, 1786. I also found that printing out the table of contents for this issue helped for a sense of the overall scope/structure.

Few students had much familiarity with committed magazine reading; their reading is technologically scattered and dispersed, more exclusively focused (few had a magazine subscription or kept ready readerships). In connecting The Columbian to contemporary magazine cultures, I never came up with the right example. The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s are closest in slant and organization to The Columbian. I should have distributed copies. I’m not sure it made sense why The Columbian was organized as it was, or how magazine culture differed from newspaper culture. The Columbian’s appeal stemmed in part from its amateurishness and in part home-grown motivation to stimulate an American culture, an American “public.”

For class, I “lectured” briefly but assigned three smaller groups of three, giving each a similar grouping of genres, with broad discussion questions asking them to critique the editorial decisions and arrangement, second-guessing the editorial choices. To be frank: as literature majors, they were generally unimpressed, because little in The Columbian obviously transcended the ephemeral production or rose to the level of memorable trivia, except with the assistance of the annotations. They were drawn most to the literature section, but little there absorbed their interest (except for the bombastic “An Indian Eclogue”; they were little interested in the Annis Boudinet Stockton poem; the narratives were dry, brief, moralistic). But we pressed: What did it mean to instigate a national literary culture in the mid-1780s, through a magazine medium? What kinds of information (broadly considered) was thought valuable for dissemination, and what organization did that take? What did the rise of a serious American reading public look like, and what values were assumed?

Despite appreciating historical context, we were put in a New Critical posture but with material that was either low on the literary scale or unmemorably obvious/simplistic, seemingly disposable. We kept reverting to frameworks and surfaces for lack of knowledge about authors/contexts that would enable other connections. What does one say about an anonymous “Description of BONES, &c. found near the RIVER OHIO” after “that’s interesting”? Did readers really find “Some thoughts on real and imaginary Evils” amusing or interesting, or would they have been impressed mainly that it was an American production? How does one in 2015 regard “the Effects of the general Thaw, in March 1784,” or the brief disquisition on the planting of seeds? What role did Shays’ Rebellion play? How does this magazine’s audience eventually morph into audiences for The Coquette or Wieland? In a production that can be seen as derivatively British in different ways, what is distinctively “American”? But why reprint stories that have already circulated (“Perrin and Lucetta,” “The Discovery”)? What was the fascination with “Oriental Tales”? How might this relate to attention spans and diversity of interests?

The Columbian became more of a touchstone for the remainder of the semester than I’d anticipated. Two students developed final research papers connecting The Columbian with other works and trends (one concerned The Columbian’s push toward an “American” readership when its fiction pieces appear demonstrably non-American; the other took a similar tack, comparing “The Discovery” to Tyler’s The Contrast). In both cases, the students worked with what an “American” culture/literature might have been taken to mean in 1786 and later.

Reading The Columbian was a challenging, diverting, and informative experience, one I would definitely repeat, probably by more carefully bringing in both other 1786 magazines and parallel 2015 examples. I would suggest having student role play as editors/investors. Finally, I’d focus more attention on the details and formation of a public prose style.

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