A history of the North American Review 1815-1940 with collectors notes

The North American Review is actually still around today as a little magazine, dating from its 1964 revival, but the publication that we’re concerned with here is the original, one of America’s earliest publications to stick, founded in 1815 and surviving until snuffed out under a cloud of suspicion in 1940.

The North American Review started out as a periodical devoted solely to book reviews. Its’ roots were in Boston, where it was founded in 1815 by William Tudor, who was also the periodicals first editor. Published three times per year, we are extremely lucky to have free online access to the first 171 volumes from the nineteenth century over at the Cornell University Making of America site.

Early Issues

August 1913 issue of the North American ReviewI had a look at the contents of the first three issues comprising Volume 1 while I was over there and found the most significant item inside the very first issue, in the obituary section of all places! On page 141 the passing of Robert Fulton at the age of 48, of whom the North American Review notes “But Mr. Fulton’s greatest service to his country and the world, is the improvement, which when we consider its effects, we may style magnificent, of navigating rivers and lakes by the power of steam.”

The opening paragraph of this first issue, dated May 1815, explains how the North American Review came about and to what its original purpose was meant to be:

The Editor, in making some researches in the history of North America, was induced for his own convenience, to form a “catalogue raisonee” of works relating to it. As this may be of some utility to persons engaged in similar pursuits, and not wholly uninteresting to others, he means to publish extracts from it in this journal. Where the works noticed are scarce, several extracts from them will be made, which may at once serve to give a more complete idea of the books, and to relieve the dryness of a mere catalogue.

While not found in the very first issue, I also came across a brief poem from Lord Byron within the first volume of the North American Review. Certainly if you’re doing research or just interested in reading early nineteenth century history, head on over to the Cornell site, it’ll keep you busy for quite a while! It’s not like we have an abundance of pre-Civil War issues of the North American Review cropping up for sale.

Review Moves from Boston to New York

Theodore Peterson does a decent job of covering the North American Review in his 1956 volume “Magazines in the Twentieth Century.” About these early days, he writes that the Review was a “pondrous and somewhat provincially New England” publication for the first sixty years of its history, but remarks that “it became a lively journal with a wide range of subject matter in the late 1870’s” which was, coincidentally or not, about the same period that operations were moved from Boston to New York (133).

February 1921 issue of North American ReviewBy 1891 circulation topped out at 76,000, and once again according to Peterson, the Review of Reviews wrote of it: “It is unquestionably true that the North American Review is regarded by more people, in all parts of the country, as at once the highest and most impartial platform upon which current public issues can be discussed, than is any other magazine or review” (134).

In The Magazine in America, 1741-1990 Tebbel and Zuckerman list some of the early editors of the North American Review, and certainly some familiar names are included: noted Harvard historian Jared Sparks, Edward T. Channing, scholar, orator and writer Edward Everett, the Professor of Sacred Literature at Harvard John Gorham Palfrey, James Russell Lowell, the President of Harvard Charles Eliot Norton, and Henry Adams. Noting the Harvard ties, this seems to be a listing of the early, pre-New York editors for North American Review.

In 1899, the North American Review was purchased by former managing editor of the New York World, Colonel George Harvey, who made himself editor and kept control of the publication into 1926, with a brief time away from editorial duties from 1921-1924 when he was appointed ambassador to the Court of St. James. While researching online for this article I came across an excellent resource for collectors of Mark Twain (the site has since been taken down), seeming to indicate a healthy relationship between Twain and Harvey’s North American Review, which published his “Chapters from My Autobiography” throughout 25 issues in 1906-1907.

By the time Harvey resumed editorial activities in 1924, circulation for the North American Review had dropped to just 13,000, and so what had developed itself into a monthly was reverted to a quarterly. In the Fall of 1926 Harvey at last sold North American Review to Walter Butler Mahoney. It is one of these quarterly issues under Mahoney that we’re going to take a better look at.

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Collecting The North American Review

As for collecting the North American Review I have not yet seen issues bound into volumes, but I am pretty positive that they are out there. The publication is so similar to the Atlantic and Harper’s Monthly in format, except for lack of fiction, and considering its lack of advertising I’d think that they probably would have relied on sales of bound editions.

Value is similar as well, with nice copies selling at auction in the $8 to $20 range, and a few being purchased out of my store in the $12 to $24 range. The lack of fiction does hurt the collectibility of these North American Review issues, but the inclusion of articles such as the baseball one above helps. And for anyone collecting back issues for the history or using it for research North American Review is every bit as relevant as Harper’s or the Atlantic.

Joseph Hilton Smyth and Japanese Propaganda

As stated in the opening, North American Review was revived in 1964 and continues publication to this day, even having a web presence. But what of its demise nearly a quarter of a century earlier? On its own history page the North American Review says that it “was a victim of the onset of WWII, suspending publication in 1940.” True, but there is a little more to the story.

The last publisher of North American Review during its initial run was Joseph Hilton Smyth, who purchased the publication from Walter Butler Mahoney in September 1938. Ran it into the ground pretty quickly, didn’t he? Within a couple of years Smyth also purchased Living Age, Current History and The Saturday Review of Literature.

From the September 14, 1942 issue of TIME Magazine: “One of the mysteries of contemporary publishing has been a cadaverous onetime pulp writer named Joseph Hilton Smyth…Last week the FBI solved the mystery. Publisher Smyth, arrested with two cronies, pleaded guilty to charges that he got $125,000 from the Japs in four years, paid by Manhattan’s Japanese Vice Consul Shintaro Fukushima. The down payment on June 21, 1938, was $15,000.”

It turns out that between the initial 1938 payment and December 1941 the Japanese government had paid out over $125,000 to Smyth and associates to establish or buy publications for the purpose of spreading Japanese propaganda. Again, from the same issue of TIME: “Thereupon Living Age promptly denounced the Open Door as a perfidious British invention, sugared Jap aggression, pooh-poohed the U.S. stakes in the Far East.” The article closes “If convicted the three face ten years in jail, a $10,000 fine, or both.”

I’m trying to track down how this all turned out, but from what I can tell it wasn’t too terrible for Smyth. In 1940 he published an autobiographical book titled “To Nowhere and Return”, which is currently on my reading list, and he apparently returned to writing pulp stories under the shortened moniker of Joseph Hilton into the 1960’s.

I also could not find an official account of North American Review’s 1940 demise, but I assume it had something to do with funding or perhaps lack of readership. In the end I find the North American Review to have one of the more fascinating histories, one which I intend to follow-up on in the future in order to complete this page correctly!

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