Defining the ‘Smart Magazine’ in Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The fifth installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from David Earle, Assistant Professor of Transatlantic Modernism and Print Culture at the University of West Florida.  He is the author of Recovering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form, about the popular publishing of modernist literature, and All Man!: Hemingway, 1950s Men’s Magazines, and the Masculine Persona, which uses Hemingway and 1950s men’s  magazines to explore hyper-masculinity after the second world war. Earle has published on topics as diverse as James Joyce use of the symbol of absinthe in Ulysses for the James Joyce Quarterly, and a history of pulp magazines for The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines. He is currently researching images of femininity in the popular periodicals of the 1920s and 30s.

Catherine Keyser fights three long overdue battles in Playing Smart. First, an examination of popular women writers in 1920s and 30s New York; second, how the tone and performance of “Smartness” troubled gender roles; and, finally, how the Smart Magazines worry the traditional categories of high-brow and modernism. These battles aren’t mutually exclusive but belong to the ongoing revisionist war of new modernist studies. Keyser’s book joins the ranks of recent studies of the middle-brow that force our attention away from the masculine and restrictive traditions of modernism to the larger unexamined mass of literary production.

The book’s architecture of close readings of Edna Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Jessie Fauset, Dawn Powell, and Mary McCarthy, culled mostly from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, brings a wonderfully nuanced understanding to important authors often ignored or traditionally maligned by academia. Furthermore, her exploration of these authors’ use of “smartness” – a combined writerly tone of wit, expertise and pretense, self-deprecation and humor – is excellent, illustrating how women writers were able to carve a niche for themselves in the predominantly masculine world of New York publishing.

I’m sure that some of the other MagMod reviewers in this cluster will contend with these more prominent arguments. I would like to concentrate on the third aspect of her book though, which is Keyser’s treatment of Modern Magazine Culture, specifically her use of the categorization of the Smart Magazine. “Smart” is one of the few descriptors of 1920s periodical culture that survived the depression. There were others, such as “Snappy,” “Peppy,” “Saucy,” and “Fast,” each describing the type of fiction that captured the rapturous tone of the jazz age. By the 1930s many of these terms had been adopted by the risqué girlie pulps and resultantly fell out of favor, but in the 1920s they were valid signifiers of flapper fiction that pushed against Edwardian conventions. And whereas many of the magazines specializing in this type of fiction, like Snappy Stories, Live Wire, and Brief Stories, were on pulp paper, they often aspired to “smartness,” which was a term that signified differently than these others terms, for “smart” also had high-cultural ramifications or at least a pretense of such, growing as they did from the early Smart Set and its sister publication, Town Topics, a magazine dedicated to the comings and goings of New York high society.

“Smart” is a troubling category. Mark Morrisson has discussed how a similar descriptor, “cleverness,” was derided by modernists such as Pound (The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, Reception [Madison: U Wisconsin P, 2000]). Vanity Fair, as a smart magazine, also has a complicated relationship with modernism. Mark Murphy’s “’One Hundred Percent Bohemian’: Pop Decadence and the Aestheticization of Commodity in the Rise of the Slicks” (in Dettmar and Watt’s Marketing Modernisms [Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996]) or Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism (New Haven: Yale U P, 1998) have looked to Vanity Fair as embodying popular modernism since, on one hand, Vanity Fair promoted itself via modern art and modernist authors yet, on the other hand, this was clearly marketing. Yet using Vanity Fair as a foil for elite modernism troubles me. When Vanity Fair is compared to a little magazine, it seems a popular publication, but given the overall production of magazines, such as all those mass-circulation titles I mention above that relied upon the tone of smartness but not of restriction, then Vanity Fair is much closer to elite modernism than a popular publication.

Keyser sidesteps this quagmire by concentrating on the tone of smartness more so than the actual periodic code of the smart magazines. In other words, she uses these authors’ tone and humor as a foil for modernism rather than an extended concentration on the actual venue of magazine publication. I see this as both a great benefit of Keyser’s methodology but also something of a drawback. By using authorial tone, a non-material aspect of magazines, Keyser avoids such problematic categories as high-brow and slick. “Smartness” existed across cultural positioning. Dawn Powell, the subject of Keyser’s fourth chapter, published extensively in Snappy Stories and College Humor, just as Edna St. Vincent Millay got her start, not in Vanity Fair, but in Ainslee’s and Brief Stories under her Nancy Boyd moniker. Along these same lines, Djuna Barnes could easily have been included in Keyser’s pantheon of authors due to her early poetry and plays published in All-Story (which is most famous for publishing Tarzan of the Apes [1912]) and Cavalier, both of which were general all-fiction magazines, not smart magazines (Jean Lutes has done something like this already in her wonderful Front Page Girls with Barnes’ non-fiction [Ithaca, NY: Cornell U P, 2006]).

Therefore, following smartness as a trait of a certain kind of fiction constitutes a methodology that itself denies a cohesive categorization of magazines which is, to my way of thinking, paramount to doing justice to the richness of periodical culture, to breaking down literary or cultural positions that have been enforced by later canonization. The fact that single authors published across a wide spectrum of magazines is integral to understanding the dialogic nature of periodicals.

Though this methodology is immensely promising, Keyser doesn’t use it to its fullest potential. Rather, she sticks almost exclusively to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and, in the case of Jessie Fauset, The Crisis. She only mentions magazines like Ainslee’s, Snappy, and College Humor in passing. Keyser’s attention to the canonized smart magazines limits her argument. It is a lost opportunity to explore the richness of periodical culture, of embedding these authors in a larger dialogic sphere that is itself efficacious in breaking down existing binaries. And whereas the other aspects of the book – the exploration of these authors, of this type of fiction, of the tone of smartness – are rich, full, and gratifying (well worth the price of the book), the portrait of modern magazine culture is quick and perhaps taken for granted. Of course, and in Keyser’s defense (for I don’t want to seem nit-picky or unfair to Keyser or this wonderful book), this limited portrait could very well be because these other magazines (with their admittedly diluted sense of smartness) are almost impossible to find, limited to the holdings of the Library of Congress. And whether planned or not, Keyser’s methodology of concentrating on a literary trope rather than on defining a single type of magazine ultimately refuses to participate in the propagation of reductive categorizations. Anyone working in popular modern periodicals has struggled with the old hierarchies of high, middle, and low-brow, of slick or little, of pulp or popular magazines, all of which simply fall apart under scrutiny. I’d love to hear how Catherine Keyser worked through this, for Playing Smart potentially offers one way to navigate the richness of 20th century magazine production.

–David M. Earle

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