Monday, March 28, 2016

Van Wyck Brooks and a Tale of Two Publications

In The Flowering of New England (1815-1865), the writer and literary critic Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) describes the two publications that helped to form a national literary consciousness in the 19th century. After various changes in ownership, a hiatus in publication for one, and new physical locations for both, these publications are still with us today, if without the major national influence they once had.

The two are the North American Review and The Atlantic Monthly.

The North American Review was founded in Boston in 1815 by journalist Nathan Hale (not the Revolutionary War patriot) and others. It was the first literary magazine in the United States. The Review was published continuously until 1940. Publication resumed in 1964 at Cornell College in Iowa, and in 1968 management passed to the University of Northern Iowa at Cedar Falls, where it continues to be published today. The 19th century archives of the publication are available via University of Michigan and Cornell College project Making of America.

Contributors included John Adams, Henry Webster, William Cullen Bryant, Edward Everett, and many others. While it published primarily essays and some poetry, it did serialize Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors. In more contemporary times, the journal has published such authors as Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Raymond Carver, Eldridge Cleaver, Joyce Carol Oates, and Barry Lopez.

In late 1857, The Atlantic Monthly was founded by Francis H. Underwood, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell. Now published as The Atlantic from Washington, D.C., it still published literary news, but its primary focus today is current events – politics, culture, education, technology, and foreign affairs.

I can say this – The Atlantic publishes well-written, thoughtful articles that generally reflect a moderate to centrist position. From its beginnings in 1857, it has generally followed a moderate position – no easy task in a world that seems to embrace and reward opinion at the extremes.

That both publications began in Boston was no accidental nor coincidental. In the period from 1815 to 1865, Boston was a literary center, if not the literary center, of the United States. New England dominated the literary psyche on the nation, and even had extended its influence to Europe. Longfellow is perhaps an outstanding example of that influence. Brooks writes that some 24 English publishing houses published his work in competition with each other, and The Courtship of Miles Standish, first published in the United States in 1858, sold 10,000 copies in London in a single day. It’s difficult to imagine any poem today selling 10,000 copies in a single day.

Van Wyck Brooks
We have hundreds if not thousands of literary journals today. The significant ones have a subscription base of less than 5,000. We don’t have national literary journals with anything approaching the influence that the North American Review and Atlantic Monthly had. We have publications like the New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, but they focus on a slice of the literary world, that of published books. Up until World War II, newspapers often published poetry, but that’s now a literary relic of a distant past.

It’s not likely that we will have in any foreseeable future magazines like those two publications. Brooks notes that the founding of The Atlantic Monthly was the “high tide of the Boston mind. In the ‘new magazine,’ as it was called from Maine to Minnesota, all the established writers appeared together.”

I wonder if The Courtship of Miles Standish is even read in schools today. I hope so.

Top illustration by Deroy [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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