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2. Revisiting the Periodical Essay (1860-1940)

Present Uncertainty and Looking to the Past: The Ambiguous Literary Nationalism of Putnam’s Monthly



Putnam’s Monthly (1853-1857) fut une des meilleures revues littéraires et d’intérêt général dans l’Amérique d’avant la guerre de Sécession. À part sa grande qualité, ce qui a rendu ce magazine new-yorkais exceptionnel était son engagement à publier des auteurs américains qui traitaient de sujets états-uniens à un moment où, en l’absence de protection internationale fiable du droit d’auteur en place, de nombreuses revues aux États-Unis republiaient des œuvres d’auteurs étrangers (surtout britanniques), parfois sans les payer. Pourtant, en dépit de sa politique de nationalisme littéraire, Putnam’s Monthly s’interrogeait sur la qualité de la littérature américaine contemporaine et sur la capacité de la société américaine à encourager des activités culturelles. Quand la revue regardait vers le passé de la nation – un sujet important chez les nationalistes littéraires – là aussi son bilan semblait être mitigé. On perçoit une tentative presque désespérée pour valoriser la situation littéraire du pays, s’appuyant notamment sur une certaine imprécision créée par l’évolution de la définition du terme « littérature ». Cet article explore certaines des ambiguïtés créées par la tension entre la politique éditoriale de nationalisme littéraire adoptée par Putnam’s Monthly et les incertitudes exprimées dans ses pages sur l’état de la littérature américaine.

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  • 1 Putnam’s Monthly was absorbed by Emerson’s United States Magazine, which in October 1857 began prod (...)

1Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Art, whose first issue appeared in January 1853, was one of the best literary and general interest magazines in antebellum America. In his classic history of magazines in the United States, Frank Luther Mott asserts that Putnam’s Monthly “stood on its own feet, and that more firmly and with more savoir-faire than any other American magazine of its time” (421). Kent Ljungquist declares that it held an “authoritative stature” and “a position of eminence in magazine publishing that could only be matched by Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly” (328). And it is not just in retrospect that the overall excellence of the monthly has become recognized; as Ezra Greenspan notes, “The high quality of Putnam’s was readily apparent to readers from the first issue” (George Palmer Putnam 293). The New York Times when the second issue came out, declared, “Putman’s Monthly for February makes a prompt appearance, and fulfills the promise of excellence held out in the first number of the work” (“Magazines” 2). In fact, during its relatively short existence (the last issue appeared in September 1857), the magazine published an impressive array of literary works and literary criticism, besides articles on a large variety of topics, including politics, history, travel, art, architecture, and music, making it a bright star within the American publishing world of the 1850s.1

  • 2 While American authors benefited from copyright protection in the United States, the international (...)
  • 3 As Meredith L. McGill explains, “reprint publishers developed a system of de facto copyright known (...)

2Aside from its general high quality, what made the New York-based Putnam’s Monthly stand out was its commitment to publishing American writers focusing on American themes or American points of view at a time when, with no international copyright protection in place,2 many periodicals in the United States—most notably Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, which began publication in 1850—were in the habit of simply reprinting the works of foreign (primarily British) authors, sometimes without payment. It should be noted, however, that the negative aspects of this situation were mitigated, to a certain extent, through an unwritten understanding among some publishing houses known as “courtesy of the trade.”3 George Palmer Putnam, who supported international copyright protection (a point I will return to further on) had a lifelong commitment to national writing or what was sometimes referred to as “home literature.” And the new monthly magazine was clearly part of his ongoing effort to encourage America’s developing, but still fledgling, intellectual life. Greenspan notes, for example, that the “culturally nationalistic views” Putnam expressed in his work American Facts (1845) were the same as those that had appeared in an earlier essay of his “and that he would continue to express throughout his publishing career” (George Palmer Putnam 134). When in the fall of 1852 he sent out a circular letter to drum up interest and support for Putnam’s Monthly among authors throughout the United States, the publisher emphasized that the goal was “to make it as essentially an organ of American thought as possible” (George Palmer Putnam 290). Indeed, sentiments of both literary and, more generally, cultural nationalism were relatively common in mid-nineteenth-century America, which was, from one point of view, somewhat natural since the United States was at a critical point in its history. With its founding event, the Revolution, fading into the past, the country seemed to be losing touch with its own meaning and identity. And though the spirit of the Revolution had, to a certain extent, been revived during the War of 1812, sometimes known as the “Second War of Independence,” by the time Putnam’s was launched the memory of that second defining conflict with Great Britain was also fading. The country at that time can, in fact, be seen as experiencing a sort of second-wave identity crisis (the first could be located in the 1820s when the last leaders of the Revolution were disappearing), creating widespread uncertainty over what, exactly the nation was meant to represent. The emerging North-South crisis, of course, only exacerbated this situation.

3The consciously American orientation of Putnam’s, in fact, is highlighted in almost every study that discusses or even mentions the magazine. Mott declares that “It was resolutely American: its stand for original and American contributions was intended and received as a stinging rebuke to the disgracefully successful Harper’s, with its ‘borrowed’ English serials” (420-421). Notley S. Maddox affirms that Putnam’s “offered substantial encouragement to American authors by publishing their writings, and paying for them promptly and liberally” (118). And Perry Miller notes that the publisher and the editors believed that their venture meant that “the journal of native genius was here” (315). More recent comments echo the same theme. Ljungquist notes Putnam’s “major contribution to American letters” (328), and Greenspan asserts that the magazine intended to make its mark “being explicitly the voice of American authorship” (George Palmer Putnam 288).

  • 4 Perry Miller writes that, “for three years the magazine owed its success to the brilliance of the a (...)

4Though Putnam was himself involved in various aspects of the new magazine, at the outset he hired a trio of editors to run the day-to-day operations: Charles F. Briggs, George William Curtis, and Parke Godwin. The oldest of the three, Briggs was apparently the one who had originally suggested the idea of the magazine to Putnam, and he was in charge (Miller 315, Greenspan 287). According to Greenspan, Briggs “handled most of the editorial correspondence and made most of the editorial decisions, but management lines in the office were often flexible and occasionally slack” (George Palmer Putnam 295).4 Curtis focused on literary pieces, while Godwin’s purview was somewhat broader, including various contemporary issues, notably politics (George Palmer Putnam 288, 301). All three men also regularly contributed their own writings to the periodical. “With their talents and personalities nicely matched, they presented,” according to Greenspan, “the most powerful editorial team in Manhattan” (George Palmer Putnam 289). In the first issue of Putnam’s Monthly, the opening “Introductory,” written by Briggs, clearly declared the magazine’s nationalistic goals:

It is because we are confident that neither Greece nor Guinea can offer the American reader a richer variety of instruction and amusement in every kind, than the country whose pulses throb with his, and whose every interest is his own, that this Magazine presents itself to-day. The genius of the old world is affluent; we owe much to it, and we hope to owe more. But we have no less faith in the opulence of our own resources. (1)

5To a large extent, the cultural nationalism and the more general optimism concerning America expressed by Briggs were reflected and indeed vindicated within the pages of Putnam’s Monthly. This study will focus on the somewhat narrower topic of literary nationalism, which is, of course, part of the broader concerns of cultural nationalism. It should be noted, however, that the two categories not only overlap, but, as I will show further on, the ambiguity created by the evolving definition of the term “literature” in the mid-nineteenth century also influenced the way in which American literature was discussed in the context of literary and cultural nationalism. I have confined my examples, in this study, to the first year of Putnam’s Monthly in order to give a certain depth to my characterization of the periodical, notably through a consideration of various types of writings, while at the same time allowing enough breadth to make the examples largely representative of the magazine and its editorial policy throughout its existence. In its first year alone, the magazine published literary works by several American authors still considered major figures today, including James Fenimore Cooper, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau. Among the somewhat lesser-known native literary figures were two of the magazine’s editors, Briggs and Curtis, as well as Erastus Wolcott Ellsworth, Rebecca Hicks, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, James Matthews Legaré, Maria White Lowell, William North, Edmund Quincy, John Townsend Trowbridge, Bayard Taylor, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, and Charles Dudley Warner. The many high-quality non-literary pieces were written by some of the most notable commentators and specialists of the day, including the magazine’s other editor, Godwin.

