A different Sesqui reflection – the fall of the Southern Literary Messenger

Posted on January 3, 2014 by


Recently, I purchased a copy of Volume 8 (1842), of the Southern Literary Messenger. I’ll have another post to discuss this, as well as other individual monthly copies I’ve purchased over the last few months.

Image of my copy of the SLM volume.

Image of my copy of the SLM volume.

Anyway, last night, while a steady snow fell outside, I sat next to a lamp and took time to finally read some of what Volume 8 offered. I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the fact that what I read once fell under the eyes of others who lived at that time, and that the man who owned this was actually one of many Northerners who subscribed to the SLM. I asked my daughters to come to the room and listen to some of the entries as I read them. The first thing that came to mind was… people don’t speak (or write) this way any more. Slang and jargon have changed how many folks speak. I recall, while working on my second masters degree, a professor who encouraged us to take-up reading the New Yorker or other well-written magazines. The thought being that reading these would improve our grammar… both as writers and speakers. It occurred to me, that no matter how challenging the SLM might be to read, it seemed to prove my professors point. Perhaps reading even this work, from 1842, would serve as a tool for improvement… though I suspect it might also serve to make me sound like a man outside my own time. 🙂

Nevertheless, being the New Year, I thought I should turn to the earliest editorial entry (from Thomas Willis White) for the volume. It read as follows:


Thomas Willis White

Thomas Willis White

This is the season of gratulation among friends – of good will among all. The first salutation of the day from the merry lips of thousands, has been “a happy new year.” And to each and all of our patrons we wish many and happy returns of the season. The new year is the time for reflecting upon the past, of making fresh resolves, and of renewing our calculations upon the future. This is an indulgence which the Messenger craves of those to whom it has made its monthly visits in their appointed regularity. It has now completed its seventh year. During this long and tedious time, we have struggled hard, rising up early and sitting down late, to make our Journal worthy of itself and its readers. Within this period, time and death have done their work – they have taken away many a staunch and valued friend; but time and a kind Providence have raised up others no less loyal and true. We too have had our trials – Planters and farmers have had, with the returning seasons, their seed time and harvest – bit we have had one long seed time of seven years. Our harvest is now ripe for the reaper; and we shall put in the sickle, to gather in and garner up the fruits of our Jacob-like term of labor; for within the last year our subscription list has increased largely, and fresh numbers are daily lengthening it out. Never has the circulation of the Messenger been as great as it now is. To continue in the favor which we have won, we shall relax no muscle, spare no exertion; and the better to serve those who are friends, we are now purging our subscription list of all those who patronize us only in name. The making up of each No. for the mail, after it comes from the binder, occupies alone nearly two weeks. The obligations between proprietor and subscriber are reciprocal, and an Editor can afford, no more than any other laborer, ‘to work for nothing and find himself;’ – we have tried it, and find it a hard task. In our literary catership, we have marketed at home and abroad; we have gathered up from the sea and the land, and have monthly spread before our readers the costly banquet; and we can now promise our readers a corps of correspondents in the old work and the new – such as no paper in the land can boast of. Onward is our course. If the Messenger has been good in times past, it shall be better in times to come. It has never had such a list of correspondents as those whose pens are now engaged to adorn its pages. To them, and not to us, belongs the honor of its excellencies; to them, we feel and acknowledge our obligations. And in returning our thanks for past favors, we beg them to have patience with us sometimes, and bear with any seeming neglect of their contributions. We have bushels of these now before us; and every mail adds fresh supplies to the pile. With the growing popularity of the Messenger, such has been the increase of contributors, that it would no keep one person constantly employed to overhaul MSS, and do nothing else. Therefore, if those who offer us pieces in a difficult hand, be occasionally kept a month or two in suspense as to their fate, they should not complain. Ours is now the oldest magazine of its king on this side of Mason & Dixon’s line. Near eight years ago, when we undertook its publication, we entered upon the work with many forebodings, for there was much to dishearten and to deter. The trial had been often made, and as often failed; until the belief became almost universal, that no publication of the kind could flourish or live at the South – and, though yet in the days of its youth, the Messenger is now the Patriarch of Southern Literature. It is the oldest magazine of the kind at the South. Within its time, it has seen kindred attempts spring up and perish. But, thanks to its patrons and friends, it has now taken root from one end of the Union to the other – and is beyond the vicissitudes of the times. It is the first successful diagram, by which the problem of Southern Literature has been demonstrated. And, as such, we send it out to the world each time of publication with livelier feelings of pride and pleasure.

It seems odd to read this, and consider the feeling of success White felt, in January 1842, when, 22 years later, the SLM was in its death spiral.

George William Bagby

George William Bagby

By January, 1864, White was long gone, and followed by a series of editors which finally led to George William Bagby, in 1860. Regretfully, under Bagby’s editorship, the nature of the SLM had changed to the point that it was no longer a literary journal (though it had also seen somewhat of a setback under the direction of Benjamin Blake Minor, from 1842-1847), but rather, gave off the appearance of a tool for Confederate propaganda. It was clear, during his tenure, Bagby’s enthusiasm for secession, and then his support for the Confederacy, drove what appeared in the SLM. In his parting editorial (the segment known as the “Editor’s Table”), in January, 1864, Bagby attempts to explain himself. What I don’t hear is the same bold pronouncements made in his earlier years… that, under his editorship, he wished to have “purely Southern articles … that smack of the soil.” Furthermore, for having “isolated” the SLM, and severed connections with the Northern literary establishment, he alienated a portion (how many, exactly, I don’t know) of his subscriber base. At best, considering all of what he said in his final editorial, I feel as if Bagby just wasn’t up to the task, and was distracted from doing justice to the advancement of Southern literature. I well realize that the war (ya think?) had something to do with the end of SLM, but I think Bagby failed the original mission… a worthy one at that… of the SLM for having used it as a propaganda tool.

