Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

William Pannapacker

Literary Societies

Philadelphia’s literary societies typically have combined the social with the intellectual and artistic, with ongoing shifts in the balance between the two. As descendants succeeded the founding members, they prized the relationships and traditions handed down over generations, perhaps more than the original literary pretext of the organization.

Philadelphia has often been described as a “clubby city,” which means that it has had a long tradition of voluntary associations. Literature has played a substantial role in the formation of those organizations since the early eighteenth century. Philadelphia, perhaps more than any other major American city, long nurtured a pragmatic, Enlightenment culture that emphasized science, medicine, engineering, and exploration that sustained a tension between writing as a form of art and writing as a means of communication.

[caption id="attachment_26555" align="alignright" width="238"]a black and white photograph of Walt Whitman as an elderly man. He sits in a chair with legs crossed. Poet Walt Whitman spent his later years in Camden, New Jersey. Though his pioneering free verse poetry was not always accepted by Philadelphia’s traditionalist literary clubs in his early years, in the latter half of the nineteenth century he was a guest of some of the city’s more progressive clubs. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The Quakers of Philadelphia, like the Puritans of Boston, favored a plain style of writing. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)—a product of both cities—heeded his father’s warning that poets are generally beggars. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), for example, struggled to earn a subsistence before the emergence of local and national publishing industry in the decades before the Civil War. Through much of the nineteenth century, groups that supported literature were primarily for social elites, and they typically encouraged admiration and imitation of European literary writers, particularly English ones, thus impeding the development of new literary forms and subject matter. In that context, poets such as Walt Whitman (1819-92) struggled against an entrenched “Genteel Tradition,” but they gradually found support among more progressive literary societies created at the end of the nineteenth century that included women and more individuals from outside the circles of Philadelphia gentlemen. The interaction between those different visions of literature and the composition of the groups that supported them, characterized the city’s literary culture well into the twentieth century.

Some members of Philadelphia’s founding generations considered themselves citizens of the international “Republic of Letters.” James Logan (1674-1751), secretary for William Penn (1644-1718), was a polymath whose books eventually made up the core collection of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Logan sought out gifted young men, like the naturalist John Bartram (1699-1777), and gave them access to his collection and sometimes introduced them to his European correspondents. One of those protégés was Benjamin Franklin, then a young printer, who in 1727 created the “Junto.” A free-thinking, mutual-aid society, the Junto met on Friday evenings to discuss politics, philosophy, science, and strategies for professional advancement. Each member had to produce an essay every three months to be critiqued by the other members. Some members had literary interests; many were bibliophiles. The Junto created the first subscription library in the colonies in 1731; it eventually became the Library Company of Philadelphia. They also helped to found the American Philosophical Society in 1743 and the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) in 1749. The Junto lasted for about forty years and inspired other groups like it, making Philadelphia’s ordinary citizens more literate and bookish, if not always more literary.

Expansion of Literary Writing

[caption id="attachment_26553" align="alignright" width="261"]A black and white illustration of Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson. Writer and poet Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson presided over the first literary salon in the city, the mixed-gender “Attic Evenings” held in her home, Graeme Park. She published nearly thirty poems from 1776 until her death in 1801, often under the pseudonym Laura. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Until the early national period, literary writing, in general, remained the province of the highly educated, Anglophile, and typically loyalist elites. The first provost of the College of Philadelphia, William Smith (1727-1803), became the mentor for a coterie of writers and artists that included Thomas Godfrey Jr. (1736-63), Nathaniel Evans (1741-67), Francis Hopkinson (1737-91), Joseph Shippen (1732-1810), James Sterling (1701-63), and Benjamin West (1738-1820). In 1757, William Bradford (1719-91), with Smith as editor, published the American Magazine, or Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies. Smith’s “society of gentlemen” contributed a substantial amount of poetry, as well as political and religious essays, and attempted to represent the colonies favorably to the parent country. Also in this era, Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson (1737-1801) presided over the first literary salon in the American colonies. Graeme’s “Attic Evenings” included women and men, at her family estate, Graeme Park in Horsham, beginning around 1767. Graeme had been engaged to Franklin’s son William (c. 1730-1813) and had met the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-68) as well as King George III (1738-1820). Fluent in several languages, Graeme kept travel journals and wrote poetry, translations, and satire, typically using the pseudonym “Laura.” Her gathering included writers, musicians, and political figures drawn from Philadelphia’s elite society, including Evans, Hopkinson, Rush, and West. Graeme’s salon faded with onset of the American Revolution and the confiscation of loyalist property afterward.

