In his inaugural address to readers in the first issue of The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) alludes to a revolution whose members share "no external organization, no badge, no creed, no name [and] . . . do not vote, or print, or even meet together [or] . . . know each other's faces or names" (1.1.2). These comments are perhaps rhetorically disingenuous when one recalls that Emerson knew the faces and names of many of the revolutionaries, and the The Dial was itself the outgrowth of an "external organization" that made this revolution a reality for many New Englanders—the Transcendental Club. The Dial was supposed to be the voice of this loose cadre of liberal Unitarian ministers, intellectuals, writers, and social radicals who met sporadically from 1836 to 1840, but by the time the first issue was released in the summer of 1840, the group had already expired and the magazine became the project of a handful of its members—mainly Emerson and Margaret Fuller (1810–1850). Nevertheless, for the next four years, The Dial would function as the most recognizable voice for transcendentalism in New England, publishing book reviews, musings on art, poetry, selections from Confucian and Buddhist texts, feminist tracts, quasi-journalistic pieces about transcendentalist activities, theological discourse, sonnets, lectures, travelogues, German works in translation, and some difficult-to-categorize writing.
By most standards of publishing The Dial was an embarrassing failure, but the magazine remains relevant today as the most valuable primary text for studying the transcendentalist movement. The entire history of transcendentalism seems to filter through its 2,172 pages. Fuller, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) all served as editors and published extensively in its pages. Emerson had only recently published Nature (1836), "The American Scholar" (1837), and "The Divinity School Address" (1838) when he began editing and writing for The Dial. Thoreau, then in his mid-twenties, was gaining confidence as a writer by regularly contributing to the magazine. George Ripley (1802–1880), one of the founding members of the transcendentalist Brook Farm commune later satirized in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (1852), served as The Dial's first managing editor. The educator Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888)—founder of the other transcendentalist commune, Fruitlands—wrote a column for The Dial called "Orphic Sayings." Lesser-known Transcendental Club alumni like Frederic Henry Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, John Sullivan Dwight, Elizabeth Hoar, Sarah Ripley, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Jones Very, William Ellery Channing, and Christopher Pearse Cranch all contributed to the magazine as well.
The Dial was officially born in July 1840, when its first issue, or "number," was released to the public, but the idea for a journal had been circulating since the first meetings of the Transcendental Club. The discussion group was founded by Frederic Henry Hedge (1805–1890), with Emerson's help, to refresh the contemporary discourse on religion and philosophy. Many of its members were dissatisfied with the dominance of John Locke's empiricism in philosophical and theological discussions, which privileged knowledge gained through the senses over inborn knowledge and inspiration. Many were also appalled at the institutional cowardice of Unitarianism—an unwillingness to grapple with important theological issues. Included among its fluxional membership were all of the people who would later edit and produce The Dial—Emerson, Fuller, Ripley, and Peabody. In the four years before the first issue, there had been numerous private discussions among group members about starting a journal—Hedge in particular was keen to make the journal a reality—but the subject was not officially broached until the 18 September 1839 meeting, when the group discussed "the subject of a Journal designed as the organ of views more in accordance with the Soul" (Alcott, p. 249). Amos Bronson Alcott proposed to call it "The Dial," borrowing the title of a collection of his own musings he was assembling at the time. Emerson was the natural first choice for editor, but the famously reticent writer backed away from the project initially, assuring his brother William, "I will never be editor" (Letters 2:225). After Hedge returned to his pulpit in Maine for the winter that year, Emerson invited Fuller to be editor, and she accepted.
Although birthed by the Transcendental Club, The Dial maintained a loose, often tenuous association with the group. Throughout the winter of 1839–1840, Fuller solicited pieces for the journal but found club alumni surprisingly reluctant to participate. Hedge wrote Fuller expressing surprise at the suddenness of the publication. Other members like James Freeman Clarke (1810–1888) and William Henry Channing (1810–1884) made vague promises of assistance. Emerson and Ripley seemed willing to lend concrete assistance, however, and Emerson secured an agreement from Little and Brown to publish the magazine. Even before the first issue appeared, Fuller and Emerson were mostly on their own, which meant that the Transcendental Club's original hopes of creating a journal that represented its dissenting theology would never be realized. From the first, The Dial was primarily a literary magazine driven by only a handful of Transcendental Club members, though many others—including Hedge—would eventually contribute to it.
