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Prof. Noonan’s New Book Explores Magazine’s Role in 19th Century America

These days, it’s hard to imagine a popular magazine devoid of celebrity stories, fitness advice, recipes or sports, and, instead, full of thought-provoking articles on timely topics by major names in American literature, sociology and politics, between covers designed by well-known artists.

In his new book, Reading the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine: American Literature and Culture, 1870–1893 (Kent State University Press), New York City College of Technology (City Tech) Associate Professor of English Mark J. Noonan explores just such a publication. Professor Noonan takes readers on an adventure in American history, from the post-Civil War era to nearly the turn of that century, through the pages of America’s leading cultural arbiter of the day.

Professor Noonan, who has been teaching at City Tech since 2003, discovered the publication as a graduate student. “I came across a leather-bound volume of Century Magazine in a used bookstore, and wondered why this obviously important magazine was not being discussed in the American literature courses I was taking,” he says.

The Boerum Hill resident, originally from Switzerland, has since acquired and read most of the magazine’s 1870–1893 issues. (The Century ceased publication in 1930.) He describes the publication as “an education on wheels – a college for people who weren’t going to college, a gateway to the public.” The Century featured historical and biographical essays, serialized novels, scientific and technological updates, and coverage of current issues and events such as labor unrest, poverty, Chinese immigration, “the Negro problem” and “The New Woman.”

Among others, Mark Twain, Henry James, Frederick Douglass, Emma Lazarus and William Dean Howells wrote for the magazine. “It was a hotbed of many voices,” explains Noonan. “In my book I hope to shatter lingering views of the Gilded Age as somehow monolithic and dull.”

However, The Century’s white male editors also slanted some content. A three-year series, “The Great South,” sugar-coated plantation days, trying to put the South in a good light to promote reconciliation – a stance Twain decried. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s two serialized works on social and gender issues caused such friction that, after a nervous breakdown, she later switched to writing children’s books. Says Professor Noonan, “That’s an example of what happens if you’re a little too progressive!”

Noonan, founding editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies, has also authored essays in American Literary Realism and in anthologies on Paul Laurence Dunbar, 19th Century American women writers and the literature of New York.

Summarizing the difference between contemporary media and The Century, he asserts, “Modern culture wants to sell images and ideas through the media. The Century Magazine was trying to do a different thing. It covered almost every subject and ran continuing stories in an attempt to promote a cultured, civilized America.”

Currently, Noonan teaches American literature courses and writing classes based on the book he co-edited, The Place Where We Dwell: Reading and Writing About New York City (Kendall/Hunt Publishing, third edition, 2011). He is now working on a cultural history of the Brooklyn waterfront, focusing on the themes of water and work.


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