The Columbian Magazine and Genre

Michelle Burnham

Santa Clara University

“Introduction to Literary History and Interpretation” is one of three foundation courses for the English major at Santa Clara University, and as such is probably a less than ideal pedagogical context in which to ask students to read and talk about the November 1786 issue of The Columbian Magazine. Indeed, the first thing I learned after assigning this material to my undergraduate students is that they don’t read magazines. I discovered this when I asked them to compare this eighteenth-century example to more contemporary and familiar ones­­­. They were certainly aware of periodicals like Time or Newsweek, The New Yorker or Us or The Atlantic, just as they recognized the names of online magazines like Slate or Salon. They made it clear, however, that they didn’t read any of these. When I asked them to identify what made a magazine different from other kinds of reading materials—different from a novel, or a poem, or a blog post, or an autobiography, for example—they usefully identified a magazine as an assemblage of written materials of various kinds, and also quickly recognized that different magazines were designed for particular audiences and purposes, as well as being defined by particular ideologies or political or cultural orientations.

I had positioned this assignment at the transition point in the course between a first unit that was focused on the practice of close reading, and a second unit devoted to the study of genre (a third and final unit was aimed at building an understanding of literary history). This meant that my students who had spent several weeks doing close readings and interpretations of literary texts—especially, but not exclusively, poems—were suddenly asked to read an entirely different kind of text: one that was considerably longer, far less familiar, and that presented itself not as an isolated single literary text but a collection of many texts, the majority of which seemed not at all to possess “literary” characteristics. So in addition to the question about the textual form of the magazine we posed the question about how the attentions of close reading might work on texts that seemed (whether they actually were or not) far less self-conscious about their aesthetic shape and effect. This exercise was more challenging than it appeared, and I wish we had had more time to engage with the practice of explicating and interpreting some of the individual pieces in the magazine.

I placed this reading assignment at this moment in the syllabus because I wanted students to consider the magazine as a literary form of its own with a certain set of rhetorical expectations, but also because I wanted them to think about each individual item included in the magazine issue as a genre of one kind or another. Once the class had distinguished magazines from other types of texts, I asked them how they had approached and responded to the experience of reading this particular magazine. It quickly became clear that everyone had read the issue straight through, beginning on the first page and moving forward page by page through the issue as if it were a novel or a poem or a blog post or an autobiography. Despite their inexperience with reading magazines in general, most seemed to recognize that this approach was driven by the context of the course itself, since otherwise magazine reading tends to be far more episodic and far less linear: one generally begins a magazine by turning to the most interesting item first, and the first item in any magazine (often a letter from the editor) is almost never its most interesting one. Magazine readers also typically skip around within an issue, reading whatever catches their interest, seldom reading absolutely everything in any given issue. Did early American readers approach magazine reading in the same way? How could we know?

Every single one of my students expressed a sense of relief—in their own, far-too-linear reading of this magazine issue—upon getting to the poetry, which placed them on more familiar ground as students in a relatively introductory English course. Poetry, like the short story, was a genre they felt prepared to read and engage with, whereas they felt far more adrift as readers in their encounters with the earlier pieces on fossils or medicine. We then turned to a discussion of the genre categories that were represented in this issue. Some of these were perfectly familiar to students, while others they had no readily available terms to describe. The genre of natural history, for example, was one they had never heard of, and they struggled to differentiate it from the more familiar categories of nature writing or science writing. But this very struggle to develop (or to recover) a language of and for genre was instructive: a text might clearly be a letter, for instance, but how did a letter to the editor differ from other kinds of letters—from love letters, or advice letters, or Columbus’s letter describing the New World (which we had read earlier in the quarter)? And how were these distinctions of subgenre visible on the page, in the style or voice of address, in the diction or structure or mood of particular letters? How did those distinctions help us to understand the way the text worked on its readers? And what happens to that effect once its readers are no longer the expected or intended audience, once early twenty-first century college students rather than late eighteenth-century Americans become its readers?

We followed up our reading of the Columbian Magazine with selected texts from various historical periods and discussed the ways in which those texts conformed to or broke away from genre expectations, using our answers to those questions as ways into interpreting these texts. This provided an occasion for complicating what had seemed the easy identification of a genre such as poetry in The Columbian Magazine. What distinguishes one type of poetry from another, and what language of genre might we need to express those distinctions? We looked at other examples such as David Walker’s Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World; the work identifies itself as an appeal, but what are its features and how might it differ from, say, a declaration? Similarly, Samson Occom’s “Short Narrative” is an autobiography, but its length and selective content also differentiates it from other autobiographies; in what ways do those differences work on readers?

Such discussions helped prepare students for the assignment of researching a particular genre and writing a wiki page on that genre. (We did note that the wiki page represented a genre itself, and talked about what rhetorical features it tended to possess.) The students’ genre choices ranged from epic, lyric, tragedy, and farce to the western, hardboiled detective fiction, melodrama, and pulp fiction. The efforts to determine genre classifications for many of the pieces in The Columbian Magazine served them well as they worked to define their own genres—including their features, their history, their development, and specific examples—for readers who might be unfamiliar with them. The students were led through this assignment with the assistance of a librarian who remained a central part of the ten-week-long course, as we experimented with an “embedded librarian” model in order to support student research but also to build a working model of research for them that emphasized its recursive and ongoing character, its stops and starts, its own non-linear features.

My emphasis on literary form in this iteration of teaching The Columbian Magazine was driven largely by the place I assigned it in the course syllabus, and that placement led me to neglect the content of the issue more than I would have liked to. If I were to teach it again, I would grant it more space on the syllabus, so that we could devote as much time to a discussion and close reading of the content of individual pieces in the issue as we had to a consideration of genre.

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