Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



Social Stories: the Magazine Novel in Nineteenth-Century America
Patricia Okker
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2003.
$37, 50, 224 pages, 0-8139-2240-2.

Gerardo Del Guercio.
Independent Researcher

Patricia Okker’s Social Stories: the Magazine Novel in Nineteenth-Century America outlines the development and history of the American print industry. Okker centers her study on the careers of the following writers: Jeremy Belknap, Ann Stephens, William Gilmore Simms, Martin R. Delany, Rebecca Harding Davis and William Dean Howells. The purpose of Okker’s text is to provide readers of American print culture with a concise study of

how magazine novelists addressed audiences who differed from one another in terms of race, religion, class, and gender, Social Stories offers a narrative of the American magazine novel that emphasizes its direct engagement with social, political, and cultural issues of the day, which are themselves seen as central to the American magazine novel. [5]

My review will demonstrate how the American serialized novel was meant to create an American identity by unifying its citizens through a national fiction. Ironically enough, the goal that magazine editors had in mind of using their publication to unify America actually led to the downfall of the serialized novel because the casual reader and literary elite could not come to a consensus of what constituted a quality book. What ultimately occurred was that the print industry separated into two markets with each undercutting the other’s profits.

The magazine novel of the nineteenth century became the form that allowed readers to experience a text in unison. Subscribers would receive weekly or monthly installments including a new chapter of whatever novels the periodical was carrying at the time. The relationship between readers, writers and editors formed an “imagined community” [16] that would share a common fictional world that readers could metaphorically apply to their everyday lives. Okker demonstrates how a collective literary community would never be capable of operating ideally. By criticizing E.D.E.N. Southward for her style and tardiness, the Saturday Evening Post proved how “author/editor struggles are not unique to magazine novels, of course, but their intense pacing of publication often meant that writers did not know about cuts or changes until after installments appeared, when they had no choice but to accept the editorial revisions” [23]. Readers were therefore not privy to every facet of publishing life for the reason that editors sought to maintain a certain professional façade.

Patricia Okker’s Social Stories labels Jeremy Belknap’s The Foresters as the first American magazine novel. Belknap’s book is ideal to examine under this context because “its thematic focus on unifying the disparate colonies underscores its relevance to the contemporary political situation” [29-30]. It is therefore imperative that creative writers base their themes on current political and national issues. Belknap situates his text on the events of the summer of 1787 when deliberations of the federal convention in Philadelphia convened to discuss the American Constitution. The Columbian Magazine contracted Belknap along with several other writers to establish a magazine that would address significant current issues. I argue that the nineteenth century American magazine became successful because they would provide readers with the foundation on how to form “a federal government and national identity” [29]. Although Belknap’s novel never directly alludes to the proceedings of 1787, its implications are felt nonetheless. Belknap’s subtly allowed readers of the Columbian Magazine to understand the impact that politics had on their lives.

Ann Stephen’s was one example of how publications like the Lady’s Book serialized their contents to attract a diverse audience. Remaining either neutral or reporting on both sides of an event would increase a magazine’s circulation by exploring various interpretations of the same affair. Stephens proved to be a significant author whose writing stressed a link between women’s fashion and expression. Women were encouraged to create a bond with one another based on fashion as a mode of representation. A woman’s dress and posture would connote a certain cultural message depending on the situation. Figure 5.5 on page sixty-six depicts Jenny Lind and her female companion outside of a ball. Lind and her companion are wearing clothes of the latest style implying that women modernize with changing times. A correlation involving women, fashion and modernization creates a feminist text that advocates how “[c]lothing and dressing, then, like reading and music, are important components of their shared lives and of women’s culture” [71]. Stephens is an apt writer to include in a study like Okker’s because it was likely the first serialized novel founded on creating female unity by using fashion as a medium to express women’s place in the political scene. Women were to use clothing to form bonds with upper-class women who would introduce them to men of power. Once these women gained the favor of fashionable men, they would seek initiation into the world of those who controlled their community.

The Compromise of 1850 caused a conflation of politics and print culture. Patricia Okker notes “specialization coupled with the fractured political climate of the 1850s created an environment in which context had heightened and often politically charged meanings for magazine novelists" [79]. William Gilmore Simms was one author that was effected by political turmoil. Simms believed that regionalism would produce a unified South that was to maintain its traditional practices despite pressures imposed by the North. Simms expressed a popular Southern sentiment by advancing that the North must voluntarily submit to Confederate demands. Martin R. Delany argued a similar point with the exception being that solidarity would come about once the Black American community united to enforce its basic Human Rights. Although Simms and Delany's views differed with regard to racial equality, both suggested that unity is the primary factor for every powerful state.

Most sequentially published magazines experienced extremely hard economic conditions during the early part of the American Postbellum era. Remaining politically sensitive became important during the Reconstruction period since “all writers faced the difficult question of how to respond to the war” [112] because many readers had lost family, friends and wealth during the war. Writers, like their readers, were forced to determine which career path would best benefit their financial and personal goals. Rebecca Harding Davis managed to support herself by writing independently for commercial and elitist audiences. The ideal publications for Davis were Peterson’s and the Atlantic since they were “the two magazines [that] offered Davis very different opportunities: At the Atlantic, Davis received the attention of the nation’s literary elite; from Peterson’s she received higher wages and access to an audience as much as five times that of the Atlantic” [115]. Dividing her work between two publications permitted Davis to earn a suitable living as an author and express her work to her target audience.

Patricia Okker’s Social Stories concludes with a discussion of William Dean Howells and the modern magazine novel. During the 1870s and 1880s, magazines opted to publish novels in their entirety in single-issue format or by printing single chapters with an introductory essay explaining the text’s by-line. The intent of such formal changes was to encourage readers to purchase the whole novel from its original publishing house. Editors also began selling magazines below cost of production to lower their prices and increase subscription rates. Howells’ novel A Modern Instance has come to be defined as the first modern serialized book due to its use of “realism as a direct alternative to mass culture” [137]. Okker chooses Howells’ A Modern Instance to demonstrate that realism became the preferred genre of a growing reading public that favored texts whose themes and storylines shift with time. Howells’ themes of divorce and journalistic corruption were social issues that plagued the United States during the Gilded Age. The novel condemns rather than praises its modern reading audience through its protagonist Richer who “is willing to defer moral judgment in order to give readers material they are willing to buy” [144]. Howells believed that editors felt obliged to sacrifice a quality product to satisfy an audience who had economic power over the publication’s success.

American print culture is still an important area of study that explains many postmodern tastes in popular culture. Soap operas, reader’s digests, miniseries, multi-volume movies and cartoons are all predecessors of magazines novels. Although television and radio allow their audience to join and rejoin their stories after several interruptions, their goal is similar to that of the serialized novel in that each selects a target audience that will infer its own interpretations on the subject matter. Patricia Okker’s Social Stories: the Magazine Novel in Nineteenth Century America debates the notion that the casual and the literary booklover be separated by providing readers of American print culture with a study that associates the two types of audiences. The serial form has come to define the manner that postmodern spectators share their views, on say, the topic of the previous night’s television miniseries. Whereas nineteenth century readers would discuss the latest development of their favorite novel, postmodern television audiences do the same, not only with literature, but also at the water cooler the morning after their favorite miniseries has aired.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.