[These extracts are drawn from the first of the four parts in Dallas's series on "Popular Literature" published during 1859; here he focuses in particular on the relation between the periodical press and the formation of public opinion. - Graham Law]

. . . The rise of the periodical press is the great event of modern history. It has completely altered the game of politics; it has rendered obsolete more than half the State maxims of European Cabinets; it represents the triumph of moral over physical force; it gives every one of us a new sense - a sort of omniscience, as well as a new power - a sort of ubiquity. [100a] . . .

A periodical differs from a book in being calculated for rapid sale and for immediate effect. A book may at first fall dead upon the market and yet may endure for ages, a wellspring of life to all mankind. And, on the other hand - be it a daily paper, a weekly journal, a monthly magazine, or a quarterly review is a creature of the day: each successive number does not attain its object in the short span of existence allotted to it then it fails forever - it has no future. The newspaper of to-day supplants the newspaper of yesterday. The Saturday summary of news scarcely lives till the following Saturday. The magazines are thrown aside before the month is out. It is necessary, therefore, to the success of a periodical, that it should attain an instant popularity? - in other words, that it should be calculated for the appreciation not of a few, but of the many. Periodical literature is essentially a popular literature, and, enormously as our literature has been increased of late years, it is in the direction of periodical publications - publications for the million - that it has been especially developed. [101a] . . . The most vivid idea of the enormous diffusion of periodical literature will be obtained by a visit to any flourishing newsvender; by seeing how his shop is loaded with periodicals of all sorts and sizes, and at prices from a halfpenny up to a shilling; by noting the rapidity with which he disposes of all these, each transaction being for the most part limited to the value of a penny; and by considering how many hundreds of such shops and stands there are in London alone, not to speak of the country, where we find every shire, every town almost every village, with its local newspaper, strong in itself, and stimulating the absorption of the metropolitan literature. It is out of such an organisation, which is continually spreading in its influence, that we obtain journals whose daily or weekly circulation is to be measured by tens and hundreds of thousands.

Now, the first conclusion to which people who think of our periodical literature jump is that, being ephemeral, being miscellaneous, and being popular it must necessarily be superficial. They say it is every year becoming more and more superficial, and they ask, where is all this to end? Is the national character to lose its solidity? Is the staple of our instruction to be derived from the columns of a newspaper, from magazine articles, and from slashing reviews? It would be too much to say that the periodical press does not too often give occasion for reproaches such as these: Here we find superficiality, there ignorance, elsewhere absolute nonsense. But these are weaknesses which we find just as frequently in publications that are not periodical, and we cannot believe that periodical literature, spite of the rapidity of writing which it implies, necessarily entails superficiality. [101b-102a] . . . [T]he simplicity and the clearness which are the essentials of periodical writing frequently imply a much more perfect grasp of the subject, a much more valuable digest, than the tedious details, the incomprehensible digressions, and the technical phraseology of more ambitious performances. We do not indeed say that these more ambitious performances are not also more able than the ordinary run of compositions which emanate from the periodical press, but only that their tediousness and intricacy are not necessarily signs of superiority. Truth is generally simple, and can be simply told. The popular writer is compelled to shun irrelevancies and to study brevity. [102a] . . .

But the most remarkable characteristic of periodical literature, and that which supplies the principal antidote to any superficial tendency, is the multiplicity and specialty of its divisions. This fact is the key to the position and influence of the press. Without seizing it in all its significance, the power of the press will be to us but a name like "the dread name of Demogorgon." And here the great point to be kept in view is that periodical literature is essentially a classified literature. No matter on what principle the classification proceeds, the result is still the same - to divide and subdivide this kind of literature more and more. It is the rarest thing in the world for a periodical to succeed which does not either represent a class of readers or select a class of` subjects. We have in our time seen a great number of journals started with not a little capital, and conducted with no ordinary ability, but yet utterly failing because of the want of a specialty. Even a daily paper which is supposed to concern itself with the whole universe of thought must have its preferences, and, although aspiring to represent an entire nation, can at best be the mouthpiece of a majority. Certain subjects must be overlooked, certain interests must be ignored, certain classes must be neglected. It cannot hope to give anything like a complete record of all the books that are published, and so there are weekly journals especially devoted to literary criticism. [102b-103a] . . . And when we speak of class journals, it must be remembered that frequently from a necessity of their position what are apparently but local newspapers come under this designation. One newspaper is published in the iron district, another in the great cotton region, another in the most bucolic of English counties, a fourth in one of the strongholds of Dissent, and a fifth in the great American emporium. Here position determines the choice of subject; a geographical difference becomes a logical one; and under a new form we detect a class literature. No great subject is, in fact, overlooked; no great interest is neglected; no important class suffers itself to be ignored. [103b-104a]

Links to Related Material


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Popular Literature: The Periodical Press" I, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 85 (January 1859): 96-112.

Created 2 February 2024