  • 5 The other contributors were William Cullen Bryant, George Washington Greene, Rufus Griswold, Edward (...)

6The distinctively American aspect of Putnam’s Monthly was not only touted in Briggs’s “Introductory,” but was approvingly commented on at the time. The New York Literary World, which was able to obtain a copy of the first issue of Putnam’s Monthly early enough to include a notice of it in its December 25, 1852 issue, stated: “The literature is generally thoughtful, with a commendable preference of American topics” (“Putnam’s Monthly” 406). Graham’s Magazine, also in reference to the first issue, declared: “The articles are all original and well written. Putnam deserves success, if for nothing more than for his effort to sustain American authorship” (“Putnam’s Monthly” 222). This national dimension was reflected in various ways throughout the magazine’s pages. Several examples can be found in the first issue alone. There was, for example, a lengthy review of the illustrated book Homes of American Authors, published, in fact, by Putnam. The book was closely linked with the work of Putnam’s Monthly since three of its contributors were Briggs, Curtis, and Godwin,5 and, in what today would no doubt be considered a breach of professional standards of objectivity, the review was written by Godwin, who nonetheless did offer some criticisms of the work. In his review, which was to a large extent a pretext for a discussion of the state of American writing, Godwin proudly offers Homes of American Authors as evidence that, despite continuing difficulties, a successful career as an author was indeed possible in the United States. “In proof of this,” he asserts, “we appeal to the experience of those writers among us, who have shown by their works, their fitness for their vocations. They are nearly all in comfortable positions, and many of them are affluent” (25). Among the authors mentioned in this context are William H. Prescott, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, George Bancroft, and William Cullen Bryant. Further on, in reference to the number of good writers the country could already boast of, the article declares: “we have no thickly studded constellations and luminous groups scattered all above us; but we may claim single stars that shine with an unborrowed and unfading brilliancy” (28). The adjective “unborrowed,” of course, highlights the fact that Godwin saw these authors as distinctively American and not imitative, an aspect insisted on, unsurprisingly, by literary and cultural nationalists.

  • 6 As Kenneth Silverman explains, when Briggs was editing the Broadway Journal in 1845, “he had been e (...)
  • 7 By 1854, however, 1854, the year of the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, Putnam’s began to (...)

7A long review and analysis of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Briggs, also in the first issue, was enthusiastic, in large part due to the fact that it saw the novel as offering compelling portraits of American society. Somewhat surprisingly, Briggs denied that the book’s antislavery theme was the key to its popularity, though this stance was certainly, at least in part, an attempt to avoid offending southern readers of the magazine. Indeed, though Briggs was opposed to slavery, he was aware of the realities of magazine publishing and knew how to be pragmatic. He, like Putnam, wanted the magazine to be genuinely national.6 As Ezra Greenspan points out, reviews of the first issue of the magazine “appeared in newspapers around the country, a sign that Putnam’s was reaching readers nationwide, although its circulation, like its authorship, was undoubtedly concentrated in the cities of the Northeast” (George Palmer Putnam 292). In the magazine’s first twelve issues, Briggs in fact made a strong effort to publish pieces that would avoid antagonizing, it not appeal directly to, the South.7 In his review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he asserts,

In no other American book that we have read are there so many well-delineated American characters; the greater part of them are wholly new in fiction…. Apart from all considerations of the subject, or motive, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the great success of the book shows what may be accomplished by American authors who exercise their genius upon American subjects. (“Uncle Tomitudes” 101-102)

8The first installments of two serialized literary works also appeared in the January 1853 Putnam’s Monthly: Thoreau’s “An Excursion to Canada,” a travel narrative featuring descriptions of the still somewhat exotic French-speaking Canada (any subject relating to North America—rather than more strictly only to the United States—was usually considered fertile territory by those wishing to encourage “home literature”) and “Virginia in a Novel Form,” by Rebecca Hicks, which offers a sentimental tale of the South, and which Putnam’s clearly published, in part, once again, to try and give a genuinely national character to the magazine.

9If the brief foregoing discussion offers a relatively accurate general characterization of the editorial policy of Putnam’s Monthly, the picture it paints nonetheless needs some qualification. If the magazine did more than any other at that time to encourage American literature, it did so with less certainty and more ambiguity than is normally suggested. A good number of the pieces published in Putnam’s, in fact, offer a picture of the present literary—and more generally cultural—situation in the United States as somewhat less than reassuring; they reveal an underlying concern that America still had quite a ways to go before it could consider itself on an equal footing with the nations of Europe. And offering an opposed, but equally telling, sense of doubt, other writings that appeared in the magazine tend to look back towards American history, suggesting that the United States actually had a more unquestionably solid and respectable literary culture in earlier periods or that the nation’s literature might do better to celebrate bygone eras rather than focus on contemporary society. And though a use of the past is often typical of literary and cultural nationalism, the way in which it is appealed to in Putnam’s Monthly, I would argue, often does little to strengthen the magazine’s ostensibly nationalistic stance. Furthermore, in its references to writings of the past, the magazine sometimes made use of a broad definition of the word “literature,” one that had been common in the first half of the nineteenth century, blurring that definition with the increasingly used narrower definition of “literature” as referring more specifically to so-called “polite literature” or “belles lettres,” closer, in fact, to today’s commonly used definition, in an attempt to claim more for American “literary” achievements than might genuinely be justified.

Present Uncertainty

10The suggestion that the present literary—and more generally cultural—situation in the United States was uncertain appears in pieces published throughout Putnam’s Monthly. Notley S. Maddox is one of the few scholars to have recognized this aspect. As he states, “the editorial attitude of Putnam’s was one of cordial appreciation, tempered with an insistence upon the desirability of careful criticism which should help the nation, regarded as still in its youth, toward intellectual and artistic maturity…. Putnam’s commented freely upon the qualities of various American authors and did not hesitate to censure faults whenever it discerned them” (118-119). Maddox’s examination of this aspect of the magazine’s stance, however, is brief. In fact, in its literary criticism Putnam’s Monthly often strongly suggests that America’s literature was in a weak or precarious state, whether because of its lack of focus on national topics or, more generally, because of its failure to conform to the standards of “polite literature.” What they were looking for, as Godwin notes in his review of The Homes of American Authors, was not only “native freshness and vigor,” but a “richness, depth, variety or grace” that he perceived in the best literature of other countries (28). The promising younger American authors, he notes further on, are not only “less English than their predecessors,” but also display a “certain ready, open impressibility, which takes in all the wonders of nature and all the excellencies of art, and has a quick feeling for every variety of human character” (29). They are marked, he continues, by “a fresh, buoyant, genial enthusiasm” (29).

