Source Spotlight: A Guide to Navigating 19th Century Periodical “Print Ecologies”

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United under the broader umbrella of what Victorian literature scholars refer to as “print media,” periodicals feature as common and powerful sources for environmental historians. Imperial environments, missions of frontier, and artistic conceptualizations of the natural world abound in great diversity in periodicals, and take almost as many forms. From the prosaic to the poetical, journalistic, artistic, and photographic responses to the natural cropped up easily in the periodical press.

This post seeks to engage two distinct fields, British literature and Canadian environmental history, using theory to put each in more direct dialogue with the other and to encourage intersectional applications. Presenting portrayals of northern North American environments taken from a selection of six volumes of the British periodical The Harmsworth Magazine,1 I suggest the benefits of incorporating lowbrow periodicals into Canadian environmental history scholarship. To encourage these connections, I seek to promote further literary engagement with the environmental themes in these valuable sources by introducing “print ecologies” as a vehicle to approach this.

Fig.1: Christmas at Niagra: Where the Frost Makes Fairyland. Harmsworth Magazine, Vol. VI Feb.1901-July 1901.

Victorian Periodicals And Harmsworthian Morals: A Literary Introduction


Study of periodicals has experienced a significant boom in recent years. Alongside ecocritical studies, scholars exploring non-environmental facets of print media grapple with bridging familiar gaps in nineteenth century literary research. Both fields have resisted repeated calls to diversity the source base and move away from old reliances on “highbrow” writing.2 It is this shared gap which frames the uniqueness and relevance of The Harmsworth to this writing.

Despite my deep and abiding adoration for its idiosyncrasies, The Harmsworth was sensationalist, inexpensive, and to a very real extent, reviled. While the magazine sold as “sensationally” as it read to its less affluent readership, London literary society did not spare the rod of its opinion.3 Even while edited by two of the most well-known publication minds in the city, Alfred and Cecil Harmsworth, the periodical’s reputation for cheap, tawdry fictions, “photographic galleries” of beautiful women, wild and unbelievable stories, photographic contests, and bizarrely-framed human interest articles grew to such a state of social disgrace among elite circles that its reputation stalked the literary nightmares of the likes of Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy4. In 1909, playwright Arnold Bennet castigated the Harmsworthian quality as an “unscrupulous simplifying of [facts]” and a “crude determination to emphasize one fact at the expense of every other.”5 Even Henry Beckles Willson, Canadian journalist and historian, did not escape his Harmsworthian experience unscathed.6

The 1890s saw a veritable boom in the periodical market producing a diversity of these forgotten, lowbrow sources, which environmental historians can potentially rescue from the shelf.7 The Harmsworth, and less-beloved, lowbrow periodicals like it, provides a contrast to the character of highbrow publications such as Harper’s or Scribner’s. The illustrated pages of The Harmsworth, in particular, present environmental historians with “lavish” opportunities to bridge research gaps through representation and use of these lesser-known periodicals. Critically, Harmsworthian pages portray environmental topics no less frequently than did their highbrow counterparts. This quality speaks to the value of lowbrow periodical literature to environmental historians working to understand how the masses perceived environment.


Fig 2-4: “Animal Actors”. Harmsworth Magazine, 1901.

Print Ecology


At the end of the 19th century, highbrow and lowbrow periodicals alike prolifically engaged environmental topics. These portrayals of environment vividly stoked the Victorian imagination of their readership, the Victorian public. Periodical depictions of these environments therefore provide tremendous insight into how public relationships with environment developed and changed. Timothy Morton’s famous reflection that “putting something called ‘nature’ on a pedestal does to the environment what patriarchy does to the figure of woman” reminds us, as applied to periodicals, that in most settler societies, few pedestals are higher and more precarious than those erected by the press.8 Historical scholarship examining the power of the press to impact community dynamics engage similar considerations of imagination.9 I refer to the relationship between periodicals, environment, and imagination as “print ecologies”, leaving its edges loose so that others might pull some strings and darn with others.