The first decades of the nineteenth century witnessed significant growth in the number of social groups with literary interests, and participation became more democratized as literary writing began to become an occupation as well as an avocation. Joseph Dennie (1768-1812) convened the Tuesday Club, composed of genteel amateurs dedicated to the appreciation of “polite and elegant literature,” but it also included a few of the nation’s first professional literary writers. Dennie founded the Port Folio magazine in 1801, editing it as “Oliver Oldschool” until his death in 1812. Drawing upon this group for poems, essays, satires, and translations, the Port Folio during those years was Anglophile, Federalist, and anti-populist. In later years, Walsh hosted his own high-minded soirées involving the upper crust of Philadelphia society, including Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), president of the Second Bank of the United States; Bishops William White (1748-1836) and John Cheverus (1768-1836); and Nathaniel Chapman (1780-1853), the founding president of the American Medical Association. Conservative in politics and taste, though more Francophile than Anglophile, and Catholic, Walsh edited The American Quarterly Review, favoring regional authors drawn from his extensive social connections but also including national figures such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and George Bancroft (1800-91). Walsh left Philadelphia in 1835 when he was appointed consul general in Paris, where he assembled a new group of American expatriates and travelers. In the 1840s, George Rex Graham (1813-94), editor of Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art also gathered writers around him, but he cultivated aesthetic tastes such as romanticism that were at odds with those of Dennie and Walsh.

[caption id="attachment_26558" align="alignright" width="207"]A black and white painting of Caspar Wistar as an elder Physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar ran a Saturday-night intellectual soirée at his home beginning in 1811. After his death, his friends continued to hold “Wistar Parties” through the nineteenth century. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Significantly different in the composition of its guests, and in the topics of their conversations, were the Saturday-night gatherings sponsored by Caspar Wistar (1761-1818) at his house at Fourth and Prune (now Locust) beginning around 1811. Wistar was then a famous professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania and the fourth president, after Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), of the American Philosophical Society. Originally, the group mainly consisted of his academic colleagues, but it eventually broadened to include a wider swath of Philadelphia society, including some members of the coteries of Dennie and Walsh. The latter’s partial deafness, some joked, was feigned to excuse him from conversation in such challenging company. Initially, their interests were inclined towards the sciences, but they gradually expanded to include a wider range of interests, including literature. After Wistar’s death, a group of friends continued the “Wistar Parties,” somewhat irregularly, until the Civil War when many social clubs were suspended; it was revived in 1867 as the Saturday Club. A prominent economist, the younger Carey assumed a leadership role in the intellectual life of the city, hosting what came to be called the “Carey Vespers” at his mansion at 1102 Walnut Street. His interests included music, theater, and literature, as well as vigorous round-table discussions of politics with some of the powerful figures of the Civil War era, including Archbishop William Henry Elder (1819-1904) and General (later U.S. president) Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85).

Literature as Academic Subject

By the middle of the nineteenth century, literature began to emerge as a field of academic study. Philadelphia’s Shakspere [sic] Society, perhaps the oldest continuously meeting group of its kind, was founded in 1851 during a period in which “The Bard” became a touchstone of high-cultural legitimacy in the United States. The founders, like those of nearly all such societies, were socially elite members of the professional classes. They are said to have been inspired by the dramatic readings of actress Fanny Kemble. Horace Howard Furness (1833-1912) was the founding member. He was a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, editor of a variorum edition of Shakespeare’s works, and son of Unitarian minister William Henry Furness and brother of the architect Frank Furness (1839-1912). H.H. Furness Jr. (1865-1930), also a Shakespearean, continued his father’s service. The society entertained visiting scholars and papers were delivered and critiqued by the members. Exclusively male, they met at the houses of members and, for a period, at the socially elite  Philadelphia Club at Thirteenth and Locust. For more than 150 years, the society preserved a tradition of fellowship and, increasingly, literary appreciation as academic literary scholarship has become more specialized and less accessible to nonprofessionals.

