Century Magazine

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Known primarily for its lavish wood engravings, extensive historical series, and innovative American fiction, The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine was one of the most important periodicals during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Often classified as a family house magazine because of its association with a reputable publishing firm, the Century may be compared favorably with other prominent magazines of the period, including the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and Scribner's Magazine. Although not much evidence is available about the actual readers of the magazine, those who corresponded frequently with it included a high proportion of relatively well-educated (but not necessarily wealthy) people, particularly ministers, married women, teachers, newspaper editors, reformers, and public officials. Century readers were no doubt drawn to the magazine's moral and aesthetic elevation of taste, which the editors carried out by printing only those contributions that met their high standards of quality and respectability. Although the Century's intended readership was primarily American, the monthly was distributed in many other parts of the world, including Great Britain, France, and Canada. Readers and critics praised the monthly for both upholding journalistic standards and fostering a refined taste among readers.


The Century's interest in cultivating American taste was rooted in its institutional history. Josiah Gilbert Holland, Roswell Smith, and Charles Scribner founded the magazine in 1870 as Scribner's Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People. Rather than tying the magazine entirely to Charles Scribner's publishing firm, Smith, who became the business manager, and Holland, who became the first editor, set up a separate parent company—Scribner and Company—to run the magazine. In exchange for control of 40 percent of the company's stock, Charles Scribner lent his name to the project and the subscription list of his previous magazine, Hours at Home; Holland and Smith secured the remaining 60 percent. In addition to acquiring Hours at Home, Scribner's bought out the foundering Putnam's Monthly. These acquisitions provided Scribner's not only with subscription lists but also with the rosters of former contributors and some of their unprinted manuscripts. Putnam's had purposely printed the works of only American writers, and Hours at Home had an intensely American flavor as well.

The American emphasis of the earlier magazines must have appealed to Holland, who was intensely patriotic, because Scribner's quickly developed a rather American policy in both its editorial practices and its content. Although Holland attempted to secure some British and European writers for the magazine, he had little success because the other established American magazines—especially Harper's Monthly—had already secured most of the celebrated writers. As the periodical achieved greater influence, it began to seek out new writers from the South, most of whom did not have established ties to northern magazines. Scribner's also developed a reputation as particularly American because of its beautifully illustrated travel articles, historical series, and biographical essays, many of which focused on American subjects or discussed foreign locales or issues from an American perspective. By the mid-1870s Holland was using the editorial department "Topics of the Time" to address the nation about American concerns from a religious and moral standpoint. Around the same time, the magazine's assistant editor, Richard Watson Gilder, assumed more control of Scribner's because of Holland's failing health.

In 1881 Gilder became editor in chief of the magazine, which also took on a new name: the Century. Under Gilder, the periodical maintained the moral aspect of its enterprise while emphasizing more of an aesthetic dimension. The new name of the magazine signaled important changes in both its financial base and its cultural work. In the late 1870s, the magazine's parent company, Scribner and Company, had begun to clash with the book-publishing firm Charles Scribner's Sons, primarily because Scribner and Company had been publishing books with a separate imprint. When Charles Scribner's Sons objected to the use of the Scribner name to publish books the firm had not authorized, Roswell Smith consolidated Scribner and Company's stock and negotiated with Charles Scribner's Sons, eventually buying the shares that had represented Charles Scribner's control of the original magazine company. The agreement with the Scribner book company required that the magazine enterprise be renamed, and at Gilder's suggestion Smith renamed the enterprise after the Century Club, a prominent New York club for artists and writers located in the building next to Gilder's home on East Fifteenth Street. The magazine's parent company was thus called the Century Company, while the magazine became The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, and the entire operation moved to elaborate offices in a new building on Union Square. These institutional changes and Gilder's keen editorial guidance resulted in prosperity during the 1880s, when the Century expanded from a circulation of about 125,000 in 1881 to a peak of 250,000 by the middle of the decade. Although it failed to maintain that circulation when less-expensive weekly and monthly magazines emerged in the early 1890s, the Century's circulation remained considerable, eventually subsiding to about 125,000 by 1900.


