The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 7. His work on The Gentlemans Magazine his real start as a man of letters
It was The Gentleman’s Magazine that gave Johnson his real start as a man of letters. Founded by Edward Cave, under the name Sylvanus Urban, in January, 1731, it had been growing steadily from small beginnings. Its original purpose was to reprint, from month to month, a selection of the more interesting matter that had appeared in the journals; and the name “magazine” was, in this its first application to a periodical, intended as a modest title for a collection which made small claim to originality. The idea was not altogether new. The Grub-street Journal contains a section of “domestic news” extracted from other papers, and sometimes so treated as to suggest to the modern reader the more urbane comments in the pages of Punch. But, as the editors of The Grub-street Journal complained in the preface to Memoirs of the Society of Grub-street (1737), their rival of The Gentleman’s Magazine took anything he fancied—news, letters, essays or verses—and printed as much or as little of them as he pleased. The success of the Magazine was never in doubt. The first number went into a fifth edition; and with success came ambition. In the number for January, 1739, a correspondent, who evidently was Johnson, observes that the extracts from the weekly journalists have “shrunk at length into a very few columns and made way for original letters and dissertations.” The Magazine now included parliamentary reports, poetical essays, serial stories, mathematical papers, maps, songs with music, and a register of publications. Most of the devices of modern journalism were anticipated in these early numbers. Cave had the luck and the skill to hit on what the public wanted. If we may trust the preface to the collected numbers for 1738, there were immediately “almost twenty imitations.” Yet The Gentleman’s Magazine had many features in common with The Gentleman’s Journal; or the Monthly Miscellany, which Peter Motteux had started in January, 1692, and carried on with flagging zeal to 1694. The earlier periodical had begun on a much higher literary level and remains a work of very great interest; but its fortunes were not watched over by a man of business. It had been modelled partly on Le Mercure Galant. The Gentleman’s Magazine was, in its origin, independent of both its French and its English forerunners.