In Charles Dickens’ day, periodicals were the center of literary life. Many of Dickens’ novels, beginning with The Pickwick Papers (1837), were serialized in popular periodicals. The same is true of authors like William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who first developed Sherlock Holmes as a character in serial format). At the height of the serial novel’s popularity, the anticipation over Little Nell’s fate in the final installment of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) caused American readers to riot while waiting for the new volumes to be shipped. With the rise of television and radio as venues for storytelling, the serialized novel quickly lost its prominence, but print periodicals would remain an important part of literary life. In fact, many of the most important works of modern literature first appeared in magazines like The New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Let's explore some modern literature first published in periodicals.
Indeed, the serial novel itself never vanished entirely. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), was originally serialized in 27 installments for Rolling Stone. In the tradition of writers like Dickens, Wolfe did not split apart a finished product for serialization, but rather wrote new installments as deadlines approached each month. As a result, he was reportedly quite unhappy with the finished product and the novel underwent substantial rewrites before it was first printed as a standalone volume.
A couple of decades later, Michael Chabon (author of 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) would serialize Gentlemen of the Road (2007) in The New York Times Magazine and Alexander McCall Smith (author of the long running No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series) would serialize 44 Scotland Street (2005) in The Scotsman. While not exactly novel per se, Truman Capote’s true crime masterpiece In Cold Blood was first published as a four part serial in The New Yorker.
Beyond the revived serial novel, modern American letters have a lot to be thankful for in the pages of periodicals in general, and the pages of The New Yorker in particular. The Jhumpa Lahiri short story that would eventually become The Namesake (2003) was originally published in The New Yorker, likewise Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” (1997), which would be adapted for the screen in 2005 by Ang Lee. Many of John Cheever’s short stories appeared within its pages, most notable amongst them being 1964's “The Swimmer.”
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002) also appears to have begun its life in 2001 in The New Yorker as a story titled “The Very Rigid Search.” Meanwhile, magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s often succeeded in bridging the gap between important literary fiction and more popular genre fare, publishing some of what would come to comprise Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man (1951) and some of Kurt Vonnegut’s early work. Sadly, however, many of the magazines that used to contribute to America’s fictional landscape in such significant ways are either no longer publishing fiction or no longer publishing at all.