In October 1839, members of the Transcendental Club – including Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, George Ripley, and George Putnam – discussed establishing their own periodical in which to publish transcendentalist essays and reviews. While they originally published their writing in well-known American journals like The Christian Examiner (the leading religious periodical of the time), The Western Messenger, and the Boston Quarterly Review, the furor over Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” (delivered at Harvard on July 15, 1838) prompted many journals to refuse to accept submissions from the Transcendental Club. The Dial was thus born.
Margaret Fuller served as the first major editor, and George Ripley the managing editor. (While Emerson may have been the natural choice for editor, he was too busy preparing for a winter lecture series and collection of essays. He would eventually succeed Fuller as editor for the last two years of the magazine though.) George Ripley announced the new journal on May 4, 1840. In his prospectus, which was later printed on the wrapper of the first issue published in July 1840, he wrote, “The DIAL, as its title indicates, will endeavor to occupy a station on which the light may fall; which is open to the rising sun; and from which it may correctly report the progress of the hour and the day.” Emerson expanded on the journal’s reference to the sundial in his introduction in the first issue.
And so with diligent hands and good intent we set down our Dial on the earth. We wish it may resemble that instrument in its celebrated happiness, that of measuring no hours but those of sunshine. Let it be one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics. Or to abide by our chosen image, let it be such a Dial, not as the dead face of a clock, hardly even such as the Gnomon in a garden, but rather such a Dial as is the Garden itself, in whose leaves and flowers the suddenly awakened sleeper is instantly apprised not what part of dead time, but what state of life and growth is now arrived and arriving.
In a letter to Fuller on August 4, 1840, Emerson described how he envisioned the content of the journal as not limited to pure literature, but comprehensive in its scope, surveying every “great interest,” including the “law on property, government, education, as well as on art, letters, and religion.”
Despite the great ambitions for the journal, The Dial never achieved financial stability, and by 1843 the business manager Elizabeth Peabody counted only two hundred subscribers. In part, the failure of the journal came about due to the declining interest of the Transcendental Club. Brook Farm, Fruitlands, and other paying enterprises arose during these years and siphoned away many of the journals’ contributors. Margaret Fuller found herself short of content to fill the pages of the journal, and typographical errors were often introduced during print. In addition, while many readers in Boston received the journal favorably, others around the country gave it mixed reviews or indeed even ridiculed it. In particular, A. Bronson Alcott’s “Orphic Sayings” was widely mocked as silly and unintelligible, with parodies arising that seemed to discredit both The Dial as well as Transcendentalism in general. In 1843, a professor at Yale wrote, “Who reads The Dial for any purpose than to laugh at its baby poetry or at the solemn fooleries of its mystic prose?” As a result, the journal ceased publication in April 1844.
Nonetheless, in its four years of existence, The Dial featured many prominent transcendentalist authors. Margaret Fuller published “The Great Lawsuit,” which would form the core of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1840), her major philosophical manifesto that argued despite the fluidity of masculinity and femininity, society deprived women of their self-reliance by treating them as dependents. Emerson published several works of prose and poetry, and edited a series of “Ethnical Scriptures” that translated Chinese and Indian philosophical works. Henry David Thoreau published his first pieces of writing, commissioned by Emerson to review reports by the state of Massachusetts on wildlife.