Beyond the Bounds of the Book: Periodical Studies and Women Writers of the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Article excerpt

Scholars of realist and modernist literature have been slower than scholars of earlier eras to embrace the challenges of periodical studies, but they are now taking up the task. Certainly, the need to integrate the study of periodicals into a broad vision of literary history is obvious. Precisely because writing published in periodicals lacks the prestige and status of the bound book, it is an essential source for scholars who seek insight into writers who--by virtue of their gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, or other factors--have lacked access to the most privileged venues of American letters. Yet for the most part, literary critics are much better at reading books than newspapers and magazines. Since periodicals, by definition, are texts that appear at regular intervals, they make a liability of the critical tendency to privilege a single text. (1) Moreover, a rigid, excessively narrow focus on the status of authors and aesthetic value has often impoverished literary historians' treatments of newspapers and magazines. As feminist media historians have argued, a more flexible, broader approach is needed. (2)

With this perspective in mind, I offer an overview in this essay of how scholars of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American women writers have responded to the challenges of studying periodicals. After opening with a snapshot of turn-of-the-century periodical culture and women's central place in that culture, I discuss basic theoretical and methodological questions in the field: What is the relationship between literary history and periodical history? How can literary critical methodologies do justice to the unwieldy, multifarious nature of periodicals? In proposing new frameworks for study, including transnational exchanges and collaborative interdisciplinarity, I review some of the most significant recent research under three broad, interrelated rubrics: how periodicals fostered a vital tradition of African American women's writing, how they circulated new modes of psychic interiority, and how they created new possibilities for subjectivity and self-display. Even within the limited time frame of the decades around the turn of the century, this review is far from exhaustive; although it addresses some studies of fiction and poetry published in periodicals, it focuses primarily on nonfiction writings, either examined on their own or as a revelatory context for fiction. Scholars who have taken up periodicals as an object of study in their own right are doing more than unsettling canonical traditions. They are reorienting our understanding of how culture works, what it means to read and write, and why gender matters.

Historians agree that at the turn of the twentieth century, readers in the United States had access to more and different kinds of journals than at any other time in the nation's history. As the cost of newsprint plummeted in the final decades of the nineteenth century, advertising revenues skyrocketed, leading to the emergence of the world's first mass-circulation magazines and newspapers. Yet media historian Paul Starr has argued convincingly that, contrary to the "widely held view" that mass production led to a more standardized, homogenous culture, "the early mass media in America added more to cultural diversity than they subtracted from it" (250-51). In other words, despite the rise of corporate influence in journalism, mainstream journals were just one part of the phenomenon. In their overview of publishing in the United States from 1880 to 1940, distinguished print-culture historians Karl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway conclude that even as print culture was being nationalized, consolidated, and incorporated, multiple new venues and new specialized publications were constantly appearing. This vibrant environment created "new, cross-cutting possibilities for the construction of identities and the creation of communities that were sometimes generated in response to racialized, gendered, and sexualized hierarchies of power, and sometimes through elected affinity based on shared interests" ("Framework" 21). …