The magazine printed many nonfictional series that contributed significantly to readers' understanding of history, politics, and social reform. In the early years of the magazine, for example, Smith convinced Holland to commission the journalist Edward King to lead a $30,000 expedition into the South to learn about southern life. The result was King's fourteen-part series "The Great South" (1873–1874). Illustrated with more than 430 engravings originally sketched by J. Wells Champney, the series not only increased interest in the South and strengthened Scribner's southern readership, it also led to the discovery of southern writers of local color fiction, some of whom became important contributors. Other notable series followed, including biographical articles such as Edward Schuyler's "Peter the Great" (1880–1881), John Hay and John Nicolay's "The Life of Lincoln" (1885–1890), and George Kennan's investigation of exiled revolutionaries in Russia in "Siberia and the Exile System" (1887–1891). In addition to series, the Century used editorials and essays to promote many other reform efforts, addressing issues such as international copyright, tenement housing, charity administration, and environmental conservation.

The magazine's most popular historical series, "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War," occupied about a third of every monthly issue from November 1884 through November 1887. Illustrated by Joseph Pennell and Winslow Homer, the series included not only contributions from seasoned veterans, such as Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, but also essays and letters by well-known literary figures, such as Mark Twain, Lew Wallace, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Brander Matthews. The series was especially popular with the Century readership because it included letters and supplementary materials from readers who had firsthand knowledge of the conflict. As they did with so many of their other projects, Century editors encouraged readers to use the Civil War series in both homes and local cultural clubs to elevate taste through reading, writing, and discussion activities.


The elevation of taste was an especially crucial factor in the literature and literary criticism printed by the magazine. Although the magazine printed some poetry in nearly every monthly number, it was best known for its serialized fiction. Because of Holland's influence in the 1870s, most of the magazine's early fiction was sentimental and didactic. In her serialized novels such as That Lass o' Lowries (1876–1877) and Haworth's (1878–1879), for example, the English-born writer Frances Hodgson Burnett tugged at readers' heart-strings. Under the pseudonym "Saxe Holm," Helen Hunt Jackson contributed more than ten short stories to Scribner's Monthly, all composed in a sentimental mode. Holland himself contributed his popular didactic novels Arthur Bonnicastle (1872–1873), The Story of Sevenoaks (1874–1875), and Nicholas Minturn (1876–1877). In editorials, Holland typically made sure that readers understood that only fiction that served as "a royal vehicle for the progress of the moral" earned a novelist genuine aesthetic distinction (p. 735).

As Gilder gradually assumed more control of the enterprise in the mid-1870s, he shifted the emphasis away from a strict moral focus to more of an aesthetic aim. Gilder had keen editorial instincts, and his recruits quickly became some of the most noteworthy writers and artists to contribute to periodicals. His first recruits for Scribner's Monthly were writers of local color fiction, especially from the South. For example, one of the magazine's most important contributors, George Washington Cable, was discovered during King's southern expedition. Largely because of the magazine's influence and Gilder's skill as an editor, Cable's literary talent blossomed, resulting in stories published in book form as Old Creole Days (1879) and in his serialized novels The Grandissimes (1879–1880) and Dr. Sevier (1883–1884). Gilder mentored many other regional and local color writers, including Bret Harte, Edward Eggleston, Mary Hallock Foote, Frank R. Stockton, Hamlin Garland, Sarah Orne Jewett, Thomas Nelson Page, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Joel Chandler Harris.

Given the overly moralistic bent of the magazine in the early 1870s and its reluctance to print ground-breaking fiction in the early twentieth century, modern critics and scholars tend to characterize the Century's cultural work as "staid" and "genteel." Although these labels certainly capture the conservative nature of the magazine and its persistent efforts to elevate taste, they fail to represent the innovative side of the Century's fictional offerings during its prime in the 1880s, when it printed a number of important new stories and novels by American realists. Unlike the didactic and sentimental novels that had been printed in Scribner's Monthly, realism tended to focus on ordinary, commonplace subjects and to represent them in direct, detailed description, often without providing explicit moral guidance for readers. Although Gilder and his editorial staff were careful about the novels and other contributions they chose to print, they also avoided direct censorship of authors. Gilder thus attempted to find literary works that would both challenge readers' desire for innovation and reinforce their regard for refined and moral conduct. During the 1880s Gilder and his staff worked with three writers whose serialized novels later became part of the literary canon: William Dean Howells's A Modern Instance was serialized in the magazine in 1881–1882 and The Rise of Silas Lapham in 1884–1885; excerpts from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (modified somewhat to make it more respectable) appeared in 1884–1885 and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889; and Henry James's The Bostonians appeared in 1885–1886. Gilder also fostered writers whose realist novels in the early twenty-first century are neglected or even out of print, running serializations of Burnett's Through One Administration (1881–1882), Howells's A Woman's Reason (1883), Hay's The Bread-Winners (1883–1884), and Robert Grant's An Average Man (1883–1884).