Critical to this writing, The Harmsworth demonstrates the relationship between the late Victorian, lowbrow periodical and the print ecologies depicted within them. It is The Harmsworth‘s lowbrow character which offers exciting opportunity for environmental historians to continue vital work in the field, to “brush history against the grain” and champion new perspectives.10

Incorporating print ecologies into environmental history, and using less beloved periodical sources such as The Harmsworth, offers opportunity to expand, address, and test existing critical frameworks. How might portrayals of the same weather event differ between Harper’s and The Harmsworth? Of a shipwreck or natural disaster engaging multinational communities? And these, against other, historical records? In what environmental terms did each describe significant environmental changes? Weather events? Changing borders and the environments of imperial warfare? Existing discourses provide a desperately exciting basis for those wishing to incorporate these sources into environmental history research.

Fig. 5 “The Conquest of the Sea”. Harmsworth Magazine.


Canadian Applications and Future Work

For Canadian environmental historians in particular, the late Victorian, lowbrow periodicals of one of its greatest colonizing influences offer many exciting research pathways. With the frontiers of yore passing out of sight, the prospects (literal and figurative) of a wild North saw Canada’s popularity in periodicals increase during these final years of the nineteenth century. This made the turn of the century a critical time for the evolution of Canadian print ecologies. Northern North American environments, in the eyes of the empires which ebbed and flowed around them, belonged to no one: a cruel beauty there for the taking. This, and other, imagined conceptualizations of Canadian nature was easily translated into Harmsworthian-brand unscrupulous simplifications.

Images from The Harmsworth best reveal the great diversity and distinctiveness of lesser-known lowbrow periodicals. They present opportunities which can stand on their own as case studies and investigations, offering valuable support to historical approaches. From court records and cartographies to invasive species and environmental tourism and trade, lowbrow print ecologies offer a vector for Canadian environmental historians to explore Northern environments in periodical media.



Looking towards a future for print ecologies in any application, accessibility to these resources is of equal importance to increasing scholarly consideration of them. Reliable digital access to print and periodical archives is in no small part correlated with institutional support, leaving independent scholars and those who are unwaged, or insufficiently waged, lacking. Further complicating these issues, much of the print media which has been digitized successfully is of a highbrow nature. Conversely, publications like The Harmsworth, where they have been preserved and digitized at all, are often in incomplete context and presented out of their originally-bimodal nature. Physical archives and libraries are a tremendous resource towards improving equitable accessibility to these less-well-regarded works, but often present physical accessibility issues of their own.11

Despite these hurdles, environmental historians who work to contextualize print ecologies have a fresh opportunity for making relevant connections to settler colonialism, imagined communities, and their representations outside of highbrow, elite circles. Increasing representation of these valuable resources will demonstrate their importance and create scholarly bridges with Victorian ecocriticism, a field with many exciting connections to environmental history.

Print ecology offers one potential approach to framing the value of the lowbrow periodical to environmental history scholarship. Consideration of print ecologies, and their vital context, advance the potential of Harmsworthian morals to reach scholars more easily: to shake up established norms and engage with the very class gaps for which The Harmsworth and lowbrow publications like it were originally lampooned. Harmsworthian prose is a cultural artifact with expansive scholarly potential. Considered alongside the rough conceptualizations of print ecology I have outlined here, it earns a deserved future in environmental history scholarship.



