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Whether suggesting revisions of a manuscript for book publication, choosing the contents of a magazine, or assigning a writer or reporter a story, an editor always serves as a mediator—between an author and a publisher or between an author and a reader. This mediating role was especially crucial in the period 1820–1870 as authors and editors alike tried to navigate the chaotic and unstable world of the book and periodical industries. To successfully appeal to all their constituents—readers, writers, and publishers—nineteenth-century editors needed a wide variety of literary and business skills. Part author, part literary critic, part entrepreneur, nineteenth-century editors have rarely enjoyed the kind of attention paid to writers themselves; nonetheless editors of all kinds—magazine, book, and even newspaper editors—contributed to the development of American literature in the antebellum period.


The role of editors changed dramatically in the period 1820–1870. Like their eighteenth-century predecessors, such as Isaiah Thomas, Noah Webster, and Mathew Carey, periodical editors in the 1820s likely envisioned their work as a hobby, even an intermittent one. With few readers and even fewer contributors, magazines during this early period rarely survived even a year, and the vast majority of editing work consisted of cutting and pasting excerpts from other sources, often without attribution. Opportunities for editors in the book industry were likewise extremely limited in the 1820s. Book publishing was still a local industry, and editing had not yet emerged as a distinct occupation. Many local book publishers did work now recognized as editorial in nature, of course, but these same people often served as printers, publishers, and booksellers as well.

By 1870, however, growth within both the book and periodical industries made editing a viable, even necessary, profession. According to Frank Luther Mott's estimates, there were probably around one hundred magazines in the United States in 1825, virtually all as local productions with limited circulations. In the early 1820s, for instance, the North American Review had only five or six hundred subscribers, and the Saturday Evening Post, one of the more successful literary weeklies of the decade, boasted a circulation of just three or four thousand (Mott 1:200, 4:674). By the end of the period, however, the overall condition of the periodical industry had changed dramatically. By 1870 Mott estimates more than 1,200 periodicals and some periodicals of the 1850s and 1860s—including Godey's Lady's Book and Peterson's Magazine—enjoyed circulations of more than 100,000. Most successful was probably the New York Ledger, with 400,000 subscribers in 1860 (Mott 2:359).

The book industry experienced similar growth between 1820 and 1870. Just a few years before this period, for example, James Harper (1795–1869) and John Harper (1797–1875), both in their early twenties, opened a small printing shop in New York. Within a few decades, they, along with two other brothers, had established one of the most successful publishing dynasties in American literary history. Although the enormous success of Harpers was hardly typical, it does suggest not only the overall growth of the indus-try but also the development of national rather than local firms. By 1870 some of the most important national publishing firms of the century were thriving, including not only Harpers but also Ticknor and Fields and Houghton, Mifflin and Co. The monetary value of books published and sold in the United States likewise increased. According to John Tebbel's estimates, the value of books manufactured and sold in the nation in the mid-1850s stood at $16 million, up from $2.5 million in 1820 (1:221).

These two growing industries were largely intertwined throughout this period. Published books were reviewed in periodicals, for example, and many authors chose dual publication, with their work appearing first in periodicals and then in books. Some editors, such as Charles Frederick Briggs (1804–1877) (editor of Putnam's Monthly), moreover, edited periodicals that were directly linked with the publishing firms that owned them (in Briggs's case, G. P. Putnam's). Other editors who managed periodicals owned by publishing firms include Fletcher Harper's (1806–1877) work with Harper's New Monthly Magazine (owned by publishing firm Harper & Brothers) and William C. Richards's work with the Southern Literary Gazette. Recognizing the potential power of a book publishing and periodical collaboration, Richards formed a partnership with a Charleston printer, Joseph Walker, with the goal of publishing in book form fiction that had initially appeared in the Gazette. Although the partnership of Richards and Walker was short-lived, it attests to the interdependence of the book and periodical industries.

Given the growth and increasing complexity of these industries, it is hardly surprising that editors took on new importance during this period. Although most periodical editors continued to rely on reprinted material from other sources, many editors took on new responsibilities, including establishing editorial policy, soliciting authors, reading manuscripts, and writing material. The growing importance of editorial work is suggested by the dramatic success of editor-publishers such as James T. Fields (1817–1881). In the early 1830s in Boston, a young Fields was working as a clerk for a local bookstore owner and sometimes publisher, William D. Ticknor (1810–1864). Within a decade Fields was a partner in the publishing firm, and he was soon negotiating terms with such writers as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But with the potential editorial successes came the risk of failure. In September 1869, for example, when Fields published Harriet Beecher Stowe's essay accusing Lord Byron of incest in the Atlantic Monthly, the magazine lost thousands of outraged readers.

