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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

June 2, 2020: Mass MediaStudying: William Leggett and Early Republic Journalism

[On June 1st, 1980, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired its first broadcast. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy cable news and four other significant evolutions in American mass media, leading up to a special post on one of the best scholarly studies of media and the Revolution!]
On four New York-based periodicals through which the early 19th century author (about whom I first learned in Gore Vidal’s Burr) helps illustrate an evolving era in American media.
1)      The Critic: After stints at Georgetown College and in the U.S. Navy (out of which he was court martialed for dueling!), Leggett (1801-1839) returned to his hometown of New York to try his hand at journalism. He worked as a theater critic for the New York Mirror and an editor for the very short-lived Merchants’ Telegraph, and then in 1828 started his own literary journal, the Critic: A Weekly Review of Literature, Fine Arts, and the Drama. Critic was also short-lived, as Leggett was only able to publish it through June 1829. But it, like all of these early-career ventures of Leggett’s, reflects the active and exciting nature of New York and American media and publication in this 1820s moment, a community and era in which established titans like Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant worked alongside young writers like Leggett, Edgar Allan Poe, and Lydia Maria Child.
2)      The New York Evening Post: It was Bryant who helped Leggett move into the next, more stable stage of his journalistic career. In the late 1820s Bryant was editor-in-chief of the New York Evening Post, a newspaper that had been founded as a broadsheet by Alexander Hamilton in 1801 and that by this period was one of the nation’s preeminent daily papers. Bryant invited Leggett to write for the Post in 1829, and over the next few years Leggett contributed a number of literary reviews and political editorials; he became so closely linked to the paper that when Bryant traveled to Europe through much of 1834 and 1835, he made Leggett the editor in his absence. Compared to the other periodicals I’ll highlight here, the Post has endured as thoroughly as any American periodical (indeed, it describes itself as the nation’s longest-running paper), and it also reflects the way in which, in Early Republic America, virtually every prominent creative author (and writer of any kind, including political ones like Leggett) was closely linked to one or more periodicals.
3)      The Plaindealer and The Examiner: Leggett’s outspoken political opinions on Jacksonian America, as well as his generally antagonistic nature (remember that court martial for dueling!), eventually got him and the paper in sufficient trouble that in 1836 Bryant returned from Europe and removed Leggett as editor (and from the Post’s roster entirely). Over the next two years Leggett founded two more periodicals of his own, the Plaindealer in 1836 and the Examiner in 1837; both were intended to offer him space to share his voice and perspective freely, but both struggled to find an audience and folded within a few months. The resulting poverty didn’t help Leggett’s longstanding health problems (he had suffered from yellow fever while in the navy), and in 1839, just 38 years old, he died. While these failed papers likewise reflect the activity and variety of Early Republic periodicals, they also illustrate the era’s limits, perhaps especially for writers with strong, controversial perspectives like that of William Leggett.
Next mass media post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other mass media moments or movements you’d highlight?

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