[caption id="attachment_26559" align="alignright" width="250"]a black and white photograph of the Rittenhouse Club Headquarters, a four story building with a flat roof, white limestone facade, and twin bay windows Literary giants like Henry James found a second home in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Club. The club was founded in 1874 as the Social Arts Club and by the early 1900s was one of the most respected literary clubs in the city. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Following a similar course, the Social Art Club, begun in 1875, became primarily a Gilded Age gentleman’s society, attracting University of Pennsylvania faculty members, along with surgeons and railroad executives, when it was renamed The Rittenhouse in 1888. The novelist Henry James (1843-1916) described The Rittenhouse in The American Scene (1907) in the context of Philadelphia society’s “consanguinity,” its complex familial interconnections that were reflected, as much as by interests, in the city’s club memberships. Business talk was prohibited among the leather chairs, books, and paintings of the Beaux-Arts mansion at 1811 Walnut Street; their interests remained more literary, artistic, and antiquarian than the  Philadelphia Club or the Union League on South Broad Street. In addition to James, their guests included literary luminaries such as William Dean Howells (1837-1920) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82). Membership declined in the twentieth century. The Rittenhouse became less exclusive, the clubhouse was sold in the 1990s (the façade remains), and members then shared a building at 1519 Locust Street, with the Acorn Club, founded in 1889, one of the oldest surviving women’s clubs in the United States with an interest in literature, music, and the arts. Similar in many ways, and likewise founded in 1875, was the exclusive Penn Club, based at 720 Locust Street. The purpose of the organization has been to bring authors, artists, politicians, and scientists of distinction into association with their members. It has hosted receptions for speakers, such as Dion Boucicault (c.1820-90), Ulysses Grant, William Pepper, Carl Schurz (1829-1906), and Bayard Taylor (1825-78).

[caption id="attachment_26554" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white illustration of the Women's Pavilion. The large building has rounded roof lines and a prominent cupola. The roof is adorned with five flags. The New Century Club originated in the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The pavilion was built in response to women being refused independent exhibition space in the Main Exhibition Building. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The decades after the Civil War saw a flowering of women’s literary societies that maintained a more politically progressive agenda and a venue for literary writers who were excluded from the conservative men’s clubs. The New Century Club, founded in 1877, grew out of the activities of Women’s Pavilion at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Sarah Catherine Fraley Hallowell (1833-1914), a journalist for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, was the founder and first president. The club’s interests were eclectic, including science, literature, and art, as well as municipal reform and women’s suffrage. Initially based at 1520 Chestnut Street, the club grew to more than four hundred members by the time it occupied an Italian Renaissance building at 124 S. Twelfth Street, designed by Minerva Parker Nichols (1860-1949); it was demolished in the 1970s. Members took a special interest in the conditions of working women, forming a second organization called New Century Guild in 1882 with a separate building standing at 1307 Locust Street. Around 1887, the New Century Club also sponsored a Browning Society, one of many in the United States, dedicated to the study and discussion of the work of Robert (1812-89) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-61). The organization helped to establish the status of women as literary authors worthy of study like Shakespeare.

Expansion of Clubs

[caption id="attachment_26557" align="alignright" width="238"]A black and white photograph of Agnes Repplier. She wears an ostrich feather boa and metal framed eyeglasses. Agnes Repplier, an essayist and biographer, served as the first female president of the Contemporary Club. In addition to her work with the Contemporary Club, she was a member of the Acorn Club and a founding member of the Cosmopolitan Club, a social club for women. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The New Century Club was politically moderate compared to the Contemporary Club founded about a decade later in 1886 partly by its own members such Emily Sartain and Florence Earle Coates (1850-1927). The University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-99) served as the club’s first president. Other founders included the ophthalmologist and literary biographer George M. Gould (1848-1922) and the socialist writer Horace Traubel (1858-1919), who became the leading disciple of Walt Whitman (1819-92). The author of Leaves of Grass (1855-92) was one of the first writers invited to speak at the club in 1886. One member recalled liking Whitman, despite his plain clothes—and reputation as “the immoral author of an indecent book”—better than Henry James, who was a disappointment, apart from the introduction provided by Agnes Repplier (1858-1950), who served as the Contemporary Club’s first female president and later became the doyenne of Philadelphia’s literary society. For decades, the club hosted monthly lectures. In its time, from the 1880s to 1920s, the Contemporary Club was the leading venue for progressive literary and political conversation, but it, too, declined, as the founding members died, until it ceased meeting in 1950s.

In the wake of Whitman’s visit, members of the Contemporary Club, particularly Traubel and Brinton, sought to raise funds to support the poet who had been living in nearby Camden, New Jersey, since 1873, after suffering a stroke. Their comrades included the psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902) and lawyer Thomas Harned (1851-1921). On May 31, 1889, the group rented a hall in Camden to celebrate Whitman’s seventieth birthday, and the testimonials of the evening were published in the same year as Camden’s Compliment to Walt Whitman. After the poet’s death in 1892, they gathered in Philadelphia on his birthday and named themselves the “Walt Whitman Reunion Association.” A jeweler, John H. Johnston (1837-1919), served as chairman. The group met again in New York in 1893, and then in Philadelphia in 1894, renaming themselves the “Walt Whitman Fellowship: International” with Brinton as president. Other members included the naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921), “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll (1833-99), and Philadelphia publisher David McKay (1860-1918). From 1895 to 1900, the fellowship alternated meetings between Boston and Philadelphia, then, from 1901 to 1919, resumed alternating with New York. The fellowship eventually had more than two hundred members; many were even more self-consciously radical and bohemian than those of the Contemporary Club. By the time of Traubel’s death in 1919, when the group ceased meeting, they had published 123 “Walt Whitman Fellowship Papers” and became the parent organization for several other Whitman-related literary societies. 