Two distinct editorial regimes would oversee The Dial—Fuller's, which lasted until the spring of 1842, and Emerson's, which spanned roughly the last two years of publication. Fuller's tenure saw the release of the shaky first issue—a critical bomb—and six more successful subsequent numbers before she resigned in March 1842, citing the continued insolvency of the magazine and her own ill health as reasons. Fuller never received a salary for her work; she taught school and gave private lessons to support herself, and the strain of balancing these responsibilities weighed considerably on her. She nevertheless managed to shepherd The Dial through its formative years, establishing a regular circulation and cultivating an eager pool of contributors. Emerson, who had served as coeditor throughout the first two years, took over in the spring of 1842. He presided over a period of dwindling subscriptions and continued insolvency balanced by numerous positive reviews. The overall quality of the magazine had improved and contributions now over-flowed the space that required filling in the magazine.
But the magazine failed to catch on with the public, and this proved to be a fatal flaw. The last two years of The Dial were marked by constant anxiety over its future. When Emerson took over as editor in 1842 there were about three hundred names on the subscription list. A year later the number had dropped to 220. Financial failure was inevitable. In the spring of 1842, when Fuller left, the magazine was barely breaking even, and Emerson's tenure did not improve The Dial's financial fortunes. In 1843 Elizabeth Peabody audited the magazine's accounts only to learn that the income from subscriptions did not even cover the cost of the paper it was printed on. Emerson was grimly aware of the task he had undertaken. In a letter written to Thomas Carlyle in July 1842, Emerson admits to "petty literary patriotism" in his decision to take over editing The Dial, acknowledging that he "took charge of our thankless little Dial, here, without subscribers enough to pay even a publisher, much less any laborer; it has no penny for editor or contributor, nothing but abuse in the newspapers, or, at best, silence" (p. 323). In the fall of 1843 Emerson was helping to support the magazine with his own money.
Reviews for The Dial were mixed throughout its existence. It provoked strong negative reactions from some who thought it was a profane or even ludicrous publication. The first issue was greeted with scorn by many of the major newspapers of the day or was ignored altogether. The Boston Times (17 July) called it one of the most "ridiculous productions of the age," describing its synthesis of German mysticism and pantheism as "unintelligible as the confusion of tongues at Babel." The Philadelphia Gazette complained about the "ravings of Alcott and his fellow zanies" and The Knickerbocker (August 1840), the United States's premier literary magazine, said that the magazine's intelligent ideas were buried in wordy prose. Alcott's "ravings" in his "Orphic Sayings" column attracted the largest measure of negative press, generating numerous parodies that were published throughout the country (Myerson, p. 51).
The Dial received better reviews during its last two years of publication under Emerson, though interest in the magazine among reviewers dropped off considerably. When the final issue appeared in April 1844, only one newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune, reviewed it.
Despite its persistent insolvency and disappointing fade-out, The Dial did manage to publish sixteen issues between July 1840 and April 1844—introducing more than 350 pieces of writing from 42 writers into the literary marketplace and creating a temporary outlet for one of the nation's most dynamic literary communities. The magazine's rhythm of publication was certainly erratic—appearing sometimes quarterly, sometimes monthly—but The Dial appeared on average once every three months during its forty-six-month life span. The magazine did not make any of its contributors into literary stars, but viewed retrospectively, its confluence of literary talent is remarkable. The Dial published seventy-six pieces by Emerson, including poetry, essays, reviews, and lectures. Some of the pieces, like his essays "Transcendentalism" (1840) and "Thoughts on Modern Literature" (1840) are well known; others, like his ode to the Persian poet Saadi (1842) and his fawning celebration of the dirt farmer over the bureaucrat, "Agriculture of Massachusetts" (1842), reveal the breadth—and perhaps also the limitations—of Emerson's eclecticism. Thoreau, who would depart for Walden Pond a year after the final issue was printed, was already working out some of his major themes. His essay "Natural History of Massachusetts" (1842) reveals an early passion for the details of scientific naturalism that would occupy him during the last decade of his life. Similarly, his presentation of selections from Hindu, Confucian, and Buddhist texts reveals an interest in Eastern philosophy that would find its way into both A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854). He contributed twenty-six verifiable pieces in all, including poetry—notably "Rumors from an Aeolian Harp" (1842), "Sympathy" (1840), and "Friendship" (1841)—and a translation from Greek of "The Prometheus Bound" (1843).
