Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart

The seventh installment of the MagMods book club reading of Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart comes from Robert Scholes, 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.  He is the founder and director of  the Modernist Journals Project, 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).

I liked Catherine Keyser’s book a lot, because I learned a lot from it–both about writers I knew pretty well, like Mary McCarthy and about others I should have known more about but didn’t, like Dawn Powell.  I am not sure, however, that, if pressed, I could neatly summarize the thesis of the book as a whole: something about smartness as a two-edged weapon for women, I suppose, enabling them and wounding them at the same time. What I learned, however, beyond the elegant close readings of a variety of texts, was something about the way that magazine culture worked from the twenties through the sixties. This book doesn’t just read magazines, it reads the way magazines play roles in the lives and in the fictions of the writers that are discussed. The smart magazine–whether socially, culturally, or politically smart–mattered in that world. I don’t know if any print medium matters that much in our own day, though I rather think television has largely replaced the magazine, now, and digital social networks may be getting ready to challenge television. What I wonder, then, is whether smartness is tied to that world. It seems less visible in our own. I suspect that smartness and the magazines of modernism are tightly linked–a message and a medium that belonged together, so that we really need to understand one to understand the other. Anyway, I am grateful to Catherine Keyser for what she has taught me and for what she has led me to think about, as I read her book over the last couple of weeks.

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