[caption id="attachment_26552" align="alignright" width="295"]a color photograph of a medal with the likeness of Walt Whitman pressed into it The Franklin Inn Club issued this commemorative medal on the one-hundredth anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth. Whitman spent his later years in Camden, New Jersey, and was a figure of veneration for several of the area’s literary clubs. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

If Philadelphia club society was fading by the end of the Gilded Age, there were still a few more notable organizations that emerged in its twilight. The Writeabout Club, founded in 1897, lingered until the 1950s, hosted weekly gatherings to present short stories and poems. However, Philadelphia’s most well documented literary society from that time is the Franklin Inn. Inspired by Boston’s Tavern Club, it was founded in 1902 by members of the University Club, who formerly met at 1316 Walnut Street. S. Weir Mitchell served as the Franklin Inn’s first president. Members once had to be the author of a book that was not about medicine or law, and many Philadelphia-based authors have been members up to the early twenty-first century. A formal dinner is held each year on Benjamin Franklin’s birthday, as well as regular luncheons and evening events, at the building the Franklin Inn has occupied since 1907: 205 S. Camac Street. The inn also has played host to the Philobiblon Club, founded in 1893, for bibliophiles, book collectors, and dealers.

[caption id="attachment_27383" align="alignright" width="300"]color photo of a woman taking part in a story slam Groups that sponsor story slams and poetry slams are among the latest incarnations of Philadelphia's tradition of literary societies. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Most of the literary societies that flourished in the nineteenth century gradually declined in the next century as new forms of entertainment came to occupy Americans’ leisure time, and as Philadelphia’s social elite became less regionally-identified. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, in addition to the activities of survivors such as the Franklin Inn, frequent literary events could be found: speakers and symposia at libraries, colleges, and universities, as well as poetry slams at neighborhood bars. Even in the absence of so many literary societies, the increasing scale and diversity of Philadelphia suggested that social activity involving literature was more extensive in the twenty-first century than at any time in its history, and that that activity was more inclusive of the residents of the region. In the era of the Internet, the formation of common-interest groups became more rapid, more specialized, and more globally dispersed than ever before. But, at the same time, the desire of people to come together to express their experiences in literary ways, however that is defined, remained a characteristic feature of life in Philadelphia, not just in formally established clubs, but in any place where people gather socially.


Notable Literary Club Members

The Junto: John Bartram (1699-1777), Joseph Breintnall (died 1746), William Coleman (1704-69), Thomas Godfrey (1704-49), Hugh Meredith (1697-1749), William Parsons (1701-57), Nicholas Scull (1687-1761), and Philip Syng (1703-89), among many others.

The Tuesday Club: Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), Horace Binney (1780-1875), Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), Thomas Cadwalader (1779-1841), John Ward Fenno (1778-1802), Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842), Charles Jared Ingersoll (1782-1862), John Blair Linn (1777-1805), Richard Rush (1780-1859), and Robert Walsh (1784-1859).

Wistar Parties: The antebellum gathering included the Bache descendants of Benjamin Franklin, William Henry Furness (1802-96), Isaac Israel Hayes (1832-81), Isaac Lea (1792-1886), Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), Thomas Say (1787-1834), and William Tilghman (1756-1827), as well as the publisher Mathew Carey (1760-1839) and his son Henry (1793-1879).

Walsh’s Circle: Willis Gaylord Clark (1808-41), Reynall Coates (1802-86), Thomas Dunn English (1819-1902), Fanny Kemble (1809-93), Morton McMichael (1807-79), Charles Jacobs Peterson (1818-87), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), and Richard Penn Smith (1799-1854).

The Rittenhouse: Members included George Boker (1823-90), Thomas DeWitt Cuyler (1854-1922), the Furness brothers, Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), William Pepper (1843-98), J. William White (1850-1916), and Owen Wister (1860-1938).

The Penn Club: Early members included the president of the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, Wharton Barker (1846-1921), George Boker (1823-90), George W. Childs (1829-94), Anthony Drexel (1826-93), and H. H. Furness (1833-1912).

The New Century Club: Early members included leading women in the arts such as Elizabeth Croasdale (1858-1935) and Emily Sartain (1841-1927), head of the School of Design for Women, as well as abolitionist Eliza Sproat Turner (1826-1903) and physician Clara Marshall (1847-1931).

