KnICH Magazine - Textual Archeology

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A KnICH Magazine Thread:

Digging for Gems in Old Magazines

Telling Textual Archeology I

The Gentleman's Magazine


Being a Good Writer

In January of 1731 there occurred an important event in the history of periodical literature: the appearance of the first issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine (The Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer, to give it its full title), a monthly “news, etc.” journal edited and published by Edward Cave (nom de plume “Sylvanus Urban”) out of the Clerkenwell district in central London.  In his introduction, Cave described the magazine's aim as "to give Monthly a View of all the Pieces of Wit, Humour, or Intelligence, daily offer'd to the Publick in the News-papers, (which of late are so multiply'd, as to render it impossible, unless a man makes it a business, to consult them all) and in the next place we shall join therewith some other matters of Use or Amusement that will be communicated to us." 

Edward Cave (1691–1754)

stipple engraving by Edward Scriven (1775-1841) after a portrait by Francis Kyte

Wikipedia, "Edward Cave"

The field of periodical publications was indeed a crowded one in those days (Cave gives the number as "no less than 200" publishing regularly in London alone in 1731), and it had a  tendency towards ephemerality; periodicals sprang up in great numbers, but many and perhaps the vast majority of them had only brief runs.  Not so The Gentleman’s Magazine, which would continue on until 1907, with sporadic publication thereafter until 1920.  In addition to its longevity, the publication is famous for having played a very key role in launching the writing career of Samuel Johnson.

Perhaps even more notably (and Samuel Johnson is very notable indeed), Cave’s publication was, as far as we know, the first periodical to refer to itself as a “magazine.”  That word, if we may put on the etymologist’s hat for a moment, derives from Arabic, from the verb “?azana”, meaning “to store up.”  From that verb came the noun “makhzan” (“storehouse”) and its plural “makhâzin”.  “Makhâzin” took root in Spanish and Italian via the Arab conquests and occupations in those regions, made its way into French in about the 14th century, and came thence into English in the late 16th.  Its original meaning in all of those European languages was the same as in Arabic; in fact, even now “magazzino” in Italian and “almacén” in Spanish mean “warehouse,” while “un magasin” in French is “a shop.”  In English, however, “magazine” now almost exclusively refers to a periodical publication, generally of the non-academic variety (we will leave aside the word’s late-19th century meaning of “the part of a gun where the ammunition is stored”).  Edward Cave clearly envisioned his new publication as a “warehouse” of knowledge, news, and notes, and he can hardly have imagined what effect his adoption of “magazine” for his title would eventually have on the English language.

As a “warehouse of knowledge,” Issue I of The Gentleman’s Magazine was a big one, running to 42 two-column half-sheet pages.  It began with a large selection of  brief summaries of editorial and “opinion” material from many other journals of the day, under the heading “A View of the Weekly Disputes and Essays in this Month,” and that was followed by a selection of “Poetical Essays” (i.e. poems) for the month.  Included here were several pieces dedicated to the memory of renowned actress Anna Oldfield, who had died in late 1730, and an “Ode for New Year’s Day” composed by English Poet Laureate Colley Cibber.

That concluded the first part of the first issue of the journal (the “Gentleman’s Magazine” section), and the second, the “Monthly Intelligencer” portion, began with a day-by-day recap of January’s news from England.  In that we learn that on the 8th of January, 1731, four men were arrested for printing and publishing an issue of The Craftsman, another periodical of the day.  The Craftsman was one of the journals summarized by Cave in the first section of his own magazine, and it appears to have been back operating again by the end of the month.  No surprise that it had run afoul of the law; the word "craftsman" in its title meant somebody who was too "crafty" and devious for his own or anyone else's good, and was meant as an insulting reference to Prime Minister Robert Walpole.  The Craftsman had high-level political enemies, in other words.

Following the news section came death, marriage, and appointment notices, along with other items of that sort, as well as a listing of the current commodity prices.  Then, after a couple of pages of news from foreign parts, the issue ended with a register of recently-published books and some advice on what should be done in terms of gardening in February (e.g. “Make a large Hot bed for forward Rhadishes, and Spring Carrots; they may be sown together, because the Rhadishes be drawn in March, whereby they will make room for the Carrots.”). Over time, The Gentleman’s Magazine would add more original and critical material, including the afore-mentioned Dr. Johnson’s contributions, but the rough format of its inaugural issue held for the first few years of publication.

So here we are, having just pushed the KnICH Magazine canoe out into the water, considering a similar launch the better part of 300 years ago.  And lo!  We get a message from the depths of the past, and from that first issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine.  In his first section, Cave summarizes the January 23rd, 1731, issue of the Weekly Register, and therein is included a lovely “Description of a good Author.”  Per Cave’s summary, the anonymous writer of the piece:

“Proceeds to the Description of a good Author; says, his principal End, in occasional Writings, should be to entertain the publick innocently and genteely; to insinuate Knowledge in the Disguise of Amusement, and trifle the World into Virtue and Good Manners: he should consider every reader as a Critick and a Gentleman, and be fearful of offending either; points out what a Writer should observe, who would recommend himself and entertain the world: i. e. An important Subject, a clear and expressive Method, a flowing and natural Stile, Imagination, and Judgment, Truth and Impartiality, modesty in his Images, pity for the failings of human Nature, and Endeavours to amend ‘em.  He should think himself a Son of the Publick, and be an Example of the generous Spirit he would recommend; he should be able to trace the Passions thro’ all their Disguises; have Knowledge in his Head, and good Humour in his Heart; he should be an Enemy to Vice, but a Friend to all mankind.”

Ok, the language is not so gender-inclusive, hailing as it does from 1731, but that quibble aside, this passage is about as good a description of what we are aiming for here at KnICH as one may find (and I was indeed thrilled to find it).  All four elements of our titular tetrad (“Knowledge, Imagination, Compassion, and Humour) appear there, either mentioned verbatim or closely described, and on the whole it expresses beautifully our aims and hopes as writers, and for this project.  It's not entirely perfect; I do not know that we wish particularly to trifle the world into good manners (into virtue?  Definitely, for a given meaning of “virtue”), and we may perhaps differ from the writer of that piece over the need to be fearful of offending the critics and gentlemen.  However, we also note that words like “offend” and “manners” can undergo semantic shifts over time (“magazine,” for example, v.s.), and we adjust our interpretation accordingly; we also note that the advice not to insult one's readers is good advice.  The great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) wrote of the dialogic function of literature and of writing, whereby written works “speak to” and are “spoken to” by other works; at the risk of grossly over-simplifying his ideas, I would say that as a writer myself I could perceive that dialogue loud and clear in considering the above passage.   We will strive to live up to its spirit, even though that will doubtless seem like a work in progress at times.

I would dearly love to find the full text of that Weekly Register article summarized by Edward Cave, or Sylvanus Urban, in the January 1731 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine (if you know where it might be found, please do drop us a line:  However, I must acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude to the happy archivists at the Hathi Trust Digital Library, who have digitized and posted The Gentleman’s Magazine.  You may peruse Issue I here (the excerpt on being a good author is on Page 13, in the left-hand column). Doubtless we will pay Mr. Cave, or Mr. Urban, more visits in the future.

Next article: Francis Assikinack and the Canadian Institute

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