Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Yankee in Magazines: Yankee Doodle, Yankee Notions

I begin this post with the question of the origin of the word "yankee", which I find has no clear answer. There are many apocryphal stories. The one about a supposed letter, from General Wolfe, referring to his American troops in the 1750's has no documentation, though clearly by the Revolutionary War it was a term used first by the British to describe an American from New England and then by the Americans themselves.
One thing that appears rather consistent through history, and is unfortunately being demonstrated again presently, most notably but by no means exclusively in Iraq and Pakistan, is ethnic bias and nationalism. In this light, I would favor the version of the Dutch term"Jan Kees" or "John Cheese" prounounced in dutch "yahn keys", as a descriptive yet derogatory term for those from New England. This also ties into the name "Jonathan" as a common term for an American by used by the English. (the "ask Brother Jonathan" Trumbull story has also been credibly refuted).
The best and most credible academic treatment on the web is an article by Dave Wilton for Word

What I can speak to with assurance is magazines, so here is what I can tell you with, as we say in medicine, "a reasonable degree of probability"!

The first magazine with "yankee" in the title was created by John Neal in 1828. The Yankee began as a weekly quarto (about 9 x 12 ") on January 1, 1828, and after thirty eight issues combined with James W. Miller's Boston Literary Gazette and moved to Boston. The very first words written by Neal in it were "The word YANKEE is no longer a term of reproach. It is getting to be a title of distinction- our hope is to make it yet more respectable."

After two volumes, in August 1829, it became a monthly octavo (folded 8 times to a size of 6 x 9") that has two extraordinary highlights, the first mention of Edgar Allan Poe in print (other than the iconically rare and valuable self-published "Tamerlane" in 1827) in an encouraging yet brief literary notice in September 1829 and a lengthy review of "Tamerlane" and "Al Aaraaf" in 1829. Apparantly, Neal was a pretty good judge of talent! I am fortunate to own both of those, the latter of which was obtained for a pittance. The former, in pristine wrappers, I believe I paid about $1500 for in the early 90's from a Baltimore book dealer, Tom Edsall. I've never seen any others offered for sale.

The indispensible Union List or Serials (ULS) then lists Yankee Farmer (Boston)(17 ULS holdings, none complete) in 1835 and Yankee Miscellany (Boston) (6 ULS holdings, 2 complete)in 1839 as the next uses of the word. Yankee Miscellany's inaugural essay states "Its very name will cause old gouty John Bull (the British equivalent to Brother Jonathan and later, Uncle Sam) to roar, and well it may, for the yankees, God bless them, are jovial fellows, all."

This takes us to the next highlight, the important illustrated humor magazine, Yankee Doodle, (New York) in 1846. ULS lists seventeen institutional holdings, most incomplete, for the entire run of 52 weekly quarto issues. I was fortunate to get my complete run at the New York Antiquarian Bookfair in the early 90's for $350, grossly underpriced, even then, and one of the few great volumes fortunately missed by friend and master comic historian, Richard West, of Periodyssey, who, as a dealer, would shop the show prior to the public (me) being let in.

Other than the wonderful illustration a great highlight is the serialized "Authentic Anecdotes of Old Zack" (aka Zachary Taylor) by none other than Herman Melville, later of "Moby Dick" fame (the idea for which, by the way, was borrowed from another magazine story "Mocha Dick", by J.F. Reynolds, that appeared in Knickerbocker on 1939).

This takes us to 1852 and the arrival of another important humor periodical Yankee Notions, or, Whittlings of Jonathan's Jack Knife. (numerous holdings, none complete!). The satire and illustration is first rate. The hand-colored frontispiece of volume one is remarkable for its beauty and the tie-in to our friend Brother Jonathan (here with a remarkable resemblence to his successor as the American image, Uncle Sam) are great examples of contemporary American humor and creativity.

After 1852, the volume of yankee material is quite large and, obviously, the term acquired a new meaning and importance as our country divided shortly thereafter along the lines of slavery Here's a smatttering of later uses of the word in my collection, including a wonderful cover of Babe Ruth, the greatest New York Yankee (a laughable irony in baseball terms (shouldn't it be the Boston Yankees) and an oxymoron that would make any self-respecting 17th century dutchman cringe!). Interestingly, the dialectic captions reinforce the country bumpkin image of the "common man" American of the time.

Once again, the great American magazine shows its incredible value in documenting popular culture. Now off to NYC, despite the rain, for a little museuming and, hopefully, dinner with my two grandchildren. Up to this year, I didn't think NYC had a monsoon season.
Happy August,

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