Antebellum editors adopted various models for their work. Like Fields, many antebellum editors served as both editors and publishers for their periodicals or publishing firms. David Ruggles (1810–1849), for example, was founder, publisher, and editor of the African American newspaper Mirror of Liberty, as was Charles J. Peterson (1819–1887) with Peterson's Magazine, the popular women's magazine. Fluid roles between editor and publisher were even more common within the book industry. As publisher-editor of his own book firm, for example, George Palmer Putnam (1814–1872) worked directly with authors, choosing manuscripts for his list and encouraging particular projects. Whereas some editors, like Robert Bonner of the enormously popular New York Ledger, enjoyed very long editorial careers, many others viewed editing as a temporary assignment. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), and Caroline Matilda Kirkland (1801–1864) are just a few of the many authors who turned to editing at least occasionally, often with hopes both of supplementing the salaries they earned as authors and of shaping the public's perception of literature and American authorship. Still others created positions that are best understood as contributing editors. Aware of their appeal to readers, many publishers identified popular writers as "editors" of their magazines. The popular poet Lydia Sigourney (1791–1865) was at times listed as one of the editors of Godey's Lady's Book, for example, even though her only responsibility to the magazine was to provide poetry.

Editors continued to face serious challenges during this period. Within the periodical industry, editors struggled under heavy workloads and insufficient salaries. As Ellery Sedgwick describes, the Atlantic Monthly editor James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) often worked fifteen-hour days, reading manuscripts, corresponding with contributors, soliciting authors, writing literary notices, and reading proofs. At one point, Lowell complained that 150 unanswered letters piled on his desk. Despite such efforts, Lowell did not earn enough from editing to support himself. In addition to the $2,500 annual salary he received for editing the Atlantic Monthly, Lowell also earned $1,800 for a full-time teaching position at Harvard (Sedgwick, pp. 34, 45–46). Lowell's difficulties regarding workload and salary were hardly atypical. At various points in his career, William Gilmore Simms served as editor of six different periodicals. Although attracted to the idea of editing a southern magazine as a way of promoting southern literature, he repeatedly left his editorial positions in dismay at the lack of adequate remuneration, the overwhelming workload, and the difficulty of success. Near the end of his tenure as editor of the Southern Quarterly Review, Simms confided to a friend: "I need not say how little time is left me for thinking and living. I do not live. I grub, and grub is my portion—my reward" (Guilds, p. 159).


One of the most remarkable facts about this period in publishing was that it was a time of both intense consolidation and diversity. Major national journals and publishing firms were established within the literary centers of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, and editors working within this context experienced a degree of literary and cultural authority that their eighteenth-century predecessors could not have imagined.

At the same time, however, the book and periodical industries were expanding well beyond the northeast urban triangle. This diversity—both geographically and topically—can be suggested by noting just a few of the countless periodicals established during this period. In 1825, for example, the socialist community of New Harmony, Indiana, founded the New-Harmony Gazette with the famous reformer Frances Wright serving as one of its editors. Just a few years after that journal was founded, the Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft launched Muzzeniegun in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. A manuscript paper that circulated widely, Muzzeniegun focused on documenting Ojibwa culture, and Schoolcraft depended greatly on the assistance of his Ojibwa wife, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and her family. Thousands of miles away in San Francisco, J. MacDonough Foard and Rollin M. Daggett founded the Golden Era in 1852, a literary weekly that published the work of Bret Harte and Mark Twain. Precisely because these efforts required relatively little financial investment (compared with publishing books), editors were able to launch countless periodicals, literally throughout the entire United States and on almost every imaginable topic.

For many of the same reasons, a significant number of women and minorities became editors during this period, thus beginning a long tradition of women's and minority editing and publishing in the United States. In general, the book industry was less hospitable to women and minority editors during this period than was the book industry. A notable exception is the African Methodist Episcopal Book Concern, which was established in 1817, just a year after the A.M.E. Church was founded. Under the direction of its editors, known as General Book Stewards, the A.M.E. Book Concern published several books related to the church, including its governing laws and a hymnal, and both a monthly and weekly periodical.