11Godwin’s review of Homes of American Authors, however, qualifies its enthusiasm about American literature in several important ways. For one, it reminds its readers that with the current state of international copyright, “The American author has to contend against two rivalries,—both formidable—first, that of his native competitor; and second that of the foreign writer. And in respect to the latter, he enters the lists under the additional disadvantage, that while his own works must be paid for by the publisher, those of the foreigner are furnished like the showman’s wonders, ‘free gratis and for nothing’” (26). George Palmer Putnam, as already mentioned, was a strong supporter of authors’ rights on both sides of the Atlantic throughout his career. As Shirley M. Mundt explains, “In 1837 he began to draft letters to congressional committees, arguing for an international copyright law. He continued this pursuit through a number of organizations until his death in 1872” (252). And as James L. W. West III notes, Putnam “served for many years as Secretary of the Publishers’ Copyright League and later as Secretary of the Publishers’ Association. He testified frequently before congressional committees on matters involving literary property, and he became an expert on copyright law on both sides of the Atlantic” (360). Briggs and Godwin also worked to encourage the passage of an international copyright law, and both men, for example, were among the six members of the executive committee of the American Copyright Club, founded in 1843 (American Copyright Club 2). Indeed, a majority of American writers, and notably those associated with literary nationalism, were in favor of such a law. As Meredith L. McGill states,

Most prominent nineteenth-century authors supported the cause of international copyright. Expecting American literature to flourish once it was relieved from the competition posed by cheap reprints of successful foreign books, American authors actively endorsed the measure in memorials, public declarations, and in the pages of newspapers and literary magazines. (83)

12Putnam’s Monthly would in fact come back to the question of international copyright two more times in 1853 alone. In the March issue, with hopes rising for passage of a law, it declared:

This question of international copyright is not one that involves alone the interests of book manufacturers, authors, or students; it involves the national character too, and while we refuse to allow compensation to the foreign author for his books on the plea that we cannot afford to pay for them and are unable to produce similar ones ourselves, we acknowledge ourselves paupers and vassals to foreign intellect, and give the lie to all our boastings of equality with England. (“Editorial Notes” Putnam’s Monthly vol. 1, no. 3, 335)

13When it became clear by the next month that the project had collapsed, Putnam’s expressed what proved in the end to be the vain hope that the new administration of Franklin Pierce—known to be friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had written the successful presidential candidate’s campaign biography—would “not allow that gross and damaging denial of justice, which has hitherto marked our legislation, to disgrace our national character.” The continuing lack of an international copyright agreement, it declared, “is a piece of self-injuring baseness on the part of the United States, that it suffers so vast and important an interest as that of literature to remain without the protection of law, exposed to almost universal piracy” (“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly vol. 1, no. 4, 1853, 463).

14The review of Homes of American Authors, by way of excuse for the relatively limited achievements thus far in American letters, also repeats the by then familiar—though less and less credible—argument that the citizens of the United States were still far too occupied with more pressing affairs to be focused on literature:

It would be absurd to expect of us, in this the seventieth year of an independent national existence, as full and rich a literature as that possessed by the older nations,—absurd, for the reason, that we have had no time to produce it in, while our intellectual energies have been absorbed in other ways. A man who has his fields to clear, his house to build out of the primeval forest, his shoes and clothing to make, his ways of access to his neighbors to open, and above all, his government and social order to institute,—in short, who has to provide by dint of the severest toil for the most immediate and pressing wants of his existence, is not the man who constructs epics, or amuses his fancy with the invention of dramas or tales. (27)

15If seventy years was not enough time—and it could be noted that the magazine was counting from the date of Great Britain’s recognition of American independence in the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and not from 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, thus discounting the first seven years of the nation’s existence and minimizing, to a certain extent, the amount of time the country had seemed to be struggling, if not floundering, in its effort to establish its own distinctive literature—how long, readers might well have wondered, would this excuse remain valid? Furthermore, coming as it did from a publication based in New York City, whose population had already surpassed half a million and where the idea of building one’s home “out of the primeval forest” was little more than a distant and clichéd memory, the explanation is hardly convincing.

  • 8 It should be pointed out, however, that O’Brien’s negative opinion about Pierre was not unique. As (...)

16Various assessments of the new generation of American writers also tended to be mixed, if not outright pessimistic, about their prospects. A planned series of articles entitled “Our Young Authors,” contributed by the Irish-born journalist and author Fitz-James O’Brien—which was discontinued after just two installments (a fact in and of itself suggesting a weakness in the magazine’s hopes for America’s literary future)—offers ambiguous praise of Donald G. Mitchell (who frequently wrote under the pseudonym “Ik Marvel”), an author almost totally forgotten today, and Herman Melville. Near the beginning of the article on Mitchell, O’Brien provides a somewhat backhanded compliment: “He is not, to be sure, very grand or forcible. He is no Farnese Hercules, with great huge muscles of thought standing out in bold relief from his form. But he is the Antinous of the Fireside, graceful, delicate and dreamy” (“Our Young Authors: Mitchell” 74). And, less diplomatically, O’Brien goes on to remark, “Mr. Mitchell does not bear reading from cover to cover. The want of sustained interest in his books, and the very fragmentary manner in which he arranges them, are indeed unfavorable to a continuous perusal” (74). Melville comes in for more severe rebuke. While the critic praises certain aspects of Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket and even Mardi (which had certainly not pleased many critics when it was first published), he did not like Moby-Dick and considered Pierre an abomination, which, according to O’Brien, “transcends all the nonsense-writing that the world ever beheld” (“Our Young Authors: Melville” 163).8 According to O’Brien, there was still hope, but it was expressed in the form of a stern warning:

Let Mr. Melville stay his step in time. He totters on the edge of a precipice, over which all his hard-earned fame may tumble with such another weight as Pierre attached to it. He has peculiar talents, which may be turned to rare advantage. Let him diet himself for a year or two on Addison, and avoid Sir Thomas Browne, and there is little doubt but that he will make a notch on the American Pine. (164)

17James Russell Lowell, born the same year as Melville in 1819, also received some serious admonitions in the article devoted to him in the May 1853 issue. Amidst certain compliments, O’Brien charges that the long poems in Lowell’s A Year’s Life “are inordinately spun out, and the reader sometimes wanders over two or three pages to find as many good lines” (“Lowell, the Poet” 549). The article also takes Lowell to task for his poetry opposing slavery. It cautions him—and other American poets more generally—to stay away from this type of writing, declaring: “It is astonishing what bad poetry a man will write, when laboring under the conviction that he has ‘a great social evil to discover and to remedy’” (551). Here, as in Briggs’s review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it seems that part, at least, of this criticism stemmed from the magazine’s on-going policy of avoiding subjects that could offend southern readers in its effort to create a genuinely national publication. And, like Melville, Lowell was offered an expression of hope that seems far from a clear vote of confidence: “we think that, on the whole, his influence will increase with time, and that he may look forward to a permanent and entire success. We feel sure that he is greater than any of his books” (“Lowell, the Poet” 558). How promising, readers might ask themselves, was the literary future of Lowell (who had by that time already published nine books), if the author was still being presented as having a potential that was essentially unfulfilled? Apparently, the situation with American literature occasionally seemed so desperate that the editors of Putnam’s could not restrain themselves from outbursts of exasperation. In the July 1853 “Editorial Notes,” for example, the magazine noted the need for a good guidebook of Niagara Falls (already a popular tourist site by the mid-nineteenth century), offering suggestions of what sort of information such a book should contain. And it asserted that the country’s poets—the lesser ones, in any case—would be better off working on that more worthwhile project: “Why do not some of our Young writers, who are wasting their time on making very bad verses, set to work compiling so useful a volume as the one we indicate would be, if finished with any judgment or taste”(“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly 1.7 [1853]: 104).