1. It is important to note that this scope covers the very brief, but historically-significant years 1898-1901, and it is also important to note that The Harmsworth’s other names included The Harmsworth New Monthly Pictorial Magazine, The Harmsworth New Monthly, and later, The London Magazine.
2. Jesse Oak Taylor’s 2015 “Where is Victorian Ecocriticism?”, as well as Wendy Parkins and Peter Adkins’ 2018 introduction to an issue of Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century which focused on Victorian ecology and the Anthropocene speak to field dependencies on highbrow sources. Both as a basis to ecocritical theory and to older scopes of literary work, a reliance on highbrow analyses prevades.
3. Victorian Fiction Research Guides puts the Harmsworth’s success in plain terms which are of immense value to understanding its reach into Victorian society: “When the first number of The Harmsworth Magazine did finally appear in July 1898 it sold sensationally, according to one account 780,000 copies, according to another 820,000.”
4. Victorian Fiction Research Guides consolidates accounts of these famous authorial interactions with the Harmsworth: “Conrad was impoverished, desperately trying to reconcile artistic integrity with the need to make his fiction more widely marketable, and embarrassed by the praise of The London Magazine editor. Thomas Hardy was most distressed that two of his short stories appeared in The Harmsworth London Magazine in 1903.”
5. Bennett’s 1909 play “What The Public Wants” is the work to which this castigation is credited, but Bennett indeed had published “The Regent” with Harmsworth. Mixed emotions, and the state of the magazine as a way for young authors in a competitive literary market to get paid, fuel much of these reflections.
6. Beckles Willson’s association with Harmsworth began at the true onset of his literary career taking off in London. He was hired by Harmsworth, applied to various projects by Harmsworth, and befriended Harmsworth in ways which appear in his memoir and reflect interesting qualities to the famous editor.
7. A number of sources speak to this boom in the field of English literature. The most applicable here is “Gender and the Victorian Periodical”, Fraser, Green, & Johnston 2003.
8. “Ecology Without Nature”, Morton 2007, engages philosophical applications and opens theoretical pathways for environmental historians whose work engages Anthropocene study, especially.
9. Benedict Anderson’s 1983 “Imagined Communities” offers directly linked pathways to further the explorations of print media and periodicals framed here. Considerations of the imperial, of the literary, and of the political align with his work’s explorations of nationalism, imagination, and community. Further work is needed in this area to realize the full potential of these applications, but this work offers exciting basis for future pathways which aligns with other Victorianist scholarship. Not the least of these is Dane Kennedy’s essay, featured in Martin Hewitt’s edited edition of “The Victorian World” 2012, which describes relationships between commodity and empire which are of critical note.
10. The opening passages of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” both credits and quotes directly the work of scholar Walter Benjamin. Benjamin’s words are included here, but are included as framed in Anderson’s inclusion of them both for their direct relevance and, truly, in the hope of promoting even greater intersectional basis to this scholarship for others to take from.
11. NiCHE Conversations episode 2.8 featured Victoria Cosby, who spoke with Jessica DeWitt in addressing some of the many pressing accessibility issues which face scholars trying to access even the most essential of academic spaces both at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond this height. It offers valuable insight for those institutional scholars looking for ways to affect change in their University, or scholarly, communities, and should be considered by those with power to affect change at an institutional level.

Bibliography

Adkins, Peter, and Wendy Parkins. 2018. “Introduction: Victorian Ecology and the Anthropocene.” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century 40 (26): 366–74. https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.818.
Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso.
Coleman, Jon T. 2012. Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation (An American Portrait). New York, NY: Hill and Wang.
DeWitt, Jessica. 2022. NICHE Conversations – Victoria Cosby. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X28OuiwQunY.
DeWitt, Jessica. 2021. “‘Parks Are Not for Profit,’ or Park Mythology and White Denial.” Network in Canadian History and Environment. 2021. https://niche-canada.org/2021/02/04/parks-are-not-for-profit-or-park-mythology-and-white-denial/.
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Hewitt, Martin, ed. 2014. The Victorian World. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.
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Mactavish, Andrew. 1998. “Victorian Sensationalism Online Electronic Resources.” Humanities Computing Center. 1998. https://www.humanities.mcmaster.ca/~mactavis/vso/index.html.
Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona, and Bruce Erickson, eds. 2010. Queer Ecologies. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Oak Taylor, Jesse. 2015. “WHERE IS VICTORIAN ECOCRITICISM?” Victorian Literature and Culture 43 (4): 877–94. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1060150315000315.
Oates, Lori Lee. 2021. “Climate Change Is Colonialism.” Network in Canadian History and Environment. 2021. https://niche-canada.org/2021/12/13/climate-change-is-colonialism/.
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Caroline Evans Abbott

Caroline is a recent graduate of Glasgow University (M.Res. 2019) with interests in the intersections of literature, gender and environment in the long nineteenth century. She is managed by a small gray rescue Manx.

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