The Contemporary Club: Notable speakers included H. H. Furness, Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), Brander Matthews (1852-1929), S. Weir Mitchell, Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), Robert E. Peary (1856-1920), Joseph Pennell (1857-1926), Samuel Pennypacker (1843-1916), Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), Wu Tingfang (1842-1922), Carl Van Doren (1885-1950), Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), Talcott Williams (1849-1928), and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), when he was a professor at Princeton.

Walt Whitman Fellowship: Members included writers such as Max Eastman (1883-1969) and John Erskine (1879-1951) and artists such as Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) and Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946).

The Writeabout Club: Members included Francis Churchill Williams (1869-1945), Edward Robins (1862-1943), Edward W. Mumford (1868-1941), Rupert S. Holland (1878-1952), E. Lawrence Dudley (1879-1947).

The Franklin Inn: Exclusively male until 1983, the “Innmates” included Edward Bok (1863-1930), Charles Heber Clark (1841-1915), H. H. Furness, Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), John Luther Long (1861-1927), R. Tait McKenzie (1867-1938), John Bach McMaster (1852-1932), Langdon Mitchell (1862-1935), Ellis Paxon Oberholtzer (1868-1936), Arthur Hobson Quinn (1875-1960), J. William White (1850-1916), and Owen Wister (1860-1938).

The Philobiblon Club: William Pepper (1843-98) was the first president, followed by Pennypacker. Others members included A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), the literary historian Robert Spiller (1896-1988), and Edwin Wolf II (1911-91), librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Franklin.


William Pannapacker, who holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Harvard University, is the DuMez Professor of English at Hope College. He is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship (2004) and numerous articles and reviews on American literature and culture.

Magazines, Literary

[caption id="attachment_26632" align="alignright" width="204"]Ladies Home Journal cover from October 1895 Posters and advertisements helped the Curtis Publishing Company and The Ladies’ Home Journal reach a broader audience, and the magazines also contained advertisements for domestic products aimed at the consumer. Carrying advertisements allowed The Ladies’ Home Journal to charge less than some of its competitors. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia-based writers and publishers produced literary magazines as early as the 1740s, and, through the nineteenth century, the city was home to a succession of influential publications that supported many local authors and contributed to the establishment of a national literary culture. However, Philadelphia’s greatest prominence in literary publishing was achieved through a series of mass-circulation magazines for middle-class readers, especially women, from the 1830s through the first half of the twentieth century. Gradually, the influence of Philadelphia was diminished by the concentration of publishers elsewhere, primarily in New York, and by competing forms of mass entertainment such as radio and television. Through all those changes, however, Philadelphia sustained a remarkable wealth of societies and academic institutions that fostered the creation of lesser-known literary magazines, reflecting the communities that produced them. In the twenty-first century, with the rise of the Internet, Philadelphia writers gained the ability to exert a global influence unconstrained, as in the past, by the limits of printed publication.

Literary magazines, though they may include a variety of contents, typically are oriented towards the appreciation of artful writing. For most of their history, they were sold at newsstands and bookstores or sent through the mail by subscription. Wider circulation depended on reductions in printing costs and upon the creation of distribution networks. Their gradual, somewhat halting, emergence in the eighteenth century coincided with the growing demand for them created by an expanding middle class with aspirations towards social mobility and the education and resources needed for leisure reading. Literary magazines developed from a culture of genteel amateurism, with authors who were typically lawyers, ministers, and doctors pursuing an avocation, towards a profession that, at its peak, built publishing empires that employed thousands of workers. Perhaps more important, literary magazines helped to create a national culture and, at the same time, to challenge its dominant values.

Philadelphia’s first literary magazines in the eighteenth century struggled to find an audience and did not last long. The Gentleman’s Magazine, published in London beginning in 1731, was a model for Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) to follow, a decade later, in his experimental General Magazine and Historical Chronicle for All the British Plantations in America. Sold in print shops, the General Magazine was a miscellany of republished essays, historical sketches, dialogues, and controversies. Not immediately profitable, it only lasted six issues. William Bradford (1719-91), the nephew of Franklin’s old rival Andrew Bradford (1686-1742), made another attempt in 1757 with The American Magazine, or Monthly Chronicle for the British Colonies. Edited by William Smith (1727-1803), the first provost of the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), The American Magazine gathered a coterie of largely anglophile writers, including Francis Hopkinson (1737-91), Joseph Shippen (1732-1810), and Thomas Godfrey Jr. (1736-63), who wrote the first drama by an American author to be performed on stage, The Prince of Parthia (1767). The American Magazine mixed politics and poetry, and sought to explain the New World to the mother country; it only lasted for twelve issues, but it was a notable early flowering of the genre.

