Evan Kindley

  • The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume I: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955 edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker
    Oxford, 976 pp, £35.00, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 965429 1
  • The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume II: North America 1894-1960 edited by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker
    Oxford, 1088 pp, £140.00, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 965429 1
  • The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: Volume III: Europe 1880-1940 edited by Peter Brooker, Sascha Bru, Andrew Thacker and Christian Weikop
    Oxford, 1471 pp. and 690 pp, £145.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 965958 6

In 1888 the Folies-Bergère presented a play called Presse-Ballet, featuring a cast of dancing newspapers and magazines. ‘Le Figaro, Gil Blas, L’Evénement and Le Gaulois danced a quadrille before the public,’ Diana Schiau-Botea writes,

followed by a ‘pas mime’ (dance mime) performed by La Gazette des tribunaux, La Vie parisienne, Le Fashionable and Le Temps. In the next scene, Mlle Bardout made her appearance on stage cracking a whip and leading the cortège of journals. She represented, obviously, the impertinent Courrier français, a trendsetter figure of the press and a regular target of censorship.

For the discerning Parisian audience of the Third Republic, apparently, such publications were prominent and familiar enough to be used as subjects for an evening’s light entertainment.

Bizarre as such a spectacle may seem, it makes sense to think of magazines as characters: like people, they have friends, enemies, social characteristics and guiding motivations (however quixotic). Literary historians these days are discouraged from spending too much time with individual writers, for fear that they will slip into the comfortable grooves of ‘great man’ narratives – a tendency to which scholars of modernism, always a congeries of cults of personality, are particularly prone. But concepts like ‘the market’ or ‘the nation’ can be unwieldy, and often carry scholars some distance from the day to day concerns of those who actually toil in the literary field. And ‘genre’ – a staple of literary analysis in other historical periods – presents a special problem for modernism, which so often took pride in exploding or eluding it. Magazines, then, make for a nice object of study: still recognisable to both writers and readers as ‘literary’ entities, yet governed by social and material constraints, and neatly categorisable in ways that the great modernist authors seem to resist.

While periodicals are firmly established as a subject in 19th-century literary scholarship, they are still relatively new in modernist studies. A tremendous amount of work is still to be done: in the introduction to the second volume of their Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker point out that the nine-year run of the Dial alone amounts to ‘around 10,500 pages of text and 1200 pages of adverts, assuming an average of 300 words per page; this equals some 3.1 million words to read … about equivalent to reading 21 books of the length of Ulysses.’ Attempting to honour modernism’s internationalist ambition makes the task even more onerous, as every country sprouted its own magazines. A synoptic view of the modernist little magazine is very hard to come by, especially given that, on top of the sheer volume of the material, there are problems of definition: how big can a little magazine get before it outgrows its weight class? And how, for that matter, is size to be measured? By circulation? Price? Frequency? Rates of payment to contributors? Some average measurement of all of the above?

‘The origins of the small review are lost in obscurity,’ Ezra Pound wrote in his 1930 essay ‘Small Magazines’, but Brooker and Thacker do their best to reconstruct them. One point of departure, in Britain at least, was the early 19th-century tradition of the quarterly review. The Edinburgh Review (founded in 1802), the Quarterly Review (1809), Blackwood’s (1817) and the Westminster Review (1824) catered to an elite interested in literature, philosophy and current events. They survived by appealing to a broad group of readers, and early little magazines were formed in reaction to the complacent miscellany of the quarterlies, which had come to be regarded as stale and bourgeois: in 1936 Clifford Bax sneered that ‘quarterly magazines of art and literature belonged to the age of silk hats, hansom-cabs, drawing rooms and permanent marriages.’ In place of middle-class generalism, the little magazines insisted on the importance of having a programme. ‘A review that can’t announce a programme probably doesn’t know what it thinks or where it’s going,’ Pound wrote, and indeed the idea of a programme and a direction was often more important than the direction itself, which usually changed considerably over time.

Many of the early little magazines, far from being self-consciously ‘modernist’, were antiquarian throwbacks. Fin-de-siècle periodicals like the Yellow Book, the Chameleon and the Savoy took inspiration from William Morris, Charles Ricketts and other luminaries of the Arts and Crafts movement, favouring medieval typefaces, elaborate woodcut illustrations, uncut pages and plenty of white space. An equivalent international vogue for ‘ephemeral bibelots’ was inspired by the Montmartre-based Chat noir. In America, slim productions with names like the Fad, Impressions, A Little Spasm and Whims promoted a Wildean cult of decadence, and were mocked by the naturalist Frank Norris in his novel The Octopus as ‘little toy magazines’. Symbolist-inspired bibelots appeared in Berlin, St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Alexandria and elsewhere.

Covers of Simplicissimus and Blast

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