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The editorial societies of early America did something hardly seen since. They put together periodicals collectively and aimed for the ear of the listener as much as the eye of the reader. While most periodicals were then edited (and sometimes even entirely written) by individuals, scholar Carolyn Eastman, who has explored the significant number of communal, collaborative, and collective literary productions of the late 1790s and early 1800s, argues that “orality and sociability were crucial to the publication, consumption, and imaginative work of periodicals in the early Republic.”

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“Periodicals […] privileged orality in a tripartite way: from the editorial process of selecting material to representing conversation and sociability on the page to the expectation that such pieces would be read aloud by their subscribers.”

Reading aloud within families and among social gatherings was a way of disseminating knowledge and entertainment, allowing periodicals to reach further than their subscription numbers might otherwise suggest. Knowing that oral performance was a major factor in the reception of their publications, editors read submissions aloud to see how they would sound. Long before the technology of audiobooks and podcasts, listening as an alternative mode of consumption of printed media was prioritized and privileged.

These editorial societies were almost exclusively male and often promised an insider’s view of the conversation of gentlemen’s societies and clubs. The “real and imagined connections between societies and magazines” meant that editors sold access to the society’s or club’s doings, if not its secrets. Some of this supposed society-talk was entirely made-up—as it had largely been with the highly influential London magazine Spectator (1711–1714), which purported to be the product of a gentleman’s conversation club.

Collective editorialship also made good sense as a bulwark against the manifest risks of periodical publishing. Editorial societies could draw on multiple financial pockets and multiple pens. With the lack of money and the paucity of material to publish, these were both good hedges. The era saw a “rapid rate of failure for American magazines,” with most lasting only a year or two. Some of the editorial societies beat the odds nicely.

“Having a society of gentlemen at the helm granted a magazine a sense of prestige as well as stability: it prompted confidence.” With subscribers paying for a year’s subscription, they wanted some evidence they’d get their money’s worth.

“A LITERARY SOCIETY relying on that love of letters, which has marked and graced our Country’s character” ran the prospectus of the Tablet in 1795. The Columbian Magazine had its “number of gentlemen, whose literary reputation stands deservedly high in public opinion.” Perhaps less inflatedly, the first volume of The Cynick, produced in Philadelphia in 1811, was “By Growler Gruff, Esquire, aided by a confederacy of lettered dogs” (“We’ll snarl, and bite, and play the dog,” —“For dogs are honest.”)

Many of these publications were miscellaneous collections of fragments, sketches, borrowed material (sometimes the original was attributed, often it was not), correspondence, transcripts (real and imagined), and plenty of opinion. Eastman quotes another historian of the period, Jared Gardner, who has called this the “first information age,” with periodicals acting as “virtual coffeehouses,” spreading news, views, the talk of the town, humor, rumor, and even tasty tidbits of naughtiness promised by the supposed eavesdropping on the boys in the club. Of course, an awful lot of it was fake news: fiction, concocted by the editors and others writers.

Eastman writes of the concentric circles of “firesides, literary clubs, editorial debates, and the widening networks of print readers and listeners” who imagined the “new American intellectual culture to be a collaborative project.” One of numerous “fantasies of nation-building” in the period, this one didn’t take hold. Solo and celebrity editors rose to prominence in the later nineteenth century, and swept right through the magazine world through the twentieth.

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Early American Literature, Vol. 54, No. 1 (2019), pp. 163–188
University of North Carolina Press