Port Folio

As the nation established itself in the early nineteenth century, literary magazines became more able to attract readers and sustain themselves. The Port Folio, founded in 1801 by Joseph Dennie (1768-1812) and edited under the pseudonym “Oliver Oldschool,” was a landmark in American literary history with a peak circulation of about two thousand, substantial for its time. It ran as a weekly until 1809, then mostly as a monthly until 1827. Initially, the Port Folio published poems, satires, translations, and literary essays; short stories and critical reviews came later in the series. Dennie was a Boston-born, Harvard-schooled lawyer—and, some would say, a fop—who sent annual birthday greetings to King George III. The Port Folio’s contributors often were drawn from the Tuesday Club, composed of young professionals from prominent local families: Nicholas Biddle (1786-1844), Horace Binney (1780-1875), Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810), Thomas Cadwalader (1779-1841), John Ward Fenno (1778-1802), Joseph Hopkinson (1770-1842), Charles Jared Ingersoll (1782-1862), John Blair Linn (1777-1805), Richard Rush (1780-1859), and Robert Walsh (1784-1859). Other notable contributors included John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), William Dunlap (1766-1839), Thomas G. Fessenden (1771-1837), and Royall Tyler (1757-1826).

Federalist in outlook, neoclassical in taste, imitative of Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74), and dismissive of romantic poets such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the Port Folio also opposed American populism, regarded the American and French Revolutions as illegitimate, and accused Noah Webster (1758-1843) of promoting the decline of the English language with his American dictionary. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was a favorite target for the Port Folio’s ridicule. In 1803 Dennie was charged with seditious libel; he became less incendiary after his acquittal in 1805. Dennie died in 1812, and after a transition period the Port Folio was edited by John E. Hall (1783-1827). During those years, The Analectic Magazine, edited from 1813 to 1815 by Washington Irving and then by Thomas Isaac Wharton (1791-1856), a former associate of Dennie’s, also published a miscellany of increasingly original book reviews, translations, and naval biographies that became known for its engraved illustrations. It lasted until 1821, supported by its own circle of genteel amateurs. Meanwhile, the Port Folio, always struggling financially, never reclaimed the vitality and influence that it formerly held. It turned nationalistic, accelerated by the War of 1812, became supportive of more self-consciously American writers, and began to include engravings, all changes suggestive of what lay ahead for literary publishers.

Several Philadelphia literary magazines navigated the turbulent decades from the 1820s to the 1850s by becoming more commercially savvy: hiring full-time editors, purchasing more original content, nurturing professional writers, and orienting their publications toward developing markets at the national level. Even so, literary publishing remained a risky business. Different approaches were tried, but most failed to last long. Some took the high road. The American Quarterly Review, edited by Robert Walsh (formerly of the Tuesday Club) from 1827 to 1837, was sometimes described by later scholars as “dull” or “establishment.” Modeled on the famous Edinburgh Review and Boston’s North American Review, though favoring more regional authors, The American Quarterly Review addressed a wide range of subjects—politics, poetry, history, biography, science, and fiction, including writers such as Brown, Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)—with the ponderous severity of critical professionals, including George Bancroft (1800-91), George Ticknor (1791-1871), and James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860). The Review’s standards were derived from older European models, opposed to romanticism, and there were feuds between reviewers over the newly ascendant writers appearing in New York magazines such as William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) and N. P. Willis (1806-67). When Walsh retired from the editorship in 1836, his son quickly reversed that perspective, embracing the romantics. Still, The Review closed within a year, having done much to make Philadelphia seem like a conservative backwater relative to New York and Boston.

Burton's Gentleman's Magazine

At nearly the same time, in 1837, Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine began its three-year run, edited by William Evans Burton (1804-1860), a British-born actor, and assisted for a time by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). Burton’s covered art, literature, theater, and sports, as well as providing advice to young men. Poe wrote severe criticism of his literary contemporaries and contributed “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “William Wilson” among other original works. In 1841 Burton’s merged with a successful magazine primarily for women called the Casket: Flowers of Literature, Wit, and Sentiment, a publication started in 1826, that had been bought by George Rex Graham (1813-94). Together, Burton’s and the Casket became Graham’s Lady’s and Gentleman’s Magazine, which eventually achieved a national circulation of about forty thousand. Graham’s published poetry, biographical sketches, book reviews, literary criticism, and short stories, including Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mask of the Red Death.” Unlike most literary magazines, Graham’s paid well and attracted American contributors such as Bryant, Cooper, Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-94), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82), Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865), and Willis. Abolitionists were not included; Philadelphia courted a readership in the South. Unlike The American Quarterly, Graham’s was accessible to more casual and increasingly female readers, much to Poe’s displeasure. It also pioneered the use of original engravings, including some by John Sartain (1808-97), who had his own publication, Sartain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art, edited by Caroline Kirkland (1801-64) and Reynell Coates (1802-86); it ran briefly from 1849-52 and drew upon many of the same authors as Graham’s, most notably Poe (who provided his poem “The Bells” and a critical essay, “The Poetic Principle”).

