The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

VI. Reviews and Magazines in the Early Years of the Nineteenth Century

§ 1. The Edinburgh Review

BEFORE the opening of the nineteenth century, the periodical review, such as we know it, can hardly be said to have achieved a permanent place in general literature. There had, nevertheless, for a considerable time, been in existence periodical publications under the names reviews or magazines which served partly as chronicles, or records, or registers of past events, which conveyed information and which opened their pages, more or less, to original contributions of poetry and prose. The Gentleman’s Monthly Magazine, founded in 1731, lived till 1868. It was rather in short-lived newspaper sheets, such as The Tatler and The Spectator, in the early days of the eighteenth century, and in their successors founded on the same lines, that (as has been shown in an earlier volume of this work) are to be found any adumbrations of the periodical essay and of the periodical fiction which formed the bulk of the reviews and magazines of a later date. In cases such as these, an author or authors of eminence had found the means of addressing the general public. Apart from them, the publication had no separate existence of its own, and, of course, it came to an end when they ceased to write. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, when political thoughts were stirring in men’s minds, various magazines and reviews intended to promote sectional and party objects—high church, evangelical, tory, whig and extremist—sprang up and had a short life; but none of them achieved any authoritative position in the estimation of the general public.

Between the review and the magazine there was a very real distinction, and, though there has been a tendency on the part of each to borrow occasionally the special characteristics of the other, it has never been wholly left out of sight. The review made it its business to discuss works of literature, art and science, to consider national policy and public events, to enlighten its readers upon these subjects and to award praise or censure to authors and statesmen. It did not publish original matter, but confined itself to commenting upon or criticising the works and doings of others. Its articles professed to be the serious consideration of specified books, or of parliamentary or other speeches of public men. They were not, at least in form, independent and original studies. Even Macaulay’s brilliant biographical essays appeared in The Edinburgh Review in the form of literary criticisms of books whose titles served him as the pegs upon which to hang his own study of the life and work of some great historical figure.

The magazine, on the other hand, was a miscellany. Though it contained reviews and criticisms of books, it did not confine itself to reviewing. To its pages, authors and poets sent original contributions. It admitted correspondence from the outside world; and it aimed at the entertainment of its readers rather than at the advocacy of views. Through the instrumentality of the magazine, much valuable and permanent literary matter first came before the public. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the two great reviews—The Edinburgh and The Quarterly—and two brilliant magazines—Blackwood’s and The London—sprang to life, and, on the whole, they have conformed to the original distinctions of type.

With these reviews and magazines and their many imitators, a substantially new form was originated and developed in which literature of a high class was to find its opportunities. An aspiring author, in this way, might, and did, obtain a hearing without undergoing the risk and expense of publishing a book or a pamphlet. From the reception given to the new reviews, it is clear that, on the part of the general community, an intellectual thirst, once confined to the very few, was now keenly felt. Men wanted to know about books, and events, and to find them discussed; yet, till the eighteenth century had struck, it is hardly too much to say that able, honest and independent literary criticism was unknown. The spurious criticism of periodicals, notoriously kept alive by publishers to promote the sale of their own books, was, virtually, all that existed. In all these repects, a great and momentous change was at hand.

The system of anonymous reviewing in periodicals under the guidance and control of responsible editors, themselves men of strong individuality, soon led to the review acquiring a distinct personality of its own. By ninety-nine out of every hundred readers, the criticism expressed would be accepted as that of the review—of The Edinburgh or The Quarterly—and they would enquire no further. Among regular contributors, as, of course, with the editor, the feeling prevailed that articles in the review represented something more than the opinion, at the moment, of the individual writer. They were intended, in some sort, to give expression to the views of able and intelligent men who, generally speaking, had the same outlook on public affairs. Naturally, some contributors would gravitate towards Jeffrey and The Edinburgh, whilst others would turn to Gifford and The Quarterly. Without the practice of anonymity, combined with responsible and vigorous editorship, a lasting corporate personality could not have been acquired; and the chief reviews, though they would still have fulfilled a useful purpose, could not have become influential organs of public opinion.

The issue, in October, 1802, of the first number of The Edinburgh Review and Critical Journal, published by Constable of Edinburgh and Longman and Rees of London, was an event of great significance, making a new departure in literary criticism, and opening a pathway, much trodden since, whereby men of ability and independence, of learning and of practical knowledge, have been enabled to render services to their countrymen and to literature, which it would be difficult to overestimate. To enlighten the mind of the public, and to guide its judgments in matters of literature, science and art, was the aspiration of the early Edinburgh reviewers; and, at the same time, in the region of politics, to promote what seemed to them to be a more liberal and popular system of government.

The name chosen for this contemplated organ of opinion was not new. Nearly half a century earlier, an Edinburgh Review, “to be published every six months,” had made its appearance. It was to give some account of all books published in Scotland in the preceding half year, and of the most remarkable books published in England and elsewhere in the same period. In its anonymous pages, Robertson (afterwards principal Robertson), Adam Smith and Alexander Wedderburn (afterwards lord chancellor Loughborough) first made their appearance in print; but, notwithstanding the eminent ability of its contributors, The Edinburgh Review of 1755 lived through only two numbers, its liberal tone, in matters of philosophy, and in matters considered to trench on theology, proving distasteful to the prevailing narrow orthodoxy of that day.