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The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion


Selections from the Dial

"Literary Criticism in the Dial"

"The chief importance of the transcendental club was that in it was originated "The Dial," the first really independent and original journal published in this country. Excellent monthlies and quarterlies had been published previously, but they were imitative of European ideas and methods, and they had no fresh literary merit. In a large degree such periodicals as "The North American Review" and "The Christian Examiner," both of them then published in Boston, were academic in taste, pedantic in method, and wanting in literary insight. "The Dial" did not wholly escape these limitations, but it took a new course, and one that was not only original, but initiative of better things in the future. It was its novelty, its freshness of tone, its romantic temper, its boundless hope and courage, that caused it to be criticised and jeered at generally by the more conservative literary journals. It was not conformatory enough to the old methods to secure it a general recognition on the part of the public; and it was condemned because it was not understood or appreciated."
George Willis Cooke, I, 56

Although Transcendentalism was not a clearly defined movement, or even a name that was adopted at the time, what was clear, even before the club began meeting, was the desire of many people in the Boston area, primarily writers and ministers, who espoused the "new ideas" to publish and find other like-minded Americans. There were no periodicals, however, interested in their literary efforts, finding them too tainted by their philosophy and religion. So it was natural that the Transcendental Club soon focused its efforts on creating a new kind of journal, which had been the dream of Alcott and Emerson for several years.

But who would be the major editor of such a journal? Emerson was the natural choice, being best known, but he refused because he was preparing a winter lecture series and a volume of essays. Frederic Henry Hedge, another prime mover, was in Bangor, Maine and feeling somewhat estranged from transcendental ideas. George Ripley was simply too busy. Margaret Fuller, in spite of her work on the "Conversations," however, was interested, especially since she had not been able to publish many of her writings. Emerson did find a publisher, James Brown, who agreed that Little and Brown could market it with their books as well as offer subscriptions.

Meanwhile, Emerson was becoming more aware of possible contributions from his expanding circle of friends. He and Fuller kept encouraging each other whenever they began to doubt the success of such a journal. It became clearer that the dissenting theological views within the Transcendental Club ensured that the journal would be primarily literary. After a great deal of discussion about the role and character of the Dial, the name it carried by 1840, and Fuller's depression and pessimism about its possible success, the project was launched, with Emerson taking a much stronger role than he had expected. Fuller had written an Introduction which he rewrote, finding it too negative and defensive. With the Introduction completed, the new journal was announced on May 4, 1840, in a prospectus written by George Ripley, which would appear on the wrapper of the first volume, published in July.

The purpose of this work is to furnish a medium for the freest expression of thought on the quesitons which interest earnest minds in every community.

It aims at the discussion of principles, rather than at the promotion of measures; and while it will not fail to examine the ideas which impel the leading movements of the present day, it will maintain an independent position with regard to them.

The pages of this Journal will be filled by contributors, who possess little in common but the love of intellectual freedom, and the hope of social progress; who are united by sympathy of spirit, not by agreement in speculation; whose faith is in Divine Providence, rather than in human prescription; whose hearts are more in the future than in the past; and who trust the living soul rather than the dead letter. It will endeavor to promote the constant evolution of truth, not the petrifaction of opinion.

Its contents will embrace a wide and varied range of subjects, and combining the characteristics of a Magazine and Review, it may present something both for those who read for instruction, and those who search for amusement.

The general design and character of the work may be understood from the above brief statement. It may be proper to add, that in literature, it will strive to exercise a just and catholic criticism, and to recognise every sincere production of genius; in philosophy, it will attempt the reconciliation of the universal instincts of humanity with the largest conclusions of reason; and in religion, it will reverently seek to discover the presence of God in nature, in history, and in the soul of man.

The DIAL, as its title indicates, will endeavor to occupy a station on which the light may fall; which is open to the rising sun; and from which it may correctly report the progress of the hour and the day.

The cost of subscription would be three dollars a year, for four numbers of 136 octavo pages. By this time, the Transcendental Club had directed its attention elsewhere; the journal was little discussed at its three meetings in May. Margaret Fuller discovered that in spite of the efforts of Emerson and herself, she was still short of the promised number of pages in June, and she filled out the volume with poems of her own. A number of typographical errors were introduced in the printing. It was not a good omen.

Readers in the Boston area who had known about the journal received it favorably; those less prepared in the country had more mixed responses and reviewers either ridiculed or ignored it. Alcott's "Orphic Sayings" became the center of most of the criticism, and parodies soon began to appear. Transcendentalism, and not just the Dial, seemed to be discredited.

It is rather amazing that the Dial, which could pay little or nothing to contributors or editors, continued publishing for four years, until May 1844. Fuller edited for the first two years, then Emerson took over, not because he needed the publication but because he still believed that many others did. Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and other paying enterprises drained the journal of many of its contributors, and subscriptions dropped. Yet the journal had, indeed, accomplished its purposes to some degree, though not fulfilled its high hopes.

In 1961 the Dial, difficult to find in the original, was republished in its four volumes by Russell and Russell, along with George Willis Cook's two-volume An Historical and Biographical Introduction to Accompany the Dial. The best full on-line text (in Adobe pdf) is on the Kouroo site. The definitive modern work on The Dial is Joel Myerson's The New England Transcendentalists and the Dial (Associated University Presses, 1980). Robert Michael Ruehl has a good discussion of the impact of The Dial in its time.

Ann Woodlief

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