Spring 2015 – Just Teach One, no. 6
Text prepared by Ed White (Tulane University) and Duncan Faherty (Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center). Introduction by Jared Gardner.
The Early American Magazine by Jared Gardner
The first “American” magazine was published in 1741, when Philadelphia publisher Andrew Bradford’s American Magazine beat Benjamin Franklin’s General Magazine to press by three days. For both Bradford and Franklin, the ambition was to create a colonial version of the first English-language magazine, the Gentleman’s Magazine, established in London ten years earlier. But where the Gentleman’s Magazine would last for almost two centuries, neither of these first two American magazines would survive more than a few issues.
When the Columbian Magazine was founded more than a half-century later by partners Mathew Carey, Charles Cist, William Spotswood, Thomas Seddon, and John Trenchard, the prospects for a new American magazine had not improved greatly. The colonial period had seen numerous magazines, the vast majority of which lasted only a few issues. The Revolutionary period had brought a new urgency to the project to found an American magazine, and the short-lived but influential success of Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine (1774-1775) and Robert Aitken’s Pennsylvania Magazine (1775-76) sparked a renewed interest in the form and its possibilities. Nonetheless it would not be until several years after the Revolution that the first truly successful magazines would emerge on the scene.
The Columbian Magazine led the way, publishing its first issue in September of 1786 and surviving until 1792, a previously unimaginable run for an American periodical. Despite this remarkable record, however, the magazine struggled to stay afloat almost from the start. Problems began shortly after the issue we have before us here, when the printer Mathew Carey left the magazine to found a rival publication, The American Museum (1787-92). Without Carey’s guiding energy, management of the Columbian would pass through a variety of controlling hands, first Spotswood (1787¬88), then Trenchard (1789-90), and finally to William Young, who purchased the magazine in 1790 and operated it until its end. Similarly, the editorial work of the magazine passed through many hands, including the original proprietors, Francis Hopkinson, James Dallas, and a “society of gentlemen” in Philadelphia, who almost certainly included the prominent Philadelphia doctor Benjamin Rush among their number.
Several important magazines would follow in the final years of the eighteenth century, including Carey’s American Museum, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Magazine (1789-96), and The New-York Magazine (1790-97). In all cases they owed much in terms of both inspiration and aspirations to the Columbian Magazine, the first periodical in the new nation to aspire to be a truly national magazine. And in all cases, they learned quickly (if they did not already know it at the outset) what the Columbian’s publishers learned during their first year: that “success” would never be measured in terms “satisfactory to persons in business.” This is how Spotswood put it in a somewhat despondent letter to Jeremy Belknap in early 1788, describing the “considerable loss” incurred by the first volume despite its unprecedented subscriber list (as many as 1,500 by one early account).
My research into the magazines of the early republic began with a seemingly simple question: what, exactly, motivated so many fiercely practical “persons in business” to devote energy and capital to magazines that brought with them, as Noah Webster put it in his own American Magazine in 1788, “the expectation of failure.” In The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture I offered some potential answers to that question, but in the end some of it remains by definition beyond accounting. Towards the end of his long career, Mathew Carey described in detail the frustrations, the financial losses and the physical burdens of publishing a magazine; but he also acknowledged that he remained to the end “much attached to the work, and had a great reluctance to abandon it, unproductive and vexatious as was the management of it.”
It is important, therefore, to keep in mind that the Columbian Magazine was not dedicated to short-term profits but to the approbation of posterity and the education of the young Americans of the present. Unlike the ephemeral newspaper or the sensational novel, the early magazine sought to provide something of value for everyone in the family, while at the same time preserving the important papers and debates of the moment for the future. And what that future would look like was never more uncertain than in the fall of 1786.
The Revolution was three years over, but the failure the Articles of Confederacy had proved how much there still was to accomplish if this new nation— this unprecedented experiment— was to survive. The editors of and contributors to the magazine of the early republic saw themselves as shoring up the foundations of the new nation. In their more despairing moments, they also understood themselves to be gathering the sentiments, hopes and accomplishments of the present in a time-capsule in the event the experiment proved a failure, so that future generations might learn from their aspirations and their failures.
Readers of Just Teach One are already aware of one of the Columbian Magazine’s most unique features: its commitment to publishing fiction at a time when many magazines explicitly positioned themselves against the novel and imaginative fiction in general. Amelia; or the Faithless Briton, a potential candidate for “first American novel,” was originally published in two serial installments in the magazine in 1787. Jeremy Belknap’s allegorical novel, The Foresters, another candidate, was serialized in the magazine in incomplete form between 1787 and 1788. America’s first professional novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, began his career at the magazine in 1789, at the age of eighteen, with his first periodical series, “The Rhapsodist.”
However those coming to this, the third issue of the Columbian Magazine (one of the last produced in full by the founding proprietors), in search of original fiction will be disappointed. In fact, the experience of reading through an early American magazine is often at first somewhat disorienting for a modern reader, as the contents appear gathered at random. On closer inspection, however, we see how the apparent randomness of the magazine obscures the editorial hand. Indeed, this is the highest goal of these periodicals—modeling in their quiet but firm organization of the disparate elements a model of governance for a heterogeneous nation. The very motto for the new nation—E pluribus unum—adopted in 1782 had been borrowed from the Gentleman’s Magazine. Even the 13 arrows clutched in the talon of the eagle mirrored the flowers clutched in the editorial hand in the title pages of that magazine. As the well-governed periodical goes, so goes the nation. Do not be fooled by the seemingly random and often playful contents assembled here: for the proprietors of the magazine the stakes could not have been higher.