18There was also cause for worry in the publishing fate of some of the literary works that appeared in the magazine. Thoreau’s “An Excursion to Canada,” for example, was discontinued after just three installments due to a disagreement over the magazine’s censoring of the narrative. Curtis was apparently concerned about offending readers, in this case religious ones, and, according to Henry Seidel Canby, “objected to his [Thoreau’s] ‘defiant Pantheism’ and cut from the Canadian articles such passages as: ‘I am not sure but this Catholic religion would be an admirable one if the priest were quite omitted’” (374). It should be noted, however, that the editor’s thinking also suggests that he may not have recognized the true value of Thoreau’s writing—as was clearly the case with Fitz-James O’Brien in his criticism of Melville. James Russell Lowell’s serialized poem, “Our Own: His Wanderings and Personal Adventures,” was also discontinued after three installments. In that case, it was apparently because the piece, according to Miriam N. Kotzin, “disconcerted” readers of Putnam’s. Indeed, she describes the poem as a “mental ramble,” “wallowing in wit, real or imagined,” in which “the narrator was writing confusedly about writing” (100-101). Certain metafictional aspects of the poem, however, make it interesting in the context of this study. In the final installment, for example, the speaker, defending America (in the familiar nineteenth-century personification of Brother Jonathan) in the face of criticism from the British (in the personification of John Bull), offers the old argument—similar to one just examined from the review of Homes of American Authors—that if America does not excel in literature, it outshines the world in more practical achievements:

Ah, when dear cousin Bull laments that you can’t make a poem,
Take him aboard a clipper-ship, young Jonathan, and show him
A work of art that in its grace and grandeur may compare
With any thing that any race has fashioned any where;

19A few lines further on, in the same vein, the speaker declares,

And if we make no minsters, John, nor epics, yet the Fates
Are not entirely deaf to men who can build ships and states;
(I waive the literary point, contented with observing
That I like Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Bryant, Irving,)
The arts are never pioneers, but men have strength and health
Who, called on suddenly, can improvise a commonwealth. (Lowell 690)

20There is at least some ambiguity in these last lines, but the speaker’s waiving the “literary point” suggests that America not only doesn’t have as good a literature as Great Britain (despite the casual mention of five major American literary figures), but that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter since the new nation excels at so many other useful endeavors.

21A final angle that could be considered in this section is the criticism of American society offered by some of the literary pieces. Such criticism does not, of course, necessarily suggest anything directly about the current quality of American letters—which, again, the editors judged not only from a nationalistic standpoint, but also according to aesthetic and sometimes moral values—but it does say something about the concerns Putnam’s seemed to have had about what it perceived as the increasing materialism and anti-intellectualism in the United States, notably among the country’s wealthier citizens, one of whose roles, ideally, would be the encouragement of quality native-produced literature and art. For example, a series of sketches by Curtis (later collected as the The Potiphar Papers) that appeared in Putnam’s Monthly in 1853 offer a humorous, though biting, critique of upper-class American values. The first installment, “Our Best Society,” which serves as an introduction to the following pieces, is in the form of an essay that denounces the moneyed class. America’s fashionable society, Curtis asserts,

worships wealth, and the pomp which wealth can purchase, more than virtue, genius or beauty. We may be told that it has always been so in every country, and that the fine society of all lands is as profuse and flashy as our own. We deny it, flatly. Neither English, nor French, nor Italian, nor German society, is so unspeakably barren as that which is technically called “society” here. (177)

22Later installments, which became a popular feature among readers, humorously focus on the mindless activities of Mrs. Potiphar, whose rich husband copes as best he can with her frenzied, superficial socializing and her extravagant expenditures on needless and tasteless luxuries. In one of the sketches, Mr. Potiphar reacts to the comments of the couple’s acquaintance, Kurz Pacha, minister of the invented country of Sennaar. He criticizes the shallowness and pretentiousness of the lavish decoration of the Potiphars’ home, declaring, “Mr. Potiphar, it is one thing to have plenty of money, and quite another, to know how to spend it” (“A Meditation by Paul Potiphar, Esq.” 660). The hen-pecked husband defends himself as best he can:

“Now I told him, this kind of talk may do very well in Sennaar, but it is absurd in a country like ours. How are people to know that I’m rich unless I show it? I’m sorry for it, but how shall I help it, having Mrs. P. at hand?” (“A Meditation by Paul Potiphar, Esq.” 660)

23One other, quite different, criticism of American society appears in what is now probably the most famous and, as many would no doubt contend, the best literary piece published by Putnam’s Monthly, not only in 1853, but during its entire existence, Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street.” Though the story is complex, from one point of view Melville offers a critique of American capitalism from the other side, that of the exploited worker, rather than that of the superficial upper class. The chambers in which Bartleby works, looking out on a “white wall of the interior of a spacious sky-light” on one end and on “a lofty brick wall, black by age and everlasting shade” on the other, symbolize the sterile and stifling atmosphere in which the “very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair” of copying law documents is carried out (547, 550). The story’s contrast—and similarity—with Curtis’s critique of American society was highlighted by the fact that the first installment of Melville’s piece appeared in the very same issue of Putnam’s as “The Potiphars in Paris,” which mocks the pretensions of Mrs. Potiphar in the setting of the French capital. Both works, in fact, reveal how the economic and social structure of mid-nineteenth-century America helps produce an anti-intellectual and soulless society, but rather than embracing it, as Mrs. Potiphar does, Melville’s character—with his well-known refrain, “I would prefer not to”—rejects it.

24All was thus not well in American letters and American society. And Putnam’s Monthly, despite its genuine belief in the country’s literary and cultural potential, did not hide the pervasive weaknesses it perceived. Its harsh criticism can be seen, in part, as having a didactic dimension, as an attempt to steer the country in the right direction in the face of various problems. But Putnam’s also tried, at least, to suggest that the past was a place where Americans could find unambiguously good literature, sound social foundations, and sources of national pride—but this “solution,” too, included ambiguities.

Looking to the Past

25In some cases, and in various ways, the writings published in Putnam’s Monthly suggest that if the present was not replete with good or even promising authors and that if America was far from living up to the image of what a model democratic society should be, things seemed, at least, to be better in the past. And, it was suggested, the writers and values of former days could, in various ways, offer assurance that all was not lost. Integrating an implicit criticism of the present, these backward-looking pieces, sometimes imbued with nostalgia, offered an ambiguous, and sometimes quite questionable, promise that improvement was possible, that the country did indeed have the resources—if it could reconnect with its historical origins—to build a solid national literature.

26This gaze towards the past is, however, complex, in part because history is one of the resources most frequently mined by literary and cultural nationalists. The reason is that if nation-states, as Benedict Anderson has pointed out, “are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out an immemorial past” (11). And as Anderson also states, the “imagined communities” of nations “always regarded themselves as somehow ancient” (109), even, of course, when such was not the case. Thus, logically enough, Anderson concludes that the solution to defining and solidifying national identity “was found in History” (197), but—and this caveat is important in the case of Putnam’s—he adds, “or rather History emplotted in particular ways” (197). Indeed, what I would like to suggest in this last section is that the way in which Putnam’s appealed to history was frequently more ambiguous than the usage normally made of it by literary and cultural nationalists, thus undermining some of the nationalistic force usually gained through an appeal to history.

  • 9 The 1844 reprinting, as many literary scholars are aware, was made extensive use of by Emily Dickin (...)
  • 10 Channing continues thus: “We mean the production among a people of important works in philosophy, a (...)

