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A History of the Literary Magazine in America

Andrew Madigan By Andrew Madigan Published on October 11, 2016
This article was updated on December 14, 2017

Today there are an infinite number of literary magazines, either in paper, pixels or both. They usually don’t last very long and they almost never pay writers very well, if at all. However, this wasn’t always the case. The history of literary magazines or journals—we’ll use the terms interchangeably—is long, peculiar and surprising.

The first colonial magazines, of any type, appeared in 1741. Andrew Bradford, of Philadelphia, put out his American Magazine just three days before Benjamin Franklin printed the rival General Magazine. Many similar ventures followed—primarily miscellanies and general-interest publications—but most of them folded after only a few issues.

The Columbian Magazine, which was founded in 1786 and ran for six years, was the first journal to specialize in fiction. The anonymous Amelia: or the Faithless Briton and The Foresters by Jeremy Belknap, both contenders for America’s First Novel, were serialized in the magazine. Charles Brocken Brown, the country’s first professional novelist, also got his start here.

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During the Colonial Era, most of the leading magazines, including the Columbian, were based in Philadelphia and published items relating to politics, current events, geography, law, social issues and other matters. The US was, at the time, a nation still building itself, and Americans were a practical people, less interested in the arts than in the administrative concerns of constructing towns and cities, shaping government, conquering a landscape, enacting laws, and assembling a Constitution. Some colonials, in fact, were strict Calvinists who were actively against imaginative literature.

Another literary magazine during this period was The American Museum, which printed Thomas Paine’s Common Sense as well as works by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Benjamin Rush and Philip Freneau. Charles Brocken Brown founded and edited several journals, including The Monthly Magazine, The American Review and Literary Journal and The Literary Magazine and American Register. It wasn’t until a few years later that more recognizable titles emerged, such as The Yale Review (1819) and the North American Review (1815), which is often erroneously cited as the country’s first literary magazine—The Columbian Magazine came much earlier, of course. The NAR doesn’t even qualify as the oldest still in existence, since it was shuttered from 1940-1964. Poet Lore (1889) was the first journal devoted exclusively to verse.

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Mid-century was a decisive time. Harper’s was founded in 1850 and The Atlantic seven years later. Both were strongly literary, though with a cultural and political bent as well. The most noteworthy, peculiar and exciting periodical of the century, during this third wave of American magazines, was The Dial, launched in 1840 by members of Boston’s Transcendentalist movement. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, the first editors, published literature informed by the theological, philosophical and aesthetic underpinnings of Transcendentalism, a belief system rooted in Eastern spirituality and western individualism. The magazine folded in 1844, was later reborn as a political magazine and, in 1920, was born again as a champion of modernist writing. The Dial is a forerunner of the “little magazines”—publishers of avant-garde, non-commercial and fringe work—that would thrive in the 1950’s and ‘60s.

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transition 13 (1928) cover by Pablo Picasso

Literary journals flourished early in the 20th century. Poetry opened its doors in 1912, publishing T.S. Eliot’s first work, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Many other groundbreaking and prestigious publications appeared, including The Sewanee Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Modern Quarterly and Partisan Review. The Little Review serialized Joyce’s Ulysses, was banned by the federal courts, and went out of business. Merlin and transition were two small, avant-garde journals, based in Paris but American in origin. Finnegans Wake was serialized in transition, which was radical, given that even the most ardent Joyce enthusiasts questioned the novel’s value, while Merlin was an advocate of André Breton and surrealism.

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Perhaps the most intriguing and influential magazine during this era was Black Mask, founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in 1920. The magazine was instrumental in shaping and sustaining the hard-boiled detective story, one of America’s most enduring, important, under-appreciated and truly original art forms. In the beginning Black Mask wasn’t intended to specialize in crime fiction, but virtually every key writer of the genre appeared in the magazine, including Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John D. MacDonald, Erle Stanley Gardner and, much later, James Ellroy. The authors were primarily male, but the magazine did publish many female crime writers, such as Dorothy Dunn, Sally Dixon Wright and Marion O’Hearn. Black Mask not only helped the US create and develop its own brand of detective novel—liberated from its genteel English roots—but it also helped cultivate the film counterpart of hardboiled crime, film noir.

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In 1931 Story was launched in Vienna, Austria, by Martha Foley and her husband, Whit Burnett. They later moved to New York and published short fiction by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, John Knowles, John Cheever, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, Joyce Carol Oates and Carol Shields. J.D. Salinger and Charles Bukowski were mentored by Burnett, who published the debut stories of both writers. During this period, there were also a number of successful “slicks”—popular magazines printed on shiny paper. They included both general interest and cultural magazines, but fiction was prominently showcased. The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Scribner’s, The New Yorker, Esquire and McClure’s are just a few examples. Average middle-class families would enjoy, understand and appreciate the urbane, complex stories. Today, however, serious fiction is the domain of specialized journals read by a small number of devotees. What’s more, the slicks paid several thousand dollars per story, which is as much as writers earn today from the most highly-paid markets. In the 1940’s and 50’s, that was serious money; Salinger, Fitzgerald and others got rich from short stories.

Throughout the 50’s and 60s, the little magazines were dominated by subcultures, ideologies and radical politics. The Beats and hippies, for example, had their own journals. The underground press exploded in L.A., New York, Detroit and San Francisco. The Floating Bear, helmed by writers Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka, operated from the back of a Manhattan bookshop. Other counterculture magazines included The Outsider, C: A Journal of Poetry, Measure, The Wormwood ReviewLaugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns.

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LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima in the Cedar Tavern, University Place, April 5, 1960, Fred W McDarrah (found here)

Other mid-century developments included The Paris Review, founded by three Americans in Paris, and The Black Mountain Review in North Carolina, formed by a group of experimental poets who taught at Black Mountain College. The 1960’s were much like the 1780’s. New magazines sprang up all the time, if only for a few months or years. This was enabled by a new technology, the mimeograph, which could produce cheap, quick copies at home on semi-portable machines. Quality wasn’t always great—many of the mimeographed journals featured ink stains and smeared printing—but now anyone could print a magazine in their spare bedroom, and many did.

By the mid-1970’s, the underground press was dying, but many of today’s leading journals were founded, including Agni, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review. Hugh Fox set up The Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Presses to organize the talent and administration of small presses. Later, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses was formed, a group of independent magazines and publishers that works with the National Endowment for the Arts to channel grant money to independent publishers.

Like the mimeograph revolution of the 60’s, technology has dramatically affected the current state of literary journals. Beginning in the 1990’s, the internet birthed a new generation of online magazines. Many writers and readers were quick to dismiss web zines as intrinsically inferior to “real” print journals, but that stigma has gradually disappeared. Some of the more elite online journals include Painted Bride Quarterly, failbetter, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and Blackbird.

Although formats and industrial processes have evolved, the literary magazine is, in many respects, the same as ever. They’re devised and created by passionate, devoted enthusiasts: editors who want to foster great writing; and struggling writers who want to create a space for their own, and others’ undervalued work. Most of these projects don’t succeed or last very long, but there’s always a touch of beauty in their optimism and even in their failure. 


    Freelance writer (food, drinks, books, travel, music, film) and former professor (creative writing, literature, Islamic studies, US history) and magazine editor who's lived in the UK, New York, ... Show More


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