American Literature in Nineteenth-Century England

By Clarence Gohdes | Go to book overview

II. THE PERIODICALS

"We have many things to learn from America. The maintenance of the honour and the reputation and the authority of the critical columns of our journals is one of these"--WALTER BESANT.

EARLY in the nineteenth century British travellers and critics acknowledged American superiority in one aspect of intellectual culture, namely, the diffusion of the reading habit among the less cultivated classes. The quantity of newspapers and magazines consumed in the United States was, like Niagara Falls, a wonder of the New World. Of course there were complaints about the low and vulgar tone of the public press, and the vast store of English material reprinted in American magazines was eyed with little satisfaction; but already in the 1830s there was no denying the fact that the United States had surpassed England in its devotion to the newspaper and the magazine.1 With no taxes on paper, on advertisements, or on periodicals issuing news--and with a much more extensive system of elementary schools--it was only natural that the production of newspapers in the United States should have surpassed that in the United Kingdom. So far as quality is concerned, no one could compare the London Times and the New York Herald in the middle of the century without admitting that the former was far more genteel.2 And

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1
Jane L. Mesick, The English Traveller in America 1785--1835, New York, 1922, pp. 207, 227 ff. Parliamentary discussions of the taxes on knowledge frequently led the liberals to comment on American superiority in newspaper reading. For example, Edward Lytton Bulwer, speaking in the House of Commons on June 14, 1832, is reported as saying: ". . . in America a newspaper sells on the average for 1 ½d. What is the result? Why, that there is not a town in America with 10,000 inhabitants, that has not its daily paper. Compare Boston and Liverpool: Liverpool has 165,175 inhabitants; Boston had, in 1829, 70,000 inhabitants. Liverpool puts forth eight weekly publications, and Boston, with less than half the population, and with about a fourth part of the trade of Liverpool, puts forth eighty weekly publications. In 1829, the number of newspapers published in the British Isles was 33,050,000, or 630,000 weekly, which is one copy for every thirty-sixth inhabitant. In Pennsylvania, which had only in that year 1,200,000 inhabitants, the newspapers amounted to 300,000 copies weekly, or a newspaper to every fourth inhabitant" ( Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, 3d Ser., XIII, 626).
2
Note Emerson enthusiasm over the Times in English Traits ( 1856).

-47-

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