MagMods Questionnaire

The Magazine Modernisms Questionnaire is reviving a fascinating but largely neglected feature of modern and modernists magazines (see Lori Cole’s post below).  Every few weeks we will feature a prominent scholar in periodical studies and pose the same three questions to them.

1.  How did periodicals become a part of your research and/or teaching?
2.  Why is it important to study and/or teach periodicals?
3.  What is the next step in periodical studies?

No one is more prominent in the field of modern periodical studies than our first respondent, Robert Scholes.  Professer Scholes is Research Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Professor Emeritus of English, Comparative Literature, and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University.  Along with making major contributions to the study of Joyce, narrative, structuralism, and modernism, Professor Scholes is one of the leading figures in modern periodical studies.  In addition to founding and directing the Modernist Journals Project, he is the co-author with Sean Latham of the influential 2006 PMLA article “The Rise of Periodical Studies” and the co-author with Cliff Wulfman of the invaluable book Modernism in the Magazines (2010).  It is a great pleasure and honor to have Professor Scholes get this column started off.

1.  How did periodicals become a part of your research and/or teaching?

I stumbled on Wally Martin’s book about Orage and The New Age.  I knew Wally, but I didn’t know he had written such a book.  When I read it, I realized that there was a big chunk of modernism that I knew very little about, so I started learning.  Digital technology was just beginning to make an impact then (in the 1990s) and I got the idea of making a digital edition of The New Age–which turned out to be a bit more complicated than I had expected it to be. This led to other magazine projects, as my colleagues and I discovered the possibilities of the field.

2.  Why is it important to study and/or teach periodicals?
I want to paste in here some paragraphs from a book I have in press at the moment that address this question:

The major connection between the early modern world and our own lies in the development of texts that lie between the bound book and the single sheet broadside, texts that we usually call “magazines,” though “periodicals” is a more precise term for them.  Periodicals began to take a recognizable form in the seventeenth century and became regularized in English in the eighteenth.  They are printed texts that appear at intervals, often regular intervals, though not always, and they have lives that can be as short as one or two issues or as long as a century or more.  They appear with frequencies ranging from daily to annually, and some are quite irregular.  In this way they are the predecessors of our television shows.  Perhaps the most important connection between a printed periodical and a regular television show lies in their shared use of advertising.  We sometimes forget how old advertising is.  When one of Shakespeare’s characters wonders “if it be true that good wine needs no bush,” she is talking about the foliage hung outside of tavern doors to advertise the good cheer within.  Signs have been with us for quite a while.  But printed advertising takes a recognizable form for us with the coming of periodicals.  There were regular advertisements, for example, in The Spectator, three centuries ago, though most students of English are unaware of that because the ads have been suppressed in reprints of the original texts.

It is ironic, to be sure, that these ads have now become at least as interesting as many of the essays of Addison and Steele which they originally accompanied.  Advertising becomes interesting for us as it loses its direct connection with consumption and simply offers us a window into its world.  When Ezra Pound, in 1917, sought to understand what he called the “Contemporary Mentality”  of Britain, he turned to the magazines and tried to explore all the social levels reached by them in a series of twenty articles he wrote for The New Age.  When he found ads for the treatment of lice in children’s hair, he felt he had descended far enough, having reached what he called a “verminous level.” The advertisements in old magazines are not literature, to be sure, but they are rhetoric, and they offer us culture in the raw, waiting to be interpreted and understood.  Our present cultural saturation in advertising has equipped us—and our students—to approach the advertising of the past with critical sophistication, and the fact that this advertising is indeed from the past and puts no direct consumptive pressure on us, means that we can take an aesthetic pleasure in its rhetorical displays, as well as a historical interest in the habits of consumers.  The culture of the past is more alive in its magazines than in any other textual form, because it is all there, the art and the lice, the truth and the lies.

Until very recently it was impossible to teach using the periodicals of the past because we could not put them in the hands of our students.  But the availability of digital editions has changed all that.  These editions, to be sure, are of varying quality, and there is much work to be done to provide just what we need—especially since it has been a regular practice in our libraries to discard the advertising pages when periodicals were bound and entered their permanent collections.  And the great commercial digitizers of our time are just scanning and reproducing those impoverished bound copies of the originals. There is archival work to be done, and editorial work to be done, before the best pedagogical work may be done.  And this is real work, scholarship that is needed and justified by its contribution to teaching and learning.  We also need to recognize that the period of modernism is crucial in our cultural history, because it is the moment of transition to our own world.  In the 1890s advertising came to dominate the world of magazines, as publishers learned that they could lower their price per issue, increase circulation, and still profit through the advertising revenue generated by their large circulations.  The “little magazines” of modernism arose in reaction to this move toward mass circulation in the larger magazines, which made the popular magazines less open to experimental and challenging texts.  Both these phenomena began in the 1890s and reached a peak in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The decline of the popular magazines like Colliers, Life, and Look, was caused by the way that audiences and advertising revenue migrated to television after the Second World War

3.  What is the next step in periodical studies?
I think the next step is, in a way, a matter of advertising.  Those of us who know how important periodicals are and have ideas about how to use them in teaching need to persuade others in our fields to use them in their courses and in their research.  We also need to make more periodicals available for study in reliable digital editions.  And we need to provide some guidance about the digital editions that are out there–about their accuracy, their completeness, and their searchability, among other things.  That is a project this group should consider undertaking.

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2 responses to “MagMods Questionnaire

  1. Pingback: In Memory of Wallace Martin | Magazine Modernisms

  2. Pingback: MagMods Questionnaire 3 | Magazine Modernisms

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