MSA Up-Close is a column we will run until the start of the MSA conference in order to give readers more information on periodical studies related panels at the 2010 conference. We will be posting paper descriptions, abstracts, and panel descriptions; please make comments and raise questions in the Comments section. Our third column features Urmila Seshagiri’s paper, “Vanity Fair Magazine and the Language of Modernism,” which she will present as part of the Modernism and Popular Publishing panel.
“Vanity Fair Magazine and the Language of Modernism,” 13 November 2010, 10:30am-12pm.
This paper demonstrates that the American periodical Vanity Fair played a powerful role in the rise of transatlantic modernism. It is well known that the magazine made the reputations of the American writers Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood; however, I demonstrate that what differentiated Vanity Fair from its mass-market peers (e.g., Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Ladies’ Home Journal) was a consistent commitment to international, cosmopolitan modernism. Founded by Frank Crowninshield and Condé Nast in Manhattan in 1914, Vanity Fair served as a high-profile vehicle for the production and dissemination of experimental arts. A typical advertisement for an annual subscription, for example, featured a Cubist painting by Picasso and declared that the magazine was an indispensable resource for understanding the art-world: “Why did Picasso, master draughtsman, choose to paint a portrait like this? – Why Braque . . . Derain. . . Matisse… Cezanne? -What do they mean? What do you say when your pretty dinner partner asks you? – Could you even tell if this were wrong side up? – You’ve got to know. Not just gulp soup! – One way to find out . . .READ VANITY FAIR!” Although Vanity Fair was an American magazine and devoted many pages to questions of American culture, society, and politics, its artistic focus, as this advertisement suggests, was transatlantic from the outset. Between 1914 and 1936, when the magazine was subsumed into the high fashion periodical Vogue, its remained consistently committed to publicizing innovative work in visual arts, performing arts, cinema, and literature: the range of modernist figures who wrote for or were featured in the pages of Vanity Fair includes Gertrude Stein, W. B. Yeats, Edith Wharton, P. G. Wodehouse, Harold Nicolson, Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Leon Bakst, Man Ray, Ernest Hemingway, Constantin Brancusi, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Van Vechten, Vaslav Nijinsky, and many others. My paper will demonstrate how Vanity Fair embodies the mass-class vexations that characterized metropolitan modernism and how it merged the avant-garde spirit of the little magazines with the gloss and polish of luxury publications. If “modernism began in the magazines,” as the Modernist Journals Project declares, Vanity Fair fostered the circulation of transatlantic modernist ideas, artworks, and personalities.