Book Talk

‘Genteel Endeavor’ in the Gilded Age

By Gary Schmidgall

Reading The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893

By Mark Noonan

Kent State University Press

Mark Noonan’s new study came to life serendipitously several years ago while he was rummaging in one of his favorite haunts, a Manhattan used-book store (now vanished). There the CUNY doctoral student happened upon a handsome black leather-and-gilt volume of The Century magazine, a “gold mine of American literary history,” he thought. It cost him $20.

Noonan’s fascination turned into full immersion in this prominent periodical of the Gilded Age, and he has just published Reading The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870-1893 (Kent State University Press). The Century was America’s first literary magazine to achieve a truly national audience, which was largely genteel or middle-class (many of its readers were women), and it was among the first periodicals to indulge a sense of the aesthetic, becoming especially noted for its fine woodcut illustrations. The inaugural cover, designed by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the architect Stanford White, was in vintage beaux arts style.

Noonan, who is now a professor of English at City Tech, focuses on the magazine’s real heyday, 1870-1893, under two editors: Josiah Holland, who ran it for a decade (1870-1881) in its first incarnation as Scribner’s Monthly, and Richard Watson Gilder. So influential was the latter on the literary scene that a biographer said the Gilded Age (a term coined by Mark Twain) should be called the Gildered Age. The magazine, overtaken by more forward-thinking competition like McClure’s and Cosmopolitan, finally folded in 1930.

Among Holland’s brilliant proposals to Charles Scribner for a new monthly was one that was certainly auspicious: “I propose to publish no sermons.” But Noonan makes clear that The Century was fundamentally devoted to “defining middle-class, Protestant values.” If not sermonizing, the “genteel endeavor” of The Century was “notoriously didactic: to teach men and women how to behave, how to discriminate.” There was much promoting of virtue and policing of vice in its pages. No profanity or slang was allowed, but Noonan points out that the editors did not shy away from stories featuring and satirizing fiction with dialogue in Irish, Asian, or black dialect.

Walt Whitman, a sworn enemy of the genteel parlor life, had decidedly mixed feelings about The Century: “Sometimes I get mad at it: it seems so sort of fussy, extra nice, pouting.” But then he admitted respect for its clear cultural agenda: “I say to myself those very limitations were designed — maybe rightly designed — therefore it does not belong to me to complain.” It didn’t hurt that Gilder published some (but not all!) of the poems Whitman sent him.

Noonan seems to share those mixed feelings. In a chapter titled “Ladies Who Launch” he admires how, early on, the editors countenanced some of the feistier women writers of the day like Mary Mapes Dodge and Helen Hunt Jackson. They were, Noonan writes, “the linchpins for the magazine’s early success and prestige.” But then he deplores how, in the 1880s, the all-male American realism movement led by William Dean Howells trumped them. Later, he reminds us that the editors “expected women of the genteel class to be depicted as spiritually pure as well as submissive to the authority of their husbands and fathers.”

Noonan chides The Century for parody-ing the increasing numbers of the poor in the 1870s recession and Holland for demanding “vigorous measures” against the “tramp nuisance,” but later he praises the magazine for its CUNY-spirited “interest in providing free common school education for all Americans.”

The magazine is praised as among the first with national circulation to begin to explore the nation’s far-flung regions. In 1875-1876 it paid Bret Harte an astounding $6,000 to serialize Gabriel Conroy, arguably the prototype of the western novel, and John Muir wrote on the Sierras in its pages. A two-year documentary serial by Edward King, “The Great South,” was doubtless one reason The Century became the first northern periodical welcomed in post-Civil War southern parlors.

Noonan devotes a chapter to how The Century pushed “plantation myth” fiction — novels and stories romanticizing slavery before the Civil War — in the 1890s after the collapse of Reconstruction; this makes for dispiriting reading. Wearing Joel Chandler Harris’ rose-colored glasses, former slaves had “nothing but pleasant memories” of slavery. The Century’s editorial position, Noonan writes, amounted to a “rejection of northern idealism in favor of southern nostalgia.” One writer, James Lane Allen, argued in its pages that, in Noonan’s words, “the slave system worked to everyone’s benefit.”

A final chapter is devoted to The Century’s rehashing of the Civil War two decades after the fact, notably in a three-year-long series in 1884-1887, “Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.” Noonan makes clear that the editors considered “reconciling regional differences” more important than acknowledging increasing segregation in the South. He tartly notices “the dearth of references in the series to blacks” and urges us to read Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage as “an extended parody of any official, orderly account of the Civil War”­­­­ — precisely what The Century was flogging.

Noonan notes that one lonely voice published in The Century, George Washington Cable’s, recognized the danger of abandoning true Reconstruction in the South. In “The Freedman’s Case in Equity” he asked, “Is the freedman a free man? No. And it is time for the South to meet the challenge.” Gilder printed a rebuttal from the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, which declared, “The South will never adopt Mr. Cable’s suggestion of the social intermingling of the races. It can never be driven into accepting it.” (Martin Luther King Jr. was obliged to repeat Cable’s point on the Mall in 1963.)

Gilder is quoted as opining that American writers should “concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American,” and Noonan chides The Century for its rosy retrospect on the war as about “order, gallantry, and North/South reconciliation.” But Noonan justly delights in the few moments when an unsmiling view of the war gets in: for instance, Mark Twain’s ferocious anti-war tract, “The Private History of a Campaign that Failed,” one of his snarkiest satiric performances.

The epigraph for the Civil War chapter is Whitman’s “The real war will never get in the books … in the mushy influences of current times,” and Noonan acidly demonstrates it never got into The Century either by briefly quoting from Thomas Nelson Page’s mushy 1886 story, “Meh Lady: A Story of the War,” which features a moonily loyal old black slave, a gallant Confederate hero, and his noble sister (“de light o’ dis plantation”).

But perhaps Noonan best underscores Whitman’s point visually by reproducing a picture of the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia (where 13,000 soldiers died); it shows several men sitting on a latrine in the foreground. Noonan publishes the full image and notes that Gilder, the publisher of a “family” magazine, cropped out the latrine for an 1889 issue of The Century.

You Think Phones Are Smart?

Smartphones? So last century. Driverless cars? Just hang around another 89 years. In Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 (Doubleday), theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts a future in which nearly everything we touch will be connected to the Internet. “You’ll blink and you’ll go online — it’s coming faster than you think,” says Kaku, a City College professor and co-founder of string field theory.

Signs of the Times

In his ninth book of poetry, Horoscopes for the Dead, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins “rules as a charming master of mischievous wisdom,” declared a Booklist review. Random House, the publisher, summarizes the longtime Lehman College professor’s latest collection: “Smart, lyrical, and not afraid to be funny, these new poems extend Collins’ reputation as a poet who occupies a special place in the consciousness of readers of poetry, including the many he has converted to the genre.”

A ‘Masterful’ Biography

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds (W.W. Norton), collected much advance praise: “nothing less than an intellectual feast,”  “…his best book yet. … Deeply researched and compulsively readable… .” Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Also, two of his previous books have just been reissued: major award winner Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography and Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (both from Alfred A. Knopf).

Constructive Criticism

David Hamilton Golland’s Constructing Affirmative Action: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky) has been described as novel in its approach and meticulously researched, bridging a wide gap in the literature on the history of affirmative action. Golland, an adjunct assistant professor of history at Bronx Community College and the College of Staten Island, analyzes how community activism pushed the federal government to address issues of racial exclusion and marginalization in the construction industry with programs in key American cities.