Some of The Dial's most faithful contributors are seldom read or studied today except as background to the more famous transcendentalists. William Ellery Channing, the restless nephew of the famous Unitarian minister of the same name, filled The Dial's pages with more than forty poems, making him the most prolific contributor behind Emerson and Fuller. Channing married Fuller's sister Ellen in 1841 and, with Emerson's help, in that same year published Poems, a collection that Edgar Allan Poe criticized as mostly "utter and irredeemable nonsense" (p. 113). Caroline Sturgis, Margaret Fuller's best friend, contributed more than twenty poems, and Christopher Pearse Cranch contributed eighteen. The Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810–1860) was The Dial's theological backbone, filling 257 pages, most of it about theology or religious history.
The contributions of women to the magazine were impressive. Women were at the core of The Dial's financial and editorial management, and a quarter of the contributing writers were female. Despite this considerable presence, however, only two explicitly feminist pieces can be found in The Dial—Sophia Ripley's "Woman" (1841) and Margaret Fuller's "The Great Lawsuit: Man Versus Men, Woman Versus Women" (1843). Fuller's piece was expanded and published in book form under the title Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845 and is a foundational text of American feminism.
From the first issue, The Dial revealed a boldly transcendentalist character, which was better expressed through its poetry than its prose. The transcendentalists regarded the true poet as inspired, able to pierce the veil of the ordinary to apprehend the spiritual truths that lie underneath. In this vein, Emerson's poem "The Problem" (1840) proclaims
The word by seers or sibyls told,
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind.
Some of the lesser-known contributors to the first issue of The Dial were among its most faithfully "transcendentalist." Cranch's poem "To the Aurora Borealis" (1840) endows the Northern Lights with a hidden spiritual essence, summoning out the
. . . inner light
That hath hid its purer ray
Through the lapses of the day—
Then like thee, thou Northern Morn,
Instincts which we deemed unborn,
Gushing from their hidden source
Mount upon their heavenward course.
In "The River" (January 1843), Ellery Channing proclaims "There is an inward voice, that in the stream / Sends forth its spirit to the listening ear," and the promise of perfection is upheld in Ellen Sturgis Hooper's "I Slept, and Dreamed That Life Was Beauty" (1840), whose narrator awakens to find that life is duty, only to reaffirm the ethereal, Romantic ideal a few lines later at the end of the poem.
The Dial's metaphysical poetics were often interrupted by more temporal concerns. Social reformism was a consistent theme—especially the philosophy of Charles Fourier, a French socialist whose ideas were circulating in the United States thanks to Albert Brisbane's Social Destiny of Man (1840). Fourier advocated the construction of vast single-dwelling communes called "phalanxes" that would gradually and peacefully destroy competitive capitalism. Emerson wrote a short review of Brisbane's book, proclaiming, "The name of Fourier may be placed at the head of modern thinkers" (1.1.265–266). Emerson and Peabody both contributed pieces on Fourierism, and Emerson wrote about "The English Reformers." The transcendentalist experiments in communal living also registered in The Dial. Peabody and Charles Lane both wrote quasi-journalistic articles about the Brook Farm commune (a year after The Dial folded, the residents of Brook Farm adopted a Fourieristic charter). Lane also contributed a piece on the Fruitlands commune, which he helped establish with Alcott, and a piece titled "A Day with the Shakers"—each chronicling his personal experiments with communalism.
Unitarian politics and theology were consistent themes in The Dial, which maintained a theological temperature that hovered somewhere between liberal Unitarianism and a tentative pre-Whitman brand of "pantheism." By 1841 Theodore Parker was a household word in Unitarian circles for weighing in on the pamphlet debate between George Ripley and Andrews Norton over the veracity of "miracles" in the scriptures—a debate Emerson had touched off in his incendiary address to Harvard's Divinity School in 1838, wherein he challenged the role of miracles in the Christian tradition. Parker's reputation as a transcendentalist was further cemented by his 1841 sermon "A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity," which denied the authority of miracles in the Old and New Testaments. The Dial preserves traces of these debates in Parker's essay "The Divine Presence in Nature and in the Soul" (July 1840), which describes God in nearly pantheistic terms, with "the fullness of the divine energy flow[ing] inexhaustibly into the crystal of the rock, the juices of the plant, the splendor of the stars, the life of the Bee and Behemoth" (1.1.59). All men were endowed with inspiration, writes Parker, but in varying degrees, with Jesus possessing the greatest measure of this quality, more even than "Moses, Zoroaster, Socrates or the sages" (1.1.65). William Dexter Wilson may have had Parker in mind in his April 1841 Dial essay "The Unitarian Movement in New England" when he identified the "Pantheists" along with Trinitarianism and Unitarianism as the three major religious movements of his time, predicting that pantheism "will never prevail" (1.4.433). Ripley's "Letter to a Theological Student" in the October 1840 Dial suggests his own distemper with Unitarianism, when he warns against pursuing theology to confirm already held beliefs instead of advocating an open mind. Truth should be pursued "in a magnificent procession, in which all Sciences and Arts are pressing forward to truth" (1.2.186), he declares. Parker echoes these sentiments in "Thoughts on Theology" in the April 1842 issue: "The more Light, the freer, the more profound and searching the investigation, why the better; the sooner a false theory is exploded and a new one induced from the observed facts, the better also. In theology the opposite rule seems often to prevail" (2.4.448).