Relatively few minority editors worked within the book industry, but the periodical industry proved much more open, especially with antislavery periodicals. In 1827 the first newspaper edited by and for African Americans appeared under the title Freedom's Journal, with John Brown Russwurm and Samuel E. Cornish as editors. Other important African American editors during this period include Frederick Douglass (with North Star, Frederick Douglass' Paper, and Douglass' Monthly), Thomas Hamilton (Anglo-African Magazine and the Weekly Anglo-African), George Hogarth (African Methodist Episcopal Church Magazine), and David Ruggles (Mirror of Liberty).

In addition to providing news and opinions about the abolitionist movement, many of these African American editors also offered a wide range of reading material. Russwurm and Cornish, for example, editors of Freedom's Journal, also published entertaining and informative pieces, including poetry, general interest essays, and biographical sketches of famous blacks. Frederick Douglass' Paper likewise included book reviews, poetry, fiction, and slave narratives. In terms of literary offerings, Thomas Hamilton's Anglo-African Magazine is especially notable. Although the magazine was short-lived, Hamilton had a definite talent for promoting African American writers, and he published the work of such authors as Frances Ellen Watkins (later Harper) and Martin Robinson Delany.

Many other racial and ethnic minorities also assumed editorial positions in the periodical industry. Important early Native American editors include Elias Boudinot with the Cherokee Phoenix, who published material in both English and Cherokee, and William Potter Ross with the Cherokee Advocate. Within the Spanish-language press, important editors include Victoriano Alemán and Eusebio Juan Gómez, who in 1846 founded La Patria, a successful journal published in New Orleans but distributed in places such as Baton Rouge, Havana, Mexico City, and New York City. Also notable is the work of José María Vigil, who founded El Nuevo Mundo in San Francisco in 1864. Like La Patria, El Nuevo Mundo boasted wide circulation, with sales offices in Peru, Colombia, and New York.

Similar periodicals published in other languages or English-language periodicals directed to specific ethnic groups were generally more local, and their existence was shaped by the immigration patterns into the United States. Boston and New York, for instance, each had a thriving Irish press, Milwaukee boasted a strong German press, and the Dano-Norwegian and Scandinavian press was focused primarily in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Although the editors of these publications are far less studied in the early twenty-first century than, say, Emerson or Lowell, they attest to the wide-ranging influence editors held throughout the nineteenth century. Indeed these editors, often immigrants themselves, provided their readers with information not only about native culture but also about the United States and the local communities in which they lived. As such, these editors helped their readers establish their place in American culture.

Even as it supported the work of minority editors, the periodical industry was also quite open to the work of women. Most famous is Margaret Fuller (1810–1850), who served as the first editor of The Dial, a small but influential journal associated with New England's Symposium or Transcendentalist Club. First issued in July 1840, The Dial was created as a means of expressing the ideas of the individuals associated with the club, including Emerson, Orestes Augustus Brownson, and Thoreau. Like many editors of small literary journals of the time, Fuller had difficulty finding material, and she was forced to write a large portion of the magazine herself. But Fuller is also remembered as an editor committed to free expression of ideas, even ones with which she disagreed, and she published the work of new and established authors alike.

Fuller's editorship was long regarded as an anomaly in the history of nineteenth-century editing, but many other women also worked successfully as editors. Women's magazines proved especially eager to boast women editors. Sarah Josepha Hale's (1788–1879) career is particularly noteworthy. After serving as editor of a small literary magazine for women for nine years, Hale accepted Louis Godey's offer to edit Godey's Lady's Book. For the next four decades, Hale shaped the Lady's Book into one of the most popular and influential magazines in antebellum America. As editor of the Lady's Book, Hale published the work of many of the nation's mportant writers, including Poe, Emerson, Simms, and Stowe.

Although few editors—male or female—could boast careers as long or as successful as Hale's, many other women pursued editing positions at a variety of magazines. Some of the more notable women editors of this period include Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) with the women's rights journal the Revolution, Caroline Matilda Kirkland with Sartain's Union Magazine of Literature and Art, and Mary Ann Shadd (later Cary) with the Provincial Freeman, a newspaper published in Toronto for African Americans living in Canada.


