The Literary Explosion of the 60s (I): The little magazines

During the 40s and the 50s, the American literary scene was the realm of the highbrow quarterlies. The most prestigious journals–Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review or Southern Review, all of them subsidized by universities–were heavily influenced by The New Critics, and it could be said that their primary function was criticism. During the late 40s, the “Berkeley Renaissance” group was influenced by medieval and Renaissance cultures.  In the early 50s, many editors of little magazines still followed a Modernist model , and they would constantly quote T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound to express their views concerning publishing. The Partisan Review, the Hudson Review, and Poetry were obvious examples of magazines still entrenched in the tradition, while emerging “littles” such as Circle, The Ark, Goad, Inferno, Origin, and Golden Goose were trying to break loose from those Modernist reins.

By the mid 50s, it was evident that a huge change was imminent. Although the “San Francisco Renaissance” was conceived in the 40s by Kenneth Rexroth, it became noticeably popular in October 1955 with the Six Gallery Reading, where Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was first read in public. Several Beat-related events took place in the following years, preceded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore opening in 1953: Howl and the first issue of the cult magazine Semina were published in 1956; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Evergreen Review were premiered in 1957; William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, Beatitude and Big Table came out in 1959. It was a fruitful period that heralded the literary explosion of the mid 60s. The first major “littles” from this period were Tuli Kupferberg’s Birth (1957), John Wieners’ Measure (1957), Robert Bly’s The Fifties (1958), LeRoi Jones’ Yugen (1958), Jack Spicer’s J (1959), John Bryan’s Renaissance (1961), and LeRoi Jones and Diane di Prima’s Floating Bear (1961).

While the Modernism-influenced journals were being displaced by the emerging Beat publications, other literary movements were taking shape all across the United States or they were consolidating their place in the literary scene. Such was the case, on the one hand, of the Black Mountaineers, with Charles Olson and Robert Creeley as their main figures, and the Objectivists -also called second-generation Modernists- on the other, led by Louis Zukofsky and George Oppen during this period. Their main literary publications were the already mentioned Origin (1951) and The Fifties (1958), as well as the Black Mountain Review (1954), Trobar (1960), El Corno Emplumado [The Plumed Horn] (1962), and Wild Dog (1963), among many others.

The creation of new schools was definitely encouraged during this period, such as the Deep Image poets one; Jerome Rothenberg, David Antin, Clayton Eshleman or Diane Wakoski were some of the authors associated with this group, and they published little magazines such as Some/thing, Caterpillar or Matter. In New York, there were several waves of the commonly called “New York Schools.” The main figures of the different New York School generations were John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, Dick Gallup, Joe Brainard or Ted Berrigan, and the magazines that represented these schools were Folder (1953), White Dove Review (1959), Fuck You (1962), “C” (1963) or Angel Hair (1966). The late 50s and very early 60s could be described as a volcano about to erupt. Undoubtedly, all those new schools and groups were paving the way for a change that would release the literary scene from the overbearing control of the academic quarterlies and the last vestiges of Modernism.

Many critics believe that the subsequent literary “revolution” of the 60s could be compared to the one that took place at the beginning of the 20th century, when there was a noticeable surge of new literary magazines: The Little Review -where James Joyce’s Ulysses was first published in installments and where the “Foreign Editor” was none other than Ezra Pound- Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, the Double Dealer, Contact, Blast, The Dial, Anvil, and The Hound and Horn were some of the “littles” published during that period in the United States and Europe, and they all appeared to focus on publishing the best new literature available. Hence, some studies downplay the significance of the so-called “revolution” of the 60s by stating that it was a mere repetition of an earlier revolution.

Whether the repetition of a previous pattern or not, the 60s did outnumber the “littles” published in the previous decades. The increasing number of magazines responded to several factors, the main ones being the low cost of new printing technologies and the fact that no special training was required to operate a mimeograph machine. For instance, by the mid 60s, any student willing to publish a mimeographed “little” could do so in a matter of days in their parents’ garage or back yard spending as little as 50 or 75 dollars in the process, or even less. Ed Sanders, editor of the infamous Fuck You, one of the most representative magazines of the mimeograph revolution, claimed that the total cost involved in producing a “mimeo” could amount to 10 dollars only.

Be that as it may, the following graph, based on the chronological timeline designed by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side. Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980, displays the total number of the main periodicals published from 1950 to 1970, clearly showing an upward pattern beginning circa 1957 which would reach its peak in 1964-65.

Next week: The Literary Explosion of the 60s (II): Trace

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One response to “The Literary Explosion of the 60s (I): The little magazines

  1. Pingback: The Literary Explosion of the 60s (III): Charles Bukowski | Magazine Modernisms

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