Literature and Journalism in Antebellum America: Thoreau, Stowe, and Their Contemporaries Respond to the Rise of the Commercial Press

By Kaplan, Richard L. | Journalism History, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Literature and Journalism in Antebellum America: Thoreau, Stowe, and Their Contemporaries Respond to the Rise of the Commercial Press


Kaplan, Richard L., Journalism History


Canada, Mark. Literature and Journalism in Antebellum America: lhoreau, Stowe, and Their Contemporaries Respond to the Rise of the Commercial Press. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 212 pp. $80.

Mark Canada's lucid probing of the early "sibling rivalry in American letters" between journalism and literature focuses on the reaction of six major antebellum authors to journalism. As he makes clear, both of these rival genres aspired to represent the truth of American social reality. They sought to write the epic story of the American people, but they possessed different tools and confronted distinctive limitations in their endeavors.

The book's first three chapters draw an overall picture of this competition, focusing on question of finances, the hunt for audiences, the relative authority of the two genres, and the literary-narrative tools that define news and fiction. Importantly, Canada situates this rivalry in the context of the early nineteenth-century reading revolution. The United States went from print scarcity, where books were few, often read aloud to families or groups, and had sacral overtones, to one of print surpluses with widespread literacy. He notes that the rise of the daily mass press with the penny papers in the 1 830s should be seen as part of this radical transformation in the world of print.

Canada explores neither literature nor journalism fully. Indeed the authors he discusses - Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry David lhoreau, Edgar Allan Poe, Rebecca Harding Davis, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson - are not a representative sample of antebellum literature. They did not necessarily find a mass audience in their time, instead receiving canonical treatment in ours, and indeed the growth of literature, its institutions, audience, aesthetic, and market, are largely left untouched in this volume.

Subsequent chapters explore how each author sought to reveal dimensions of social reality typically ignored by the press. In subtle but often explicit ways, these authors juxtaposed their investigations into American psychological, social, or even philosophical life to that of the press. By plumbing these literary efforts and the attitudes of these authors, this book compiles a valuable catalogue of the deficiencies of antebellum journalism.

Thoreau, for example, notably embraced a quiet listening to the divine eternities of nature. Those timeless truths, he felt, could only be discovered by retreating to the country and eschewing the triviality and hubbub of everyday life so avidly chronicled by the press. "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new: but perchance the first news that will leak through into broad flapping American ears will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough." In the case of Davis' novel of life in the irons mills, a new model of investigative writing exposed the impoverished and brutalized lives of America's working class, a reality ignored by a deeply compromised, conformist journalism.

For Canada, the opposition of literature and news depends upon the way each form of creative cultural production integrated the details and facts of everyday life with narrative structure or plots, which in turn are guided by broader understandings of social institutions and individual psychology.

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