As these examples suggest, many editors defined their careers in political terms. Most famous are the editors associated with the antislavery movement, including William Lloyd Garrison (with The Liberator), Gamaliel Bailey (National Era), Thomas Hamilton (Anglo-African Magazine), and Frederick Douglass (North Star, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly). Also important were the many editors who tackled the issue of women's rights: Amelia Bloomer (Lily), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Revolution), and Paulina Wright Davis (Una), to name just a few. These periodicals were not isolated from their more literary counterparts. On the contrary, these editors frequently published literature that supported their political aims, including, for example, Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which first appeared in Gamaliel Bailey's antislavery weekly newspaper.

Whereas engaging with politics allowed these editors to advance, coverage of political matters proved troubling for many others. Fearful of offending readers at a time of deep political divisions, many editors vowed to avoid partisan politics altogether. Those unwilling to avoid the controversies surrounding them frequently suffered the consequences of angry readers. Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880), for instance, lost many supporters of the Juvenile Miscellany when she began including antislavery pieces in the children's magazine and when her own book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans was published. Reaction to Child's political involvement was so strong that she was forced to resign as editor of the Juvenile Miscellany, which she had founded.


Perhaps even more so than with politics, antebellum editors exerted their influence over literary matters, helping to shape not only the careers of individual authors but also more generally the development of American literature. Throughout her editorship of Godey's Lady's Book, for instance, Hale used the pages of her magazine, including her own columns, to promote women authors. Similarly, in the late 1850s and 1860s, Lowell and later Fields used their positions as editor of the Atlantic Monthly to support literary realism. Under Fields's watch, the Atlantic published early realistic texts, such Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, as well as many reviews supportive of literary realism, reviews largely written by William Dean Howells, who was assistant editor at the time.

One of the reasons editors were able to influence literary culture so much during the antebellum period was that the vast majority of editors were themselves accomplished authors. Although there were exceptions—Robert Bonner with the New York Ledger had a background in printing, not literature—the typical antebellum editor in both the periodical and book industries was a man or woman of letters. Lowell, for example, had already established himself as a member of Boston's cultural elite as a poet, critic, and essayist when he accepted the position as first editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Likewise, Hale was a published poet and novelist before assuming the editor's post at the Ladies' Magazine in 1828, and she continued to write after she moved on to Godey's Lady's Book, publishing more than two dozen single-authored books (including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) as well as many other edited books such as poetry anthologies and collections of letters. Other figures used editing positions as a way of testing or developing their literary inclinations. Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) editorial stints at papers such as the New York Aurora were brief, but he developed many of his innovative poetic techniques while working as a journalist and editor.


One of the most important developments in the period 1820–1870 was the increasing support of American literature. With the United States denying copyright protection for foreign authors until 1891, many editors and publishers initially favored foreign texts, but some antebellum editors actively supported American literature. Even before he founded his own firm, while serving as a junior partner in Ticknor & Company, for instance, Fields was recruiting American writers, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Longfellow. Evert Duyckinck (1816–1878), likewise, served as series literary editor of Library of American Books, an impressive book series published by Wiley and Putnam that included works by Herman Melville, Fuller, Hawthorne, and Poe. Magazine editors, too, boasted their support of American literature, sometimes even competing with one another as to which magazine was the most "American." Because they enjoyed large circulations and were thus able to offer generous rates to their contributors, editors at popular magazines often offered the most generous financial arrangements for authors. Hale, for example, enacted several policies that supported recognition of American authorship as a profession: she accepted only original submissions and strongly favored American authors, she rejected the tradition of anonymous contributions and encouraged attribution, and she supported an author's right to be paid.

In addition to shaping particular author's careers, antebellum book editors also influenced the public's perception—and consumption—of American literature. Particularly notable is the editorial work associated with gift books, which first appeared in the 1820s and remained popular until the Civil War. Gift books such as The Ladies' Wreath, Affection's Gift, the Gem, and Friendship's Token were designed primarily for holiday gift giving. Most gift annuals consisted of miscellaneous moral and polite literature, compiled by an editor, but others focused on particular subjects—such as mourning—or were linked directly with social causes, particularly the antislavery movement. Designed as parlor ornaments as much as reading material, these gift annuals were lavishly illustrated and printed. Editors of these gift books—including T. S. Arthur, Lydia Sigourney, Nathaniel P. Willis, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, and Eliza Leslie—were frequently writers or magazine editors as well.