Reading through the contents of our issue here, we see that the first four articles do share things in common. For one thing, they are all anonymous, as was the common practice on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. More specifically, they all discuss issues related to natural history: an account of ancient bones found near the Ohio River, a detailed description of the rattle snake, and articles about the American locust and the paddlefish. In fact, all describe fauna unique to the American continent, serving as a sampler of the natural inheritance of the new nation. Less obvious to a modern reader (but instantly recognizable to one from the early national period), these articles also served as an articulate refutation to the influential French naturalist the Comte de Buffon, who had two decades earlier argued that in the New World the forces of nature were weaker and ultimately degenerative. From the 49-inch paddlefish to the immense dimensions of the ancient mastodon bones, Buffon’s claims are disproved at every turn in the opening articles.
No sooner does this theme seem to emerge as an organizing principle for the magazine, however, than tone and topic shift dramatically with the next article, an account of largely satirical “phobias.” While this essay was, like all the others, anonymous, we know today the correspondent to be Benjamin Rush. As a leading scientist of the period and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, his papers and writings would be collected and republished making such attribution possible, even as the vast majority of contributors to the early magazines remain forever anonymous. While Rush has been called the father of American psychiatry, here his interests are more humorous and chiding, describing, for example, “HOME PHOBIA” as the fear that drives men from the home to the tavern.
However, Rush’s playful tone deflects, temporarily at least, more serious fears about fear itself, as we see in another essay a bit later in the issue dedicated to exploring “real and imaginary evils.” As suggested earlier, this was an extremely anxious time for many, if not most, Americans. Just two months before this issue was published, delegates in Annapolis had called for a national convention to address the widely agreed-upon failings of the Articles of Confederation. It would not be until May of the following year that the Constitutional Convention would convene and not for more than a year after that, in June 1788, that the Constitution would be ratified by the required nine states. There were real and imagined evils everywhere in the early republic, and fears and phobias would increasingly divide the nation during the final decade of the eighteenth century.
Where the newspaper often sought to profit from the growing political divisions of the day by inflaming passions and attacking individual politicians in the opposition, the magazines studiously performed non-partisan citizenship, as modeled by the Columbian Magazine. The issue’s extended meditations on fear and anxiety sought to diagnose and even cure the passions threatening the unity and resolve necessary for the new nation to weather the coming storms.
In addition to his contribution on “Phobias,” Rush is also the author of at least two other articles in this issue: the history of Pennsylvania and “An Account of the Effects of the general Thaw.” Such heavy reliance on Rush’s pen reminds us of the paucity of contributors available to the early magazines. Repeatedly throughout the early periodicals the pleas for contributions from readers often outstrip the equally urgent pleas for payment on subscriptions. The magazine was imagined as an engine for producing a native American literature, and readers were regularly encouraged to imagine themselves as partners in the periodical endeavor by writing in with their own essays, stories, and trivia. However, in an uncertain economic and political landscape, few had the leisure for authorship—especially an authorship that offered no hopes of fame or remuneration. So it is not surprising that so few were able to answer the call from editors to join in the work of collaborative production.
In fact, more surprising is that someone like Benjamin Rush—a man burdened with considerable responsibilities professional and political responsibilities—found the time and energy for such work. Several eighteenth-century editors found themselves tasked with not only compiling their magazine but writing much of it as well, as was the case for Noah Webster at his American Magazine (1787–88) or Brockden Brown at the Monthly Magazine (1799-1800). In the case of the Columbian Magazine, the editors at least had some outside help to draw on, including most notably Rush himself.
The challenges in securing contributors also help explain another feature of the early American magazine that might seem surprising to modern readers, given the public goals of producing an “American” literature. All of the fiction found in this issue was in fact reprinted or adapted from foreign sources, and all of it without attribution. When we recall that in 1786 there was still no novel by an American author, and that for the previous decade there had been virtually no local periodical outlets for original short fiction this lack of original fiction in the early issues of the magazine is less surprising. Amelia and The Foresters will follow soon, summoned forth by the magazine’s call to literary arms. But the reprinting of transatlantic materials will remain a common practice in the early magazine long after American writers begin to emerge on the scene in greater numbers (much to the consternation of local writers).
As you sit to read this magazine from almost 230 years ago, imagine yourself a young man or woman living in Philadelphia in 1786. You spent the Revolution in school, only dimly aware of the events roiling the landscape around you and transforming you from the British citizen you were born to the American citizenship you now assume. As you prepare to make your way in this new world, what comforts, pleasures and value might you find in this issue? Would you feel called upon to write in yourself, as the editors so desperately wished? What might you contribute?
The following are responses written by participants who have included this text in their teachings.
- Siân Silyn Roberts – Exploring Editorial Work
- Keri Holt – A Literary Lab: Exploring the Columbian Magazine
- Adam Lewis – The Pleasures and Peculiarities of Teaching the Early American Periodical
- Michelle Burnham – The Columbian Magazine and Genre
- Michael Ditmore – Heterogenity and United States Public Formation
- Jonathan Beecher – Digital Enhancements