27In a somewhat related fashion, Putnam’s also made ambiguous use of the term “literature” in what appears to be a somewhat forced attempt to claim that American literature was in a healthier condition than some of the magazine’s own assertions seemed to suggest. Indeed, the term “literature” had long been used to refer, in a very broad sense, to “learning.” Noah Webster’s first edition of An American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828, defined “literature” as “Learning; acquaintance with letters or books” (n. p.). It further notes that “Literature comprehends a knowledge of the ancient languages, denominated classical, history, grammar, rhetoric, logic, geography, &c. as well as of the sciences. A knowledge of the world and good breeding give luster to literature” (n. p.). This definition was retained in the dictionary’s second edition in 1841, which included “corrections, improvements and several thousand additional words” (title page), as well as in the 1844 reprinting by J. S. & C. Adams of Amherst, which appeared after Webster’s death.9 A use of this broad definition of literature can be seen, for example, in an article by William Ellery Channing in the January 1830 issue of The Christian Examiner, which itself deals with the question of nationality in American writing. Channing, who, like Godwin, used an ostensible book review to discuss the state of “literature” in the United States, writes, “We begin with stating what we mean by national literature. We mean the expression of a nation’s mind in writing” (269).10 The definition of “literature,” however, was in the process of changing. Just a few years later, in 1847, a new and revised edition of Webster’s dictionary offered an expanded definition of the word. Harper & Brothers published a widely distributed version of that revision, published in 1848. The updated definition of “literature” reads thus:

1. Acquaintance with books. 2. The collective body of literary productions, embracing the entire results of knowledge and fancy preserved in writing. 3. In the more distinctive and usual sense of the term, literature excludes the positive sciences, and embraces history, grammar, rhetoric, logic, criticism, languages, &c. In a still narrower sense, it is sometimes used as synonymous with polite literature.—Syn. Learning; erudition; letters; belles-lettres. (601)

  • 11 It could be noted that the Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, does suggest an earlier date fo (...)
  • 12 A possible hint, at least, of that ambiguity can be seen in the catalogue of books for sale publish (...)

28This new definition—while not suggesting that the older, broader definition was no longer valid—includes a reference to works embracing “fancy”; it notes that “positive sciences” are generally excluded from the meaning; and, most importantly for this study, it lists so-called “polite literature” as one of the meanings and offers as two synonyms for “literature” both “letters” and “belles-lettres,” clearly indicating a shift in the definition that began to include the narrower sense closer to that in common usage today. It should also be remembered, of course, that there is always a certain lag between the beginning of the usage of new meanings and their recognition in dictionaries, making it probable, if not certain, that the narrower “polite literature” or “belles lettres” sense of “literature” had been in existence well before 1848.11 In any case, it seems quite clear that in the mid-nineteenth century, at the very moment when Putnam’s Monthly was being published, both broad and narrow senses of the word “literature” were in use, permitting as I will suggest in part of my following argument, the magazine to make use of the ambiguity in the definition of the word “literature” as it assessed the state of American writing.12

  • 13 The book, written by George William Curtis, along with ten other contributors, previously mentioned (...)
  • 14 Even those who had died, had died recently: Audubon in 1851, Cooper also in 1851, and Webster in 18 (...)

29To start, one could return one last time to the review of Homes of American Authors. If Godwin boasts in that article that the American literary sky could “claim single stars that shine with an unborrowed and unfading brilliancy” (28), many of his examples are from the past. These “single stars” include, among other figures, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Bowditch, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Daniel Webster, not one of whom was still alive in 1853—and not one of whom was, in the more recent definition of the term, a writer of “literature.” Indeed, Godwin’s examples are somewhat odd, first of all because Homes of American Authors, which the article was supposed to be reviewing, itself includes a majority of authors who are primarily associated with “literary” works (in the “polite literature” or “belles-lettres” sense of the term “literary”)13 and fourteen of whom were still alive in 1853.14 Godwin’s list, in contrast, focuses on writers of the past, in what seems to be an attempt to expand the list of the country’s authors and offer reassurance that the present situation was perhaps not so bad by suggesting that there was a solid foundation to build upon. Second, Godwin’s list makes use of the earlier, broader definition of “literature,” including, here, fields such as theology, science, navigation, and politics. By adopting the earlier definition, however, Godwin tends to pull the discussion of the state of American writing backwards in time, into an arena where the status of the country’s “literary” productions—both past and present—might appear more impressive. It could be noted that a similar example of this sort of ambiguous presentation of the state of American writing that plays with the slipperiness of the definition of the word “literature” can be seen in Rufus Griswold’s popular anthology, The Prose Writers of America, first published in 1847 (with a second edition appearing the same year). In that work, Griswold, who was one of the contributors to Homes of American Authors, writes:

With Dr. [William Ellery] Channing, I consider books of every description, whether devoted to the exact sciences, to mental and ethical philosophy, to history and legislation, or to fiction and poetry, as literature; though it is common to distinguish none but such as have relation to human nature and human life. (5)

30However, just a few lines later, Griswold declares, “I have confined my attention chiefly to the department of belles lettres” (5). And, at the same time, somewhat like Godwin, Griswold includes in his anthology a large number of deceased writers whose works would not normally be classified as “belles lettres,” going as far back, for example, as figures such as Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

31Another good example of this tendency to look to the past and beyond belletristic writing as a source of national “literary” pride can be seen in another article by Godwin entitled “Works of American Statesmen.” Here he reviews collections of the works of Levi Woodbury, William H. Seward, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. By 1853, all of these politicians except Seward—who would go on to play an important role in the soon-to-be-formed Republican Party—were also dead. Godwin’s interest, however, is, to a large extent, historical. The similarity of the subject matter in these books, he writes, “rather heightens than impairs their utility, at least in a historical sense, because it furnishes us with the views of several different minds, in respect to the same great questions and events” (643). Besides highlighting their historical interest, however, one of Godwin’s main points is to insist that these works are an important part of American literature. They are, he asserts, “valuable contributions to letters, as well as to history,” making a distinction between the two categories. He argues that

the literature of a nation is not confined to magazines, books, journals and poems, or to those forms in which the intellectual life of a people is ordinarily expressed. All sincere and vigorous utterances of national feeling and thought, become, when recorded, a part of that literature. (643)

32For Godwin, history (a term he uses here for collections of speeches, addresses, and reports written by statesmen) is, in fact, “literature,” which he seems here to be using in the more recent and narrower sense of the term. And the editor also turns the argument about Americans being too busy doing practical things to spend their time creating literature back on itself by asserting that the very fact that these writings describe the non-literary activity of politics is precisely what, in an American context at least, gives them an interest that may very well exceed that of other literary efforts:

Political debates, especially in a nation where the powers and attainments of men are almost universally devoted to active pursuits, as they are with us, are likely to be a most original and vital part of it [“the literature of a nation”], […] they will possess an earnestness, freedom, and depth of purpose, which we do not always find in the colder essays of the professed man of letters. (643)

33Here, Godwin tries to claim, was solid evidence that the United States did have a respectable and ongoing literary tradition. “The editors of these books then have, in our opinion,” he states,

rightly called them “Works;” for the men from whom they came were not only legislators, orators, magistrates, but authors as well. They did not, it is true, aim at literary reputation, yet their efforts have the characteristics of literary performances; they are an expression of our national peculiarities; they abound in pleasant narratives of facts, skilful [sic] dialectics, comprehensive and close argument, impassioned eloquence, and sarcastic retort; and have a value beyond the occasion or interest in which they originated. (643)

34Godwin sees this branch of writing as setting a high standard for younger American statesmen since it creates a “new accountability to literature to which they will hereafter be bound” (653).