[caption id="attachment_26637" align="alignright" width="300"]A Trade Card advertising the Godey's Lady's Book Advertised as “the Oldest Lady’s Book in America,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in Philadelphia by Louis A. Godey, circulated from 1830 to 1878. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

By the mid-nineteenth century, a design had emerged for the most successful magazines, aimed primarily but not exclusively at the middle-class female reader, with a wide range of literary content, including the original work of new and established American writers in many genres and an increasing quantity of visual material, most notably colored fashion plates. Louis Antoine Godey (1804-78) achieved an even larger scale of success than Graham: Godey’s Lady’s Book, a monthly launched in 1830, was the most widely circulated magazine in the United States before the Civil War. An essential component of that success was Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879), who edited Godey’s from Boston from 1837-41, then came to Philadelphia in 1841 to be more directly hands-on, and remained editor until 1877, as the publication grew from a circulation of 10,000 to 150,000. Like Graham’s, it paid well, and, beginning in 1845, Godey’s was the first to provide copyright protection. It championed the work of women writers such as Kirkland and Sigourney, publishing them, and many others, with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), Holmes, Irving, Longfellow, Paulding, Poe, William Gilmore Simms (1806-70), Bayard Taylor (1825-1878), and Willis. Godey’s was not self-consciously highbrow, nor was it aesthetically avant-garde or politically radical. It was not directed primarily at male readers, but it published some of the leading authors of its time to the largest audience of its time. Godey’s had a major impact on U.S. cultural practices—helping to invent Thanksgiving and Christmas observances—and it pioneered the construction of what came to be called middlebrow culture. However, its apolitical stance during the Civil War harmed its circulation (Sarah Jane Lippincott, “Grace Greenwood” [1823-1904], was fired for having anti-slavery views), and it increasingly could not compete with better-illustrated publications such as Harper’s.

After Hale’s departure, the magazine lost even more ground to local rivals, such as Peterson’s Magazine, which Graham had launched in partnership with Charles Jacobs Peterson (1818-87) in 1842 to compete more directly with Godey’s by offering similar content at a lower price. Peterson’s (before 1855 it was Peterson’s Ladies’ National Magazine) also contained fashion plates and was an important publisher of women authors such as Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), Francis Sargent Osgood (1811-50), and E.D.E.N. Southworth (1819-99). During the Civil War, Peterson’s overtook Godey’s, with a circulation of about 165,000 in the 1870s, but, by the 1890s, both had lost much of their audience and relocated to New York, where they were absorbed by other magazines.  

Cultivating Writers at Lippincott's

[caption id="attachment_26633" align="alignright" width="226"]A Lippincott's Magazine cover from August Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education was a monthly magazine published from the late 1860s until 1916. Lippincott’s focused primarily on literary content and offered readers works of various styles, including poetry, short stories, and literary criticism. To grab the attention of potential readers, the Lippincott’s covers used bright colors and incorporated images of people reading the magazine in informal settings. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

A similar fate befell Philadelphia’s Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, which first appeared in 1868, published by Joshua Ballinger Lippincott (1813-86) and edited by John Foster Kirk (1824-1904) and, for a time, by William S. Walsh (1854-1919), the grandson of Robert Walsh, editor of The American Quarterly. From its inception, Lippincott’s aimed for a higher level of literary distinction than Godey’s and Peterson’s; it invested less in visual content (dropping it entirely in 1885) and competed more directly with The Atlantic, Boston’s premier literary magazine and arbiter of taste. It also was more friendly to writers of the American South and Middle Atlantic. Publishing serialized fiction, short stories, travel writing, poetry, and literary criticism, Lippincott’s cultivated a new generation of still-recognizable American writers, including Willa Cather (1873-1947), Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), Henry James (1843-1916), Emma Lazarus (1849-87), Sidney Lanier (1842-81), S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914), Frank Stockton (1834-1902), and Owen Wister (1860-1938), as well as English writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), and Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Perhaps more than any other Philadelphia publication, Lippincott’s achieved a lasting reputation as a literary magazine of the first rank, nationally, but in 1914 it, too, moved to New York, which had emerged as the indisputable capital of U.S. publishing, where it became McBride’s before it was merged with Scribner’s in 1916.

