Beyond Calisthenics with Words: Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Our second installment of the MagMods Bookclub reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Eurie Dahn, Assistant Professor of English at the College of Saint Rose.  Professor Dahn specializes in modernist literature, African-American literature, and the places where they intersect.  Some of these places include the periodicals and discussions of manners and respectability.  Her current research project, “Race and the Sociological Imagination: Jean Toomer and Robert E. Park,” examines the discourse of social change as it emerges from Harlem Renaissance literature and American sociology during the 1920s.

In examining the smart culture of New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, Catherine Keyser argues for the networks that existed between women writers who wrote for, appeared in, criticized, advocated for, and consumed the magazines.  By placing Dorothy Parker in relation to someone like Harlem Renaissance writer Jessie Fauset, Keyser asks us to pay attention to the strategies that these writers engaged in to negotiate a magazine culture that both subjected them to limiting gender roles and gave them the medium to criticize these expectations.  Accounts of the periodical culture of the early twentieth century tend to focus on the role of men (with some notable exceptions, of course), particularly in terms of strong editorial presences, and Keyser’s book works to reveal the pleasures and political strategies of women writers among and outside of these magazines.  It also moves away from simply discussing modernists and their little magazines to focusing on the middlebrow magazine culture that criticized but also intersected with modernism.  These shifts – of gender and of brows – are invaluable.

Even though the shift away from modernism is welcome, more could be made of the interplay between the scions of modernism and not-so-modernist writers like Anita Loos, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dawn Powell, and Mary McCarthy.  What is the relationship between smartness and modernism, in other words?  Playing Smart suggests that it is a cousinly relationship with shared concerns and techniques, like irony (11-12).  In chapter four, “The Indestructible Glamour Girl: Dawn Powell, Celebrity, and Counterpublics,” Keyser points to a critique of modernism by Powell in her thinly veiled skewering of Hemingway’s celebrity in her novel, Turn, Magic Wheel (1936).  Keyser argues that Powell uses her wit to point out that modernism depends upon the “celebrity system” that it ostensibly disdains (124).  At the same time, in chapter two, “‘This Unfortunate Exterior’: Dorothy Parker, the Female Body, and Strategic Doubling,” Keyser claims that Parker “champions her alienation by insisting that she, like the modernist writer rather than the cover girl, retreats from the street into the mind” (56).  These dueling (or perhaps not so dueling) impulses – the rejection of modernism and the desire to affiliate with it – seem important to these writers, and what I wish for is a deeper understanding of the relationship between the smart culture and modernism.  (Perhaps one way to think about this is to ask “whither the smart men?”  And one answer might be F. Scott Fitzgerald and his overlapping memberships in the modernist and smart coteries.)

Chapter three, “‘First Aid to Laughter’: Jessie Fauset and the Racial Politics of Smartness,” seems to play a rather unique role in the book, as Fauset’s work with The Crisis magazine is very different from the work of the other writers.  (On the simplest level, she was not simply a contributor/writer for the magazine but she was also a player on the editorial side.)  Keyser points out that, despite the “problematic use of race in their pages,” the smart magazines also “provided a point of interracial literary connection in New York” (89).  This kind of nuanced reading of race and the periodicals would also benefit the readings of the Crisis, as that magazine’s relationship to the white press seems more complicated than simply just that it “explicitly criticized the tones and topics of the white press” (84).  As the presence of the Crisis’s “What to Read” column suggests, the magazine saw alliances between itself and the white press.  This column, which contained lists of books that would be of interest to people invested in questions of the color-line and even some short reviews, includes magazine article titles that would be of interest to its readers.  In the April 1911 issue, for example, the magazine recommends that the reader read specific articles from white press magazines like the Atlantic, Harper’s, Scribner’s, and The Contemporary Review (Crisis 1.6, 29, Modernist Journals Project).  Such a list gives us a sense of the range of magazines that the Crisis saw itself in dialogue with, and the magazines that its editors saw as being noteworthy for their readers.  One of those editors was, of course, Fauset, who took over this section as the literary editor of the magazine in June 1912.

I was particularly taken with Keyser’s discussion of the “tonal flexibility” of the Crisis and Fauset’s novels (85), but I would like a deeper contextualization of Fauset’s relationship to humor, particularly in relation to the history and varieties of African-American humor more generally.  The discussion of humor in relation to Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) is intriguing and makes me want to reread the novel through the lens of Keyser’s readings.  Keyser demonstrates the indebtedness of the protagonist Helga Crane’s seemingly unique “aesthetic sense” to the periodical culture of the time (Larsen, Rutgers, 44).   However, the role of humor seems submerged here, and the reader could benefit from a guide to the different kinds of humor at play, like wit and sarcasm.

In general, Keyser examines humor throughout the book but the functions of humor could be more precisely defined.  Dorothy Parker famously said, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit.  Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words” (“The Art of Fiction No. 13,” The Paris Review).  What Parker suggests is that there are different roles and kinds of humor.  Playing Smart itself seems to acknowledge this as it discusses irony, sarcasm, and wit, among other things, but these types of humor need more unpacking.  Is there a difference in how different modes of humor are wielded and deployed?  Are they united by the fact that they create detachment and distance?  What about the reader who laughs (or merely smiles) at the humor in these smart magazines?  There is, I am sure, a pleasing sense of superiority in that he or she “gets” the humor, and this creates an affective engagement that seems to be in line with and, at the same time, differ from the experience of the detached writer.  This is also a question about form.  In humor writing in and around magazines, what is the relationship between the writer and the amused reader?  How is it different from the work that humor plays in and around novels?

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