35If historical records, as written by statesmen, were, according to Godwin, an important part of the nation’s literature, then history, as written by historians, could fulfill a similar role according to George Ripley’s review of the latest volume of George Bancroft’s History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent. Indeed, Ripley, somewhat like Godwin, asserts that Bancroft’s book is “a work of literary art” (300). And in what appears to be a very modern, if not postmodern, conception of history, in which the boundaries between history and literature are seen as fluid, Ripley declares that before the appearance of Bancroft’s work, “No plastic spirit had shaped the crude materials into the epic symmetry, which forms the appropriate dress of truth, as well as of fiction” (300). The historian, according to the article, produced “a work combining originality, depth, and picturesque beauty, to such a degree, as at once to elevate it to the highest rank in American literature” (300). And Ripley’s praise for the literary aspect of Bancroft’s work is about as strong as he could make it since he compares the historian to the writer generally considered at the time as America’s greatest living author, or at least its most venerated literary figure. “What [Washington] Irving has done for the local scenery of his native land,” Ripley writes,

Bancroft has done for its history. Under the magic touch of Irving, the picturesque glories of the American streams and forests have been revealed in lovelier enchantment, wedded to a thousand quaint traditions and crowned with a natural home-like charm that appeals to the heart no less than to the eye. In like manner, Bancroft has invested familiar themes with a new significance, combined the imagination with the memory in the retrospect of the Past, adorned the deeds of our ancestors with the chaste coloring of historical portraiture, and revived the fading memorials of our heroic age in a form of permanent reality. (301)

36Serious historical writing, for Ripley, is not a poor cousin of literature; it is—or at least could be—on the same level as the best more purely literary productions. This point of view, in fact, implicitly widened the field of what could be considered American literature, insuring a more favorable assessment of the whole, while at the same time, as was the case in Godwin’s article on political writings, implicitly revealing a sort of desperation to find admirable distinctively American works.

37At the time, one of the few other iconic American authors—perhaps the only one—that Ripley could have chosen to compare Bancroft to in order to confer such high literary praise would have been James Fenimore Cooper, though the author of the Leatherstocking Tales had been dead for about a year and a half by then. From one point of view, however, that very fact seemed to make Cooper a perfect representative of American literary excellence within the pages of Putnam’s Monthly. Indeed, in the very first issue, the “Editorial Notes” expressed concern that the monument that had been planned to honor the recently deceased author had not yet been erected. The problem was money. “Besides the five hundred dollars collected at the meeting last winter,” the magazine noted, “Mr. Irving and Mr. Prescott have since contributed one hundred dollars each […]. Will not some of our rich men add several thousands thereto, that New-York may boast of at least one enduring remembrance of an illustrious citizen?” (107). Unfortunately, many of the “rich men” of New York City may have had priorities similar to those of Mrs. Potiphar. No monument was built in the city, though the funds collected were later put towards one erected in 1860 in the Lakeland Cemetery in Cooperstown, New York. In any case, Putnam’s Monthly took it upon itself to honor Cooper by publishing a posthumous naval history of his focusing on the famed ship the U.S.S. Constitution or “Old Ironsides.” The appeal to history in this case is in some sense double, first of all since Cooper, being resurrected, so to speak, in the publication of this work, could be considered part of America’s venerable history himself as one of its first successful literary authors. And his subject, “Old Ironsides,” focuses on American history. Moreover, a celebration of the nation is clear from the very beginning of the piece:

In the course of the events connected with the naval history and the naval glory of the country, this ship has become so renowned by her services and her success as to be entitled to have her biography written, as well as those who have gained distinction on her deck. (“Old Ironsides” 473)

  • 15 Cooper’s work had, in fact, not been entirely completed upon his death, and, as a headnote explains (...)

38Any literary magazine at the time would no doubt have been happy to be able to offer its readers a previously unpublished work by Cooper.15 For Putnam’s, however, “Old Ironsides” seemed to fit perfectly into its pages since it corresponded not only to its policy of literary nationalism, but, on multiple levels, to its tendency to see the past in a more positive—and, one could argue, less complex—way than it tended to view the present. Indeed, Cooper, in this case, wrote as a historian, but as one—unlike Bancroft—whose literary credentials needed no defense. And, like Bancroft, he presented American history largely as a pageant of glory. Part of the ambiguity of Putnam’s use of this page of history, however, as already suggested, is that it needed to resort to a deceased author to find a good example of the kind of nationalistic writing it sought to celebrate.

39One final example suggests that as far as more purely literary works were concerned, Putnam’s Monthly seemed more likely to publish positive—and sometimes sentimental—portrayals of the nation when they included themes related in one way or another to American history. And, once again, there is an ambiguity in the way the past is presented in this last example, John Esten Cooke’s “Minuet and Polka,” which appeared in the December 1853 issue. The story is especially interesting in the context of this study because it is, to a large extent, about the past. Indeed, the narrator begins by thinking about the minuet, a dance no longer common in mid-nineteenth-century America. He later discovers in a closet an old wedding coat, which he tries on, and is transported in his imagination back in time. This experience leads to what the narrator himself describes as a banal observation about history: “The past! I said thoughtfully: yes! surely the past was very different from the present—a striking, but not an original remark” (645). What is interesting, however, is that the narrator then clarifies the fact that in his usage of the word “past” he is not referring to an exotic, foreign, or distant time, but to one much closer to home: “It is the difference between the American past and present I would indicate—even between the years 1800 and 1853” (645). It is, to a large extent, the narrator’s realization that America does, in fact, have a past that is important. And a sort of desperation can be seen in this context as well since the usable past that is being referred to dates from only a half century before. The recognition of this national past leads to a final series of thoughts about the need to cherish the nation’s bygone days, notably those of the generation of the Revolution:

We may still feel the true hearts beating, see the honest eyes beaming, hear the brave voices speaking, spite of the distance and the gloom. What if we like not their fashions, acquiesce not in their prejudices, walk not in their ways? We may still give honest praise to those mighty and true-souled men and women who perilled [sic], and would most willingly have lost their all for honor; for it was “all in honor!” (648)

  • 16 One counterexample to the ambiguous use of history I have been characterizing in this section is “W (...)

40And if, from one point of view, “Minuet and Polka” can be seen as exactly the type of nationalistic writing that Putnam’s wished to encourage, it is a relatively light piece that also functions as a manifesto—an attempt to encourage authors to imbue their works with the atmosphere of the American past (recent as it may have been)—and thus does not necessarily itself represent a prime example of the type and quality of literature Putnam’s was hoping to encourage.16

41History, thus, winds its way through the pages of Putnam’s Monthly on various levels, though it is frequently not “emplotted,” to recall Benedict Anderson’s term, in ways that clearly suggest that it helps bolster the importance and strength of a distinctively American literature. It is reflected in the inclusion of a large number of deceased authors in lists designed to attest to the rich cornucopia of American writing, whose non-literary works are presented as an integral part of that literature. This ambiguous use of both a broad and more narrow sense of “literature” can be seen in an insistence on the idea that political writings, for example, are also literature or that the writing of history, when done by a historian of George Bancroft’s caliber, can contribute to the country’s growing volumes of belles lettres. These arguments do have a certain validity, of course, but they also suggest a certain weakness and doubt at the heart of the literary nationalism expressed in the pages Putnam’s. The veneration of Cooper and the publication of one of his posthumous works, itself a history of an American naval vessel, continues this at least partially ambiguous link between literature and history. And a nostalgic piece like “Minuet and Polka” makes genuine use of the past, but it is also plea for more nationalistic uses of the past (even the relatively recent past) as much as it is a work about the national past, and thus it, too, pushes the limits of the definition of “literature” and implicitly recognizes a current weakness in American letters.


42Inspired with a belief in literary—and, more broadly, cultural—nationalism, Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Art no doubt did more than any other periodical of the 1850s to encourage American literature. And it did so, in general, with little jingoism, indeed, with a real questioning of the fundamental quality of the landscape of American intellectual life of the time. This questioning contributed to the magazine’s overall excellence, but it also revealed the difficulty of pursuing the magazine’s editorial policy, which led, in some cases, to a Janus-faced attitude toward American letters. If its openly declared policy was a support and celebration of the still fledgling literature of the United States, which was, indeed, improving significantly at the time, Putnam’s also frequently wavered between offering a fairly severe criticism of that literature or a negative presentation of contemporary American society in the literature it published, on the one hand, and a tendency to look backward to a literary and cultural past whose very literariness it exaggerated.