The Dial was also filled with less deliberative explications of transcendentalist "theology." The lucid explications of transcendentalist history and theology by Ripley, Parker, and Wilson were balanced by representations from the movement's cosmic-silly side. In just thirteen pages, the former soldier William Batchelder Greene's rambling January 1842 "First Principles" pontificates on Love, Destiny, Freedom, Matter, Beauty, Justice, Harmony, and the Soul in short chapters filled with inchoate declarations like "the Stream flows between its banks, according to Love" (2.3.273) or "Beauty, Justice, and Harmony, always accompany Life, yet they do not constitute life; but, if life be manifested, they are attributes of that manifestation" (2.3.284). Even less coherent are Alcott's "Orphic Sayings," also organized into minichapters. "Choice implies apostacy," he declares in his section titled "Choice" in The Dial's inaugural issue. "The pure, unfallen soul is above choice. Her life is unbroken, synthetic; she is a law to herself, and finds no lust in her members warring against the instincts of conscience" (1.1.88).
The classical predilections of the Dial contributors are apparent in nearly every issue. "I have promised to write to you from Italy of the Italians," writes Samuel Gray Ward in the January 1841 issue. "Not of those of to-day, late and imperfectly ripened fruits of the great tree, beneath which the nations once feasted in the shade, but of the great ones who represent the June day in the garden of the world" (1.3.386). The Dial's writers were eager to demonstrate their knowledge of "the great ones," from Sarah Clarke's poem "Dante" (July 1840) to Thoreau's revival of a Greek "minor poet" in "Anacreon" (April 1843). Transcendentalist eclecticism and exoticism are also on display in The Dial. Emerson's contributions to the "Ethnical Scriptures" section included the "Sayings of Confucius" (July 1842), whereas Thoreau excerpted the Hindu "Laws of Menu" (January 1843) and "The Preaching of the Buddha" (January 1844). More than anything actually written about religion in the pages of The Dial, these snippets of Eastern "scripture" suggest how far the magazine's circle had drifted from the main Unitarian fold on the issue of divine inspiration.
Despite its intellectual eclecticism and universalist pretensions, The Dial preserves a snapshot of a fairly localized cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors and editors lived in or near Concord, Massachusetts, and together they represented a cozy coterie of friends, neighbors, fellow ministers, spouses, cousins, and close relations. Most of the contributors knew either Fuller or Emerson, and their work was often solicited directly by one or the other. Taken with all of its limitations, The Dial was likely the first truly independent literary magazine in the country, and its four volumes represent the most valuable primary collection of transcendentalist texts available today.
Alcott, A. Bronson. "Diary July-December 1839." Harvard Library, Harvard University.
The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion. 4 vols. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961. Citations in the text give volume number, issue number, and page number.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "Our Amateur Poets. No. III.—William Ellery Channing." Graham's Magazine 23 (August 1843): 113–117.
Cady, Lyman V. "Thoreau's Quotations from the Confucian Books in Walden." American Literature 33, no. 1 (1961): 20–32.
Cameron, Thompson. "John Locke and New England Transcendentalism." New England Quarterly 35, no. 4 (1962): 435–457.
Cooke, George Willis. An Historical and BiographicalIntroduction to Accompany The Dial. 2 vols. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.
Grodzins, Dean, and Joel Myerson. "The Preaching Record of Theodore Parker." Studies in the American Renaissance (1994): 55–122.
Hennessy, Helen. "The Dial: Its Poetry and Poetic Criticism." New England Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1958): 66–87.
Myerson, Joel. The New England Transcendentalists and TheDial: A History of the Magazine and Its Contributors. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Daniel R. Vollaro