Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America

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Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith (UP of Virginia, 1995), vi + 292 pp., $45.00 cloth, $17.50 paper.

Nineteenth-century American periodical literature, the editors of this volume assert, constitutes "a social text" woven of "complex relationships among writers, readers, editors, publishers, printers, and distributors" (3). The importance of this claim is amply indicated by the collected essays, which immerse the reader in fascinating historical cross-currents. The subjects of these essays clearly are social texts; rather than a discrete "work" or an individual author, the essays move naturally and necessarily between examination of the editors, contributors, audiences, geographical regions, demographic profiles, marketing strategies, and other elements that go together, literally, to make a periodical "text."

In exploring these social texts, the essayists purposely raise more issues and questions than can be readily resolved. For example, when Larry J. Reynolds examines Margaret Fuller's revision of the Dial essay "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women" into the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, he identifies Fuller's vacillation between intellectual elitism and democratic idealism as a central tension. However, Reynolds points out, her success at fusing these tensions "remains an open question" (17). Such openness is virtually mandated by Reynolds's methodological assumptions: He is not examining an individual text or an isolated author, but rather the revision of a periodical article into a book and the related transition of Fuller from editor of the exclusive Dial into a correspondent for the popular New York Tribune. Margaret Fuller's fluctuating ideas of authorship during this period are intertwined with the two periodicals, which in turn must struggle to survive (or, preferably, thrive) amidst changing conceptions of audience, changing practices of authorship, and changing distribution of intellectual commodities. Because the import of these cultural currents is so manifestly nonlinear--revealing the swirl of commercial successes and failures, more so than traditional, academic authorial intentions--Reynolds performs an invaluable service by examining Fuller's expressed hopes and fears from within the ad hoc material conditions of her literary marketplaces. Does Fuller change, or do marketplaces change her? Is a mass audience the same thing as increased democracy? Is mass circulation more effective than private circulation of manuscripts and ideas? Does commerce necessarily corrupt even our culture's most intellectual efforts--and if so, how? Such questions, still so vital in late-twentieth-century culture, are uncovered in rich fossil form by Reynolds's study of periodical literature.

Despite radical implications, the book is strikingly modest in theoretical claims. Editors Price and Smith position their approach to periodicals primarily as an under-explored version of "history of the book" criticism, developed over the past fifteen years in such ambitious books as Cathy N. Davidson's Reading in America: Literature and Social History (1989) and Richard H. Brodhead's Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America (1993). They choose not to attack scholars' privileging of books or to detail the questionable assumptions such privileging entails. Clearly the absence of elaborate theoretical posturing is strategic: The volume's purpose is to stimulate study and raise questions, rather than to stake intellectual territory and construct firm conclusions. Still, I believe the editors undersell the importance of studying periodical literature as a primary subject, rather than as secondary to the study of books. "Periodicals," their Introduction claims, "once seen as the reflection of a culture and mined for background detail, are now recognized as central components of culture ... …