  • 17 Calhoun died in 1850, Clay and Webster in 1852.

43These opposed stances reveal cracks in the façade of the magazine’s nationalistic policy. But these fissures are also, I would argue, in part, the necessary result of that same policy, given the precise moment when Putnam’s decided to try to carry it out. As already mentioned, the 1850s was a period when the country’s foundational event, the Revolution, and even it second most significant defining moment, the War of 1812, were fading into the past. Its second generation of prominent political leaders, such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, were also dying off.17 With a resolute policy of looking forward to American literary greatness, the magazine could hardly ignore the current fragility of American letters despite the increasing number of good literary works. Nor, apparently, could Putnam’s resist an ambiguous looking backward toward history, which tended to create a certain dissonance in relation to the magazine’s forward-looking nationalism, especially, as I have tried to show, because of the somewhat forced way in which history was enrolled in the national cause. Of course, another level of uncertainty concerning national identity was added by the increasing North-South sectional tensions, whose reality the nation had recently been strongly reminded of by the heated debates leading up to the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the difficulties, notably, surrounding the enforcement of its fugitive slave provisions. Indeed, the attempts by Putnam’s to navigate the turbulent waters of sectional division, noted above, was one of the strains its nationalistic policy attempted to deal with. In such an atmosphere, in which the very survival of the American experiment was at risk, the desire for Putnam’s to take on the mantle of literary, and cultural, nationalism was understandable and perhaps natural—even necessary one might argue—but the ambiguities and paradoxes that that editorial stance created were just as unsurprising.

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“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1853, pp. 106-120.

“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1853, pp. 335-352.

“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 4, 1853, pp. 463-472.

“Editorial Notes,” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 7, 1853, pp. 102-117.

“Magazines.” New York Times, 2 February 1853, p. 2.

Putnam’s Monthly.” Graham’s Magazine, vol. 42, no. 2, 1853, p. 222.

“Putnam’s Monthly.” Literary World, vol. 11, no. 308, 1852, pp. 406-407.

American Copyright Club. An Address to the People of the United States in Behalf of the American Copyright Club. American Copyright Club, 1843.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. Verso, 2006.

Briggs, Charles F. “Introductory.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol.1, no. 1, 1853, pp. 1-3.

---. “Uncle Tomitudes.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no.1, 1853, pp. 97-102.

Canby, Henry Seidel. Henry David Thoreau. Houghton Mifflin, 1939.

Channing, William Ellery. Review of A Discourse concerning the Influence of America on the Mind, being the Annual Oration delivered before the American Philosophical Society, at the University in Philadelphia, October 18, 1823. By C. J. Ingersoll. [Channing’s review was later collected as “Remarks on National Literature”]. The Christian Examiner, January 1830, pp. 269-295.

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. 2 vols. [continuous pagination]. Oxford University Press, 1971.

Cooke, John Esten. “Minuet and Polka.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 12, 1853, pp. 644-649.

Cooper, James Fenimore. “Old Ironsides.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 5, 1853, pp. 473-487.

Curtis, George William, et al. Homes of American Authors; Comprising Anecdotal, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches. G. P. Putnam, 1853.

Curtis, George William. “A Meditation by Paul Potiphar, Esq.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 6, 1853, pp. 653-661.

---. “Our Best Society.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 2, 1853, pp. 170-179.

Duyckinck, Evert. Rev. of Pierre, by Herman Melville. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. Edited by Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker. American Critical Archives 6. Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 429-432.

Fisher, Benjamin Franklin, IV. “The Broadway Journal.” American Literary Magazines: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Edward E. Chielens. Greenwood, 1986, pp. 81-86.

Godwin, Parke. “The Homes of American Authors.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1853, pp. 23-30.

---. “Works of American Statesmen.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 6, 1853, pp. 642-653.

Greenspan, Ezra. “Addressing or Redressing the Magazine Audience: Edmund Quincy’s Wensley.” Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith. University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 133-149.

---. George Palmer Putman: Representative American Publisher. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Griswold, Rufus Wilmot, ed. The Prose Writers of America. Second Edition, Revised. Carey and Hart, 1847.

Harper, J. Henry. The House of Harper: A Century of Publishing in Franklin Square. Harper & Brothers, 1912.

Kotzin, Miriam N. “Putnam’s Monthly and Its Place in American Literature.” PhD Diss. New York University, 1969.

Ljungquist, Kent. “Putnam’s Monthly Magazine.” American Literary Magazines: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, edited by Edward E. Chielens. Greenwood, 1986, pp. 328-333.

Lowell, James Russell. “Our Own: His Wanderings and Personal Adventures.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 6, 1853, pp. 687-690.

Maddox, Notley S. “Literary Nationalism in Putnam’s Magazine, 1853-1857.” American Literature, vol. 14, no. 2, 1942, pp. 117-125.

McGill, Meredith L. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Melville, Herman. “Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 2 no. 11, pp. 546-557.

Miller, Perry. The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. 1956. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines: 1850-1865. Harvard University Press, 1938.

Mundt, Shirley M. “George Palmer Putman.” American Magazine Journalists, 1850-1900. Dictionary of Literary Biography 79. Gale Research, 1989, pp. 251-257.

O’Brien, Fitz James. “Lowell, the Poet.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 5, 1853, pp. 547-558.

---. “Our Young Authors: Melville.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 155-164.

---. “Our Young Authors: Mitchell.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no.1, 1853, pp. 74-78.

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Putnam, G. P. Catalogue of Foreign and American Books; Comprising Useful and Valuable Books in Every Class of Literature, The Fine Arts, Natural History, Sciences, Useful Arts, &c. G. P. Putnam, 1850.

Ripley, George. “Bancroft.” Putnam’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 3, 1853, pp. 300-308.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1992.

Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. 2 vols. S. Converse, 1828.

---. An American Dictionary of the English Language. 2 vols. Published by the Author, 1841.

---. An American Dictionary of the English Language. Revised and Enlarged. Harper & Brothers, 1848.

West, James L. W., III. “Book Publishing 1835-1900: The Anglo-American Connection.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, vol. 84, no. 4, 1990, pp. 357-375.

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1 Putnam’s Monthly was absorbed by Emerson’s United States Magazine, which in October 1857 began producing a combined work entitled Emerson’s Magazine and Putnam’s Monthly. Having no editorial connection with the original Putnam’s Monthly, the new venture ceased publication in November 1858. Putnam’s was revived twice after the Civil War under slightly altered titles, first from 1868 to 1870 and then from 1906 to 1910.

2 While American authors benefited from copyright protection in the United States, the international copyright situation was complex and varied throughout the nineteenth century. It was not until 1891 that Congress passed the International Copyright Act, the first comprehensive law extending copyright protection to foreign authors.

3 As Meredith L. McGill explains, “reprint publishers developed a system of de facto copyright known as ‘courtesy of the trade’ by which a newspaper announcement of the intent to publish a foreign work informally carried the weight of property claim. While this kind of gentlemen’s agreement allowed publishers like Harper and Brothers in New York, and Carey, Lea & Blanchard and T. B. Peterson & Brothers in Philadelphia to invest considerable sums in stereotyped editions of foreign authors’ collected works—publishing schemes that often went uncontested by rival printers—‘courtesy of the trade’ proved unenforceable both in practice and in courts of law” (105). As J. Henry Harper—son of Joseph Wesley Harper, one of the four original Harper brothers—makes clear in his helpful description of the system of “courtesy of the trade” as it was practiced in the nineteenth century, its principles were only respected by what he refers to as “first-class publishing houses” or “leading American publishers” (110), a group which did not, of course, include all of the publishers involved in reprinting foreign authors.

