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Scribner's

Scribner's

In their heyday Scribner's magazine (1870-81) and Scribner's Monthly (1887-1942) gave their largely middle-class readership beautiful illustrations and outstanding popular fiction and nonfiction. Scribner's, named for a New York publisher Charles Scribner, was founded by Scribner, Roswell C. Smith, a lawyer, and Dr. Josiah Gilbert Holland, a writer of moral tales and poems scorned by critics but popular with young Americans. From the start the men imbued the magazine with their shared Christian outlook, giving it a tone of religious uplift rare among general interest periodicals. As part of their mission they sought to extend art and literature to readers outside the big cities. Promising that Scribner's would be "profusely illustrated," Holland proposed it as a "democratic form of literature" for people who lacked time for books. After Scribner died in 1871, Holland became the magazine's guiding light. He emphasized a sort of moderate Christianity, favoring temperance but not prohibition, for instance. "Orthodoxy saves nobody; Christian love and Christian character save everybody," he once wrote.

Spurred by improvements in printing, engraving technology, and other industrial advances, the number of American magazines nearly doubled to 1,200 in the five years after the end of the Civil War. Intended as competition for two older, high-quality rivals, Harper's Monthly and the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner's published more nonfiction than both. Early on it caught the public's eye with its excellent illustrations and varied articles, many aimed at women. The magazine published much sentimental fiction and poetry and many nonfiction articles on children, gardening, fashion, and the like.

Holland and his assistant editor, Richard Watson Gilder, gradually took a more daring tack later in the 1870s. Walt Whitman's sensual poems offended Holland, and the editor often disparaged the poet in print and even rejected a poem he submitted for publication. Nevertheless, Holland published an article that described Whitman as one of America's leading poets, although "too anatomical and malodorous." Scribner's thus became one of the first conventional magazines to recognize Whitman as a great American poet. The magazine also began printing more realistic fiction, including stories by Henry James and Bret Harte. John Muir contributed nature pieces. Illustrators included artists like Winslow Homer. Circulation rose steadily, and by 1878 Scribner's was earning a solid profit. It owed part of its financial success to its policy of accepting non-literary advertisements, making it one of the first good quality magazines to do so.

Following a dispute with Charles Scribner's Sons, the editors and part-owners of Scribner's separated from the publishing firm and changed the magazine's name to the Century Illustrated Monthly in 1881. Holland died after editing just one issue. Gilder took over and led the Century to even greater success than its predecessor had enjoyed, nearly doubling its circulation in the 1880s with retrospectives on the Civil War written by leading participants like William T. Sherman and Ulysses Grant. The Century continued to flourish until 1900, when it began a long, slow decline brought on partly by competition from cheaper muckraking magazines. By 1930, when it had cut back to quarterly publication with a circulation of just 20,000, it was merged with Forum magazine and its name disappeared.

In 1887, meanwhile, Charles Scribner's Sons started Scribner's Monthly. Under its first editor, Edward L. Burlingame, the new Scribner's continued its namesake's tradition of publishing fine illustrations and articles. Burlingame gained an early advantage over his main competitors, Harper's, the Atlantic, and the Century, by offering the new Scribner's at 25 cents an issue, or three dollars a year, compared to the standard 35 cents an issue or four dollars a year. Publishing works by Stephen Crane and Rudyard Kipling, among others, he overtook his rivals in circulation in the 1890s. Important early nonfiction articles like Charles Francis Adams' "The Prevention of Railroad Strikes" and Jacob A. Riis' "How the Other Half Lives" examined labor problems, urban poverty, and other social issues.

The magazine weathered a severe economic depression and challenges from new and cheaper competitors like McClure's in the 1890s, and continued to prosper. Scribner's largely disdained the muckraking stance most magazines took in the early years of the twentieth century. It continued to concentrate on art, running lavishly illustrated articles with outstanding full-color pictures by N. C. Wyeth, among others. It also printed more outstanding fiction as well as popular travel and adventure features, including a number of articles by Theodore Roosevelt describing his exploits in Africa, South America, and elsewhere. The magazine published fiction by Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Wolfe. It reached its peak circulation of more than 200,000 around 1911 and began to decline thereafter.

Dogged by its old-fashioned appearance and the onset of the Great Depression, Scribner's suffered a severe slump in the 1930s. Alfred Dashiell, who became editor in 1930, attempted to revive its sagging fortunes by running more left-leaning political articles intended to appeal to young intellectuals. He also continued the magazine's strong literary tradition, publishing stories by Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, Erskine Caldwell, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nevertheless, he lost many long time readers and did not gain many new ones. By the time he resigned in 1936 to take a job at Reader's Digest, circulation had fallen from 70,000 to 43,000.

An English professor and magazine analyst named Harlan Logan became editor in 1936 and redesigned and enlivened the magazine. Although he doubled circulation and cut financial losses, his efforts fell short and Scribner's ceased publication in May of 1939. Esquire acquired its subscriber list and the title was merged with that of another magazine. The resulting Scribner's Commentator met an inglorious death in 1942 after one of its staff pleaded guilty to taking payoffs from the Japanese government in exchange for publishing propaganda favoring United States isolationism.

—Daniel Lindley

Further Reading:

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: 1885-1905. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1957.

Peterson, Theodore. Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1964.

Tebbel, John. The American Magazine: A Compact History. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1969.

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