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

§ 17. Engravers; Cheney; Sartain; Ritchie

A student’s first impressions of the annuals are usually gained from the “embellishments.” In respect of illustrations the American annuals rarely equalled the best of their English prototypes, yet the publishers enlisted the services of the foremost American engravers. John Cheney seems to have developed his talent in connection with his work for The Token, and he also executed plates for many other annuals. John Sartain and Alexander H. Ritchie were among the most prolific and successful of the workers in mezzotint. Publishers of the cheaper annuals employed cruder engravers, or used old plates, often so worn as to be almost worthless. It is in the subjects of the pictures rather than in the workmanship of the engravers that the sentimental character of the annuals reveals itself. Many of these were taken from British paintings, others were by American artists; they were likely to be female figures and faces, romantic landscapes, or pictures hinting at pathetic or chastely amorous tales. In an annual taken at random, Leaflets of Memory for 1845, the illustrations are entitled “Julia,” “Was it for this?” “We part no more,” “The heart’s best dream,” “The Christian slave,” “The past and present,” “The rose of the ruin,” “The Grecian maid,” “Myrrha.” Pictures designed for fine editions of standard authors were often introduced with change of name, and not infrequently the process of illustration was reversed, and poems or tales were written to fit the renamed plate.

It is not strange that volumes which are so palpably indicative of the commercial side of publishing, and that appealed to a constituency often more “elegant” and “refined” than intellectual, should be treated in later years with scant respect. Charles Lamb, Thackeray, and George Eliot all indulged in humour at the expense of the annuals and their admirers, and in America Miss Agnes Repplier and others who have given them passing notice adopt the same tone. They were not, however, without literary importance. Their exuberances and peculiarities register for the literary historian some of the less admirable qualities of popular taste; and they really contain much work of value. At a time when most of the literary magazines were living but a precarious existence many of the annuals were well established and financially successful. It was the annuals and not the magazines that were able to pay what was considered a lavish price for a few verses or a short tale by a popular author. It is too true that they often depended on the names of one or two distinguished contributors to sell a volume composed largely of cheaper material; but men like Poe, Irving, Bryant, Whittier, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, and Holmes were not ashamed to contribute to annuals, and often furnished some of their best work. The better editors were also alert for modest and unknown merit. It was in annuals that most of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales first saw the light, and these were all printed without the author’s name. Change of taste has left the twentieth century reader sadly out of sympathy with the annuals, but they invite from the student more attention than they have yet received.