4 Perry Miller writes that, “for three years the magazine owed its success to the brilliance of the articles and to the editing, which, while Curtis and Godwin manfully assisted, was primarily the work of Briggs” (316).

5 The other contributors were William Cullen Bryant, George Washington Greene, Rufus Griswold, Edward Everett Hale, George Hillard, Caroline Kirkland, George Washington Peck, and Henry Tuckerman.

6 As Kenneth Silverman explains, when Briggs was editing the Broadway Journal in 1845, “he had been expected by his friends to use the Journal to serve the cause of abolition. Just after the magazine began publication, he explained to [James Russell] Lowell that while ‘unqualifiedly opposed to slavery in every shape,’ he held that wrath belongs only to God, and found many abolitionists sanctimonious” (271). That said, Briggs became angry with Edgar Allan Poe, who joined the editorial staff of the Broadway Journal in March 1845, for undermining the generally pro-abolitionist stance of the paper (Fisher 83). Indeed, much as was the case with Putnam’s Monthly, Briggs had “hoped to create a literary paper to further causes of a genuinely national American literature. During the 1840s and 1850s the North-South bifurcation in the United States increased, but Briggs wanted to reconcile some of those opposites in order to insure subscribers, contributors, and quality for his enterprise” (Fisher 82).

7 By 1854, however, 1854, the year of the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, Putnam’s began to publish political pieces by Godwin with a clear antislavery stance (Greenspan, George Palmer Putnam 289, 301). That shift, commendable as it was, worked against the magazine’s national ambition, which it had earnestly sought to maintain throughout 1853.

8 It should be pointed out, however, that O’Brien’s negative opinion about Pierre was not unique. As Hershel Parker notes, “All the reviewers [of Pierre] saw Melville as having fallen away from the originality and beauty of Typee and Omoo” (129). Some critics, such as Evert Duyckinck, who had earlier seen Melville as a protégé, viewed the work as immoral. As he wrote in the Literary World on August 21, 1852, “The most immoral moral of the story, if it has any moral at all, seems to be the impracticability of virtue” (430). It thus seems unlikely that the commercial rivalry between Putnam’s and Harper & Brothers—who published Pierre and had been Melville’s American publisher since he brought out his second work, Omoo, in 1847—had anything to do with O’Brien’s negative review, especially since Putnam’s was actively soliciting contributions from Melville for Putnam’s Monthly at the same time. As Ezra Greenspan notes, Melville was one of the authors whose correspondence with the magazine was handled directly by George Palmer Putnam (George Palmer Putnam 296-297). And before the end of the magazine’s first year, Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Tale of Wall-Street” had already appeared in the November and December 1853 issues, the first of several stories the author would contribute to Putnam’s Monthly.

9 The 1844 reprinting, as many literary scholars are aware, was made extensive use of by Emily Dickinson.

10 Channing continues thus: “We mean the production among a people of important works in philosophy, and in the departments of imagination and taste. We mean the contribution of new truths to the stock of human knowledge. We mean the thoughts of profound and original minds, elaborated by the toil of composition and fixed and made immortal in books. We mean the manifestation of a nation’s intellect in the only forms by which it can multiply itself at home, and send itself abroad. We mean that a nation shall take its place, by its authors, among the lights of the world” (269).

11 It could be noted that the Oxford English Dictionary, for its part, does suggest an earlier date for the beginning of the narrower “polite literature” or “belles lettres” definition of “literature.” Indeed, its third definition of “literature” is: “Literary productions as a whole; the body of writings produced in a particular country or period, or in the world in general. Now also in a more restricted sense, applied to writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty or form and emotional effect” (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary vol. 1, 1638). The first example it gives for this particular meaning dates from 1812: “Their literature, their works of art, offer models that have never been excelled” (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary vol. 1, 1638).

12 A possible hint, at least, of that ambiguity can be seen in the catalogue of books for sale published by George Palmer Putnam in 1850. The full title reads: Catalogue of Foreign and American Books; Comprising Useful and Valuable Books in Every Class of Literature, The Fine Arts, Natural History, Sciences, Useful Arts, &c. (1). While the phrase “Every Class of Literature” can be seen as introducing an apposition, “The Fine Arts, Natural History, Sciences, Useful Arts, &c.,suggesting the earlier, broader definition of “literature,” such a reading is not necessarily implied. It is also possible to read the entire title as a simple list, with each comma separating a series of distinct subjects, the first of which is “Every Class of Literature.” Indeed, the phrase “Every Class of Literature” could refer to the various literary genres listed in the catalogue’s index, which include, for example, “Belles Lettres” (188), “Classics” (194), “Dramatic Literature” (196), “Fiction” (199), and “Poetry” (221). The phrase might refer as well to other categories also listed in the index, including, for example, “Æesthetics” (183), “Bibliography” (189), “Biography” (190), “History” (203), “Language” (207), “Literary History” (208), “Moral Philosophy” (215), “Mythology” (215), “Oriental Literature” (220), “Rhetoric” (224), “Speeches” (225), “Theology” (227), and “Voyages and Travels” (233), but not, one might suppose, for example, “Acoustics” (183), “Algebra” (183), “Anatomy” (185), “Angling” (185), or “Architecture” (186), to take just a few examples from the beginning of the alphabet. In any case, a certain ambiguity in the use of the term “literature” in the catalogue’s title seems at least possible, if the use is not, in fact, embracing the newer, narrower definition.

13 The book, written by George William Curtis, along with ten other contributors, previously mentioned, includes pieces on seventeen American writers, twelve of which could easily be classified as “literary” in the more recent and narrower sense of the word: James K. Paulding, Washington Irving, William Cullen Bryant, Richard Henry Dana, C. M. Sedgwick, J. Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Gilmore Sims, Henry W. Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Pendleton Kennedy, and James Russel Lowell (the names are given here in the order and in the form as they appear in the “Contents”) (v-vi). The other “American Authors” are John James Audubon, George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, Edward Everett, and Daniel Webster (v-vi).

14 Even those who had died, had died recently: Audubon in 1851, Cooper also in 1851, and Webster in 1852.

15 Cooper’s work had, in fact, not been entirely completed upon his death, and, as a headnote explains, “It is printed verbatim from his manuscript, except in a few instances where dates and names are filled into the vacancies, according to his directions, and the narrative of the chase of the Constitution, which is copied, according to his direction, from his Naval History” (“Old Ironsides” 473). Cooper’s The History of the Navy of the United States was first published in 1839.

16 One counterexample to the ambiguous use of history I have been characterizing in this section is “Wensley,” a fictional piece by Edmund Quincy that ran in Putnam’s from July to December 1853. This short novel is told from the point of view of a contemporary narrator, Frank Osborne, but the action takes place in the past, during his youth, in early nineteenth-century Massachusetts, and makes frequent references to earlier events of the Revolution. As Ezra Greenspan points out, with its quintessentially American historical setting, “Wensley was virtually a made-to-order creation for Putnam and Briggs’s magazine” (“Addressing or Redressing the Magazine Audience” 136).

17 Calhoun died in 1850, Clay and Webster in 1852.

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Mark NIEMEYER, « Present Uncertainty and Looking to the Past: The Ambiguous Literary Nationalism of Putnam’s Monthly »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Université de Bourgogne
Mark Niemeyer is Professor of American literature and history at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon. He has published extensively on US antebellum writers in relation to cultural nationalism, and has contributed to several scholarly editions of Herman Melville’s works for “La Pléiade” and the Norton Critical editions. He is the author of The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville’s Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne (2016).

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