Although they typically lacked the visual extravagance of true gift annuals, literary anthologies of the antebellum period also necessitated strong editors. Some of the most important anthologies of the antebellum period include Rufus Wilmot Griswold's The Poets and Poetry of America (first issued in 1842) and The Female Poets of America (1849), Thomas Buchanan Read's The Female Poets of America (1849), Caroline May's The American Female Poets (1848), and Evert and George Duyckinck's Cyclopaedia of American Literature (1855). Like so many of the periodical editors who worked in or influenced the book industry, these anthology editors also had strong ties to the periodical world. Rufus Wilmot Griswold (1815–1857), for example, was a journalist, editor of Graham's Magazine, and Poe's editor and literary executor. Likewise, the Duyckinck brothers edited New York's Literary World, an innovative weekly founded in 1847 that offered detailed discussion of current books, and Read was a poet whose works appeared in both book form and in magazines such as Peterson's, the Atlantic Monthly, and Lippincott's. These anthologies were designed to appeal to popular tastes but nonetheless represent some of the first attempts to define American literary traditions.

Although they did not have the literary authority of major editors like Griswold and the Duyckinck brothers, editors of small local periodicals also influenced the public's reception of literature. Precisely because they were designed to provide general family reading, such periodicals—including local newspapers, small family magazines, even farming periodicals—often included some literary contents in their pages. While the editors of these periodicals are now largely forgotten, they no doubt participated in the public's knowledge and perception of nineteenth-century American literature.


Although the most famous author-editor relations in American literature would emerge in subsequent periods (Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel L. Todd's editing of Emily Dickinson's poems, for example, or Arthur Henry's handling of Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie), many editors were actively involved in shaping the works and careers of the authors with whom they worked. Editors' relationships with authors varied widely. Some authors complained of editors who mutilated their work and others portrayed their editors as patron saints. Many authors and editors had relationships in which business and personal matters intertwined. Correspondence between authors and their editors, for example, frequently shifts between contract negotiations and social invitations and friendly queries about spouses and children.

But not all author-editor relationships remained so friendly. Most notable—and most notorious—is Griswold's handling of Poe's works. Editor of Graham's Magazine for several years in the early 1840s and of the International Monthly Magazine in the early 1850s, Griswold was named Poe's literary executor when Poe died in 1849. Soon after Poe's death, Griswold published both an edition of Poe's works and a scathing biography. Most damaging to Poe's reputation was Griswold's handling—and forgery—of Poe's correspondence. Although Griswold's presentation of Poe influenced numerous subsequent biographies, scholars have exposed Griswold's forgeries and the overall self-serving nature of his work.

Other editors served writers far better. Fields, for example, convinced Hawthorne to abandon his plans for a collection of stories titled "Old Time Legends" and urged him instead to expand one of those legends, titled The Scarlet Letter, into a novel. E. D. E. N. Southworth (1819–1899), author of over sixty novels, likewise benefited from the work of her editor-publisher Robert Bonner, whom she described as a virtual savior. As Southworth recalled in a letter to Bonner: "The first day that you entered my little cottage, was a day, blessed beyond all the other days of my life. I had some genius in popular writing; but not one bit of business tact and my pen was the prey of whoever chose to seize it. . . . You have made my life prosperous and happy. Every improved circumstance around me, every comfort in my home, every attainment of my children, speak of your kindness and liberality to us" (CoultrapMcQuin, p. 50). Although Southworth's praise for her editor was unusually laudatory, it nonetheless attests to the power and influence of nineteenth-century editors.

See alsoThe Atlantic Monthly;Book Publishing; The Dial;Gift Books and Annuals; Harper's New Monthly Magazine; Literary Marketplace; Periodicals; Publishers


Secondary Works

Chielens, Edward E., ed. American Literary Magazines: The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Greenwood, 1986.

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Cyganowski, Carol Klimick. Magazine Editors and Professional Authors in Nineteenth-Century America: The Genteel Tradition and the American Dream. New York: Garland, 1988.

Daniel, Walter C. Black Journals of the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1982.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. From Fact to Fiction: Journalism and Imaginative Writing in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.

Greenspan, Ezra. George Palmer Putnam: Representative American Publisher. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Gruesz, Kirsten Silva. Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Guilds, John Caldwell. Simms: A Literary Life. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Joyce, Donald Franklin. Black Book Publishers in the United States: A Historical Dictionary of the Presses, 1817–1990. New York: Greenwood, 1991.

Lehuu, Isabelle. Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

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

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938–1968.

Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995.

Sedgwick, Ellery. The "Atlantic Monthly," 1857–1909: Yankee Humanism at High Tide and Ebb. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994.

Tebbel, John. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1972–1981.

Patricia Okker