The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XX. Magazines, Annuals, and Gift-books, 1783–1850

§ 14. The West

The rapid development of a distinctive Western literature and of Western periodicals is partly explained by the comparative isolation of the country west of the Alleghanies. In the early years of the century settlers in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys found difficulty in obtaining Eastern magazines regularly and promptly, and set about supplying their own needs. In this they were, of course, greatly encouraged by their local patriotism. The Western Review and Miscellaneous Magazine (Lexington, 1819–21), The Western Monthly Review (Cincinnati, 1827–30), The Western Monthly Magazine (Cincinnati, 1833–37), and other contemporary and later magazines were serious, well-considered, and, for the time and place, highly creditable; but as difficulties of communication were overcome they lost much of their significance, and Western authors exerted their greatest influence on American letters not through their local journals but by their contributions to the more cosmopolitan magazines of the seaboard cities.

To the very end of the period the publication of magazines continued to be a precarious and usually an unsuccessful undertaking. Few of the journals mentioned in the preceding pages were alive in 1850, and of these a much smaller number survived the Civil War. Indeed, of the more important literary periodicals founded before 1850, but one, The North American Review, was so firmly established that it lasted through the century. Harper’s, the earliest of the literary magazines of high grade familiar today, was founded in 1850; and Boston waited seven years longer for the Atlantic. The short life and the financial difficulties of the earlier ventures must not always, however, be interpreted as signs of literary mediocrity, or of deficient appreciation on the part of American readers. At times such journals as the Knickerbocker and Graham’s, and even others less successful, boasted lists of contributors quite as distinguished as those which most later magazines have been able to show. It is true that in the last sixty years there has been great development in the arts of magazine editorship and of magazine authorship—the writing of articles especially adapted for publication in a periodical. But in the same time have come improvement and cheapening of the processes of printing and of illustration, and the development of advertising. Indeed, it is probable that it is chiefly in the mechanical and business rather than in the editorial departments that the better early magazines are at a disadvantage as compared with those of a later time.

Futile as the early experiments seemed, and slight as was the reward that they brought their editors and publishers, they did good service in their day. By offering a ready means for the publication of literary attempts and for the exchange of ideas on literary matters they did much to clear the literary atmosphere and to make American men of letters sane and self-respecting. Today the student of the taste and the ideals of that time finds in their files his most valuable sources of material.