Sometimes the Century's fostering of a particular writer involved it in considerable controversy. For example, in the concluding number of Howells's novel A Modern Instance in October 1882, the magazine printed an editorial defending Howells's depiction of divorce, which, despite the claim of the editors, had been morally complex and ambiguous. The very next month the Century printed Howells's appreciative essay "Henry James, Jr.," in which he argued that he, James, and other American realist writers were at the forefront of literary innovation in English fiction. Because he had characterized Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, and other prominent British writers as "writers of the past," both Howells and the Century came under fire in the British and the American press for tastelessly promoting Howells's literary efforts and for inappropriately providing readers with a story that portrayed the social problem of divorce. If anything, the controversy surrounding Howells spurred more interest in the magazine and, along with the popular Civil War series, led to a significant increase in circulation. Other realist novels from this period motivated actual readers to write indignant letters to the magazine, as they did when they protested what they believed was the unfair representation of the working class in the Century's anonymous serialization of Hay's antilabor novel The Bread-Winners. Instead of suppressing criticism, the magazine usually provided fair coverage to both sides of any controversy. The Century nevertheless always attempted to harness the responses of readers, critics, and the press to its larger agenda of elevating taste.

Although the Century continued to print American fiction in the early twentieth century, it refused to print literary naturalism and modernism, in part because Gilder and his staff believed those works were inappropriate for the magazine's refined readership. Like many other family house magazines of this period, the Century rejected work by Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, choosing instead to print sentimental novels by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, historical romances by S. Weir Mitchell and Irving Bacheller, and more local color fiction by Garland, Cable, and Israel Zangwill, among others.


After 1900 the magazine declined in its influence, especially following Gilder's death in 1909. Robert Underwood Johnson, who had served as associate editor, succeeded Gilder as editor in chief; he maintained the magazine's standards of elevated taste, even though circulation continued to drop. After Johnson resigned in 1913, the Century was subsequently edited by one editor after another, each with a different plan for the magazine: Robert Sterling Yard (1913–1914), Douglas Z. Doty (1914–1918), Thomas R. Smith (1919), W. Morgan Shuster (1920–1921), Glenn Frank (1921–1925), and Hewitt H. Howland (1925–1930), the last editor of the magazine until it was bought out by the Forum in 1930. Each of these editors tried various strategies for preventing the demise of the magazine, but none succeeded in reviving either the Century's influence or its program of elevation. By 1929 the Century's circulation had dropped below twenty thousand; Howland attempted to keep the magazine from declining further by issuing it as a quarterly, but his efforts failed.

The lasting contribution of the Century to American cultural life may be found in the imperative of elevation embodied in its many print artifacts that, through other forms and methods, still may be found in homes and classrooms—the modern-day versions of the novels, essays, historical series, and wood engravings that first appeared in the pages of the magazine. Although the magazine's project of elevation ultimately failed, the complexities of a taste that is both national and cosmopolitan, refined yet somewhat popular, and exclusive but intended for all readers make the story of the Century an important part of the history of American print culture. For without the Century's participation in the advancement of an ideal of culture, late-nineteenth-century art, literature, and history would lack some of the finest examples of what was once regarded as genuine refinement.

See alsoCivil War Memoirs; Periodicals


Primary Works

Gilder, Richard Watson. Letters of Richard Watson Gilder. Edited by Rosamond Gilder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916.

Holland, Josiah Gilbert. "Fiction." Scribner's Monthly 15, no. 5 (1878): 734–735.

Johnson, Robert Underwood. Remembered Yesterdays. Boston: Little, Brown, 1923.

Secondary Works

Bond, J[ames] Arthur. "'Applying the Standards of Intrinsic Excellence': Nationalism and Arnoldian Cultural Valuation in the Century Magazine during the 1880s." American Periodicals 9 (1999): 55–73.

Chew, Samuel C. "The Century Company." In Fruit among the Leaves: An Anniversary Anthology, edited by Samuel C. Chew, pp. 67–152. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950.

Gabler-Hover, Janet. "The North-South Reconciliation Theme and the 'Shadow of the Negro' in Century Illustrated Magazine." In Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith, pp. 239–256. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

John, Arthur. The Best Years of the Century: Richard Watson Gilder, "Scribner's Monthly," and "Century Magazine," 1870–1909. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. Vol. 3. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938. See pp. 457–480.

Scholnick, Robert J. "Scribner's Monthly and the 'Pictorial Representation of Life and Truth' in Post–Civil War America." American Periodicals 1 (1991): 46–69.

Smith, Herbert F. Richard Watson Gilder. New York: Twayne, 1970.

James Arthur Bond