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A History of Periodical Literature

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

A History of American Magazines. By Franjc Luther Mott. Volume I, 1741-1850. Volume II, 1850-65. Volume III, 1865-85. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Volume I, $10.00; Volume II and III, $5.00 each.

In 1930 there appeared, under the imprint of D. Apple-ton and Company, the first volume of a projected two-volume work on American magazines, “A History of American Magazines,” by Frank Luther Mott. That volume brought down to 1850 a story of considerable importance to the political, social, and literary historian of America, a story which the second volume was to bring up to date. But the ninety years that have passed since 1850 have witnessed such a phenomenal interest in magazines that the author now finds it will take at least five volumes to do the work planned for two. The reader of the first volume will be glad to learn of this extension, and he will be interested in knowing that Harvard University Press has reissued the first volume and offers it now with the second and third, which bring the story to 1885. Volumes four and five are in preparation.

In the first volume of this series, Mr. Mott pointed out that the importance of American magazines “rests upon three services which they perform”: they provide a democratic literature, they play an important part in the economics of literature, and they furnish an invaluable contemporaneous account of their times. One need only skim over the brief accounts of those magazines whose complete histories the author has chosen to sketch in to realize how thoroughly democratic and how close to every reading taste and every school of thought American magazine literature has run. Woodhull k Claflin’s Weekly ran its colorful course between the appearance of the short-lived humorous and satirical Punchinello and the more serious Literary World, which sought to be “help and monitor to book buyers and readers.” The Police Gazette, with its crusading, its riots, and its lurid and weird stories, got its start with The Scientific American and with De Bow’s Review, dead these sixty years. The volumes contain more information on such purely economic topics as the payment of authors and financing of magazines than we have seen elsewhere. An hour spent in turning the pages of these volumes does more to give one the feel of certain decades in the nineteenth century than does the usual history.

Mr. Mott has adopted an effective method of presenting ! his history. Fearing that the purely chronological ordering of facts might obscure the individualities of certain outstanding magazines, he has chosen to give a running history of successive periods together with a “supplementary section of separate sketches covering the entire lives of the more important magazines which were founded in the period.” This method has been followed except where it has seemed wise to attach certain sketches to the periods in which individual magazines reached their greatest importance rather than to the periods that gave them birth. Thus we have the story of the Saturday Evening Post held over for appearance in the final volume of the series although it was founded over a hundred years ago.

To say that the author has undertaken a herculean task is to understate the case. In 1825 there were about one hundred magazines in America. This number jumped to about six hundred in 1850, to one thousand and two hundred in 1870, to approximately three thousand and three hundred in 1885. Conservative estimates place the number of magazines that appeared between 1865 and 1885 at between eight and nine thousand, with an average lifetime for each of about four years. All these Mr. Mott has worked into an informative and vastly entertaining account which aims rather at the presentation than the interpretation of facts. He has shown an amazing awareness of his reader’s needs and possible range of interest, and his tables, lists, and illustrations invariably make important contributions to a more complete understanding of the text.


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