Less intellectual than Lippincott’s but financially far mightier, lasting well into the twentieth century, was Curtis Publishing, whose enormous Beaux Arts building, built in 1910, continued to preside over the southwest corner of Independence Square for more than a century. The company originated during the 1876 Centennial, when Cyrus H. K. Curtis (1850-1933) moved a newsmagazine called The People’s Ledger from Boston to Philadelphia, where printing was cheaper. The Ladies' Home Journal, first edited by his wife, Louisa Knapp (1851-1910), started as a supplement to Curtis’ Tribune and Farmer. By 1886 it was an independent magazine. It had at least 270,000 readers when Knapp was succeeded by Edward W. Bok (1863-1930) in 1889. Bok soon became their son-in-law and the most influential editor in the United States; by 1903, the Ladies' Home Journal had more than a million readers. Genteel, progressive, and elevated in a middle-brow way, Bok was a pioneer in the use of advertising and attracted writers such as Marion Crawford (1909-88), Hamlin Garland (1860-1940), Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), William Dean Howells (1837-1920), Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909), Mark Twain (1835-1910), James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), Kate Douglas Wiggin (1856-1923), and even Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), who became Bok’s friend. A few, such as Howells, Jewett, and Twain remained prominent in American literary history for realism, local color, and humor.  Bok also employed famous illustrators such as Charles Dana Gibson and Howard Pyle. The Ladies' Home Journal changed American domestic architecture, coining the “living room” and promoting suburban development. By 1919, when Bok retired in the wake of women’s suffrage, which he opposed, the Journal had more than two million readers, more than any other magazine up to that time. Circulation continued to grow, but the next half century marked a gradual decline in status for the Journal. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) became a contributor, so did Edna Ferber (1885-1968), but it increasingly seemed out of step with the times. It was something one’s elders read, and the movies and television seemed more engaging to more people. Curtis sold it in 1968, and, after multiple redesigns, it continued as an unpretentiously popular magazine. The Ladies' Home Journal, like Godey’s and Peterson’s, had many male readers, and part of its decline owed something to the stricter segmentation of the market for readers by gender.

The Saturday Evening Post

[caption id="attachment_26791" align="alignright" width="240"]A Saturday Evening Post cover by artist Norman Rockwell Believed to have first been published in 1821, the Saturday Evening Post was produced in Philadelphia by the Curtis Publishing Company that operated at Walnut and South Sixth Streets. The Post’s covers often carried the work of painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell, who drew this cover for the July 31, 1920 issue, featuring a family taking a drive in a motor car. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The Saturday Evening Post had a long local history, possibly going back to 1821, but Curtis Publishing made it nationally popular as a more masculine or at least family-oriented counterpart for The Ladies' Home Journal in 1897. It serialized The Call of the Wild by Jack London (1876-1916) in 1903 and later became known for covers by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). It eventually published writers such as Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), Agatha Christie (1890-1976), William Faulkner (1897-1962), F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), John Steinbeck (1902-1968), and Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), but, by the end of the 1960s, when it, too, was sold, the Saturday Evening Post had become a byword for the “square” and “corny” among the younger generations of readers. Philadelphia-based magazine publishers never again attained the national status and influence that they held between the 1850s and the 1950s, but the literary culture of the city continued to grow and, in many respects, to reclaim its origins in smaller publications and coteries supported by academic institutions and private societies. Penn Monthly, first edited by Robert Ellis Thompson (1844-1924) in the 1870s, continued in the early twenty-first century as an online publication, The Penn Review, affiliated with the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania, with an extensive program in support of creative writing and scholarship. Nearly every college and university in Philadelphia, especially those with Master of Fine Arts programs, launched its own literary magazine: Crimson and Gray at Saint Joseph’s University, StoryQuarterly at Rutgers University in Camden, and TINGE Magazine at Temple University represented the genre. Many of those magazines had long histories of print publication, but increasingly they published only online. Beyond the many publications sponsored by institutions of higher learning, the literary scene in Philadelphia grew to include several notable journals, such as The American Poetry Review, founded in 1972, which became the most widely circulated poetry magazine in the U.S., also publishing literary essays, translations, fiction, reviews, and interviews. Other publications included Painted Bride Quarterly founded in 1973, the Philadelphia Poets Journal, founded in 1980, and Schuylkill Valley Journal and the Mad Poets Review, both launched in 1990. Philadelphia Stories began publishing local writers in 2004, and Apiary first appeared in 2009.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the Internet disrupted publishing in ways that recalled the upheavals of the mid-nineteenth century. Many magazines closed or abandoned print entirely, but literary culture continued to expand and develop new audiences, mediums, and styles. At the same time, digital archives made the literary history of Philadelphia, in all its complex forms and intersecting communities, more accessible than ever for readers and scholars.

William Pannapacker, who holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Harvard University, is the DuMez Professor of English at Hope College. He is the author of Revised Lives: Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Authorship (2004) and numerous articles and reviews on American literature and culture.

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