Consider my observations when reading what Bagby said, as he closed-out his term as editor:

THE MESSENGER has passed into other hands. Of this the public has been apprized by the daily prints. It may not be generally known, however, that the new Proprietors, whose debut is made in the present number, are young gentlemen brim full of energy and ambition, with abundant means, and, above all, imbued with correct opinions in regard to the proper mode of developing a literary journal. They intend to make THE MESSENGER, both externally and internally, far more inviting than it has heretofore been; to pay for contributions; to advertise liberally; to secure agencies in all the principal cities and towns of the Confederacy; to enlist the best and brightest talent in the land; and while upholding a lofty standard of literature, so to enliven and invigorate the old magazine, as to enlist the favour and attract the admiration of all classes of society, except such as delight in productions intrinsically low and puerile. Their ideal is high, but at the same time popular, and it is their purpose to leave nothing undone which can ensure the public approval and establish at once their own reputation and that of the magazine.

They are prepared to do what their predecessors have not done and were not able to do; that is, to impart to the business management that energy and system without which no enterprise can or ought to prospect, and to give to the editorial department that undivided attention which a first class magazine imperatively demands. And her the former Editor and Proprietors think fit to say a word in self defence, as well from natural impulse as to forestall criticism detrimental to themselves, which the certain and rapid improvement of the magazine will be sure to provoke. Owning a printing establishment, the incessant engagements of which occupied nearly their whole time and means, the Proprietors could devote only intervals of leisure to THE MESSENGER. Long experience had taught them not to place too much confidence in the Southern demand for literature; they were unwilling to give up a certainty for an uncertainty. To them, as to others, a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Hence THE MESSENGER was not and could not be developed as it should have been. The risk of expanding and improving it, the Proprietors were unwilling to run. They were not unwise enough to sacrifice a paying business for one which might not pay, and which could be made to pay only by giving up one that was already paying. The circulation of THE MESSENGER was small, so small, and the cost of publication, latterly, so heavy, that the pay of the Editor was trifling, and that of contributors merely nominal. It may excite surprise , and will no doubt sound laughable when we state that, in times of peace, the Editor’s salary was but $300, – a pitiful sum, truly, which was increased during the past year to $400, or, allowing for present depreciation, just Twenty Dollars in coin, for editing the leading and, in fact, the only Southern magazine for a whole year.

This expose is made in no spirit of complaint, but simply to show how Southern literature was supported, and why THE MESSENGER languished. The Editor felt that no injustice was done him by the Proprietors, for they worked much more and much harder than himself, not only without remuneration, but with actual loss. It was optional with the Editor to retain or decline his position; but, for many reasons, he liked it and chose to remain, hoping for better things. Nevertheless, he was compelled to seek a support from other sources, and, finding it, could spare from his manifold occupations only a few hours to devote to that which should have engaged his whole time. Thus hampered, it was impossible to do full justice to himself or to the Magazine. Unable to compensate contributors sufficiently, oppressed with compulsory writing for other journals, he could no secure the articles he wished, even by the cheap remuneration of friendly correspondence. He who toils for the daily press has little chance to enlist sympathy and elicit articles by letter-writing. Under all these disadvantages, it is something to the retiring “management” that they have been able to keep alive THE MESSENGER during three years of terrible war, and in spite of a depreciated currency and a great scarcity of paper. This they think may justly claim, and they care to claim no more.

A better and brighter era has dawned on the Magazine, which for thirty years has stood in the front of Southern periodicals. New life is to be infused into it and a true system to be adopted. It will now succeed, because it has entered the path which leads invariably to success. There is no occasion to invoke the public favour in behalf of the new owners. The world looks kindly on all young aspirants for distinction, and withholds no favor from them so long as they deserve it. By their tact, taste, judgment, energy, they must stand or fall. In the present instance, they are going to stand. We have seen them, conversed with them, measured them, and make bold to predict success for them. A bright career, beset with some difficulties, it is true, is before them; but the time is not distant, when they will look back upon the revelations made in this, our parting editorial, as a curious and instructive legend of Southern literature in its early and struggling stages.

It remains only for the former Editor and Proprietors to make their bow. With best wishes alike for their old subscribers and contributors, and for the new Proprietors; with kindliest remembrance of the associations, past and present, which now terminate; and, above all, with profoundest aspirations for the success of that great and sacred cause on which all Southern literature depends, they bid their friends and readers, a cordial, hearty, hopeful farewell.

Even with a changing of the guard, and a renewal of hope, the Southern Literary Messenger would never regain the position it had once reached, as a respected depository of American literary works. The days of White, Poe, and Thompson* were long gone. The SLM had a mere five months remaining before it folded.

*These three editors contributed the most to proving the literary worth that existed in the South. Under Benjamin Blake Minor and George William Bagby, however, the quality of the SLM, as a true literary journal, was compromised… even undoing a lot of the strides made by White and Poe in the SLM‘s early years.