The Pleasures and Peculiarities of Teaching the Early American Periodical

Adam Lewis
Boston College

I taught the November 1786 issue of the Columbian Magazine about a third of the way through my American literature survey course this past fall.  Coming in between Franklin’s Autobiography and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, my thinking was the periodical would provide an opportunity to consider and compare different literary forms of the early national period—life writing, the magazine, the novel.  Given the significance of transatlantic periodical culture in Franklin’s text, including his early efforts to imitate from the Spectator and his competition with Andrew Bradford to publish the first magazine in British North America, it seemed the Columbian Magazine would give students a feel for a genre so important to Franklin and his contemporaries.  While I have encountered some resistance to assigning more ephemeral and obscure material in previous courses, I also hoped Franklin’s “validation” of the magazine form would make them more willing to engage it.  Moreover, students almost always respond favorably to The Coquette, and the multiplicity of voices in Foster’s epistolary seduction novel shares a resemblance to the arrangement of different material in magazines of the time.  Indeed, as Jared Gardner argues in the introduction of The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture, placing Foster in the role of editor over that of author provides new ways of approaching the novel in relation to early national periodical culture.

Students responded to the Columbian Magazine with interest and seemed to grasp some of the connections among readings I hoped they would.  Rather than assign the entire issue, I required students to read particular selections—“Descriptions of  BONES, &c.,” “An Account of…Pennsylvania,” “Perrin and Lucetta, or Rural Probity,” and the short poem “An INDIAN ECLOGUE.”  In addition, they had to read one more selection of their choice that they would share with the rest of the class.  The article on the mastodon bones provided an opportunity to discuss both the enlightenment assumptions and nationalist claims underpinning the descriptions.  In other selections students identified distinctions between urban and rural settings, particularly the idealization of farming and village life in both Benjamin Rush’s history of Pennsylvania and “Perrin and Lucetta.”

While the wide variety of material made it challenging to discuss it all in one class meeting, it did offer a chance for students to share what they found compelling (or confounding) from the issue.  Gardner’s linking of the periodical form of the political form of the new nation through the motto “E pluribus unum” in the introduction he prepared for the issue was intriguing for many students.  They found it a convincing way to understand the seemingly random collection of articles in the magazine.  As someone researching and writing about American periodicals, I was excited to have this opportunity to incorporate it into my teaching and will likely continue to use this JTO text in future classes.

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