Bookslut recently posted a piece by Greer Mansfield praising the Modernist Journals Project and modernist little magazines. “We Will Convert the King if Possible: The Greatness of Little Magazines” is an interesting read. It’s more evidence of the reach of little magazines and the MJP beyond academia and the uses to which they can be put. Mansfield (a nice name for someone writing about modernist magazines!) uses the discussion as an occasion to blast the parochialism and homogeneity of what he calls “American book-chat culture.”
What is striking in these old Modernist magazines, aside from the roll call of their famous contributors? Mainly that they have very little in common with prominent literary magazines in today’s English-speaking world. There is no gee-whiz tweeness (surely you can find your own examples without too much trouble), no senile genteelism (ditto), no forced jokiness, no desperation on the part of the authors to prove that they’re good guys and gals who aren’t necessarily smarter than anyone else and maybe want to be your best friend.
I wonder if the “niceness” of contemporary literary magazine/blog culture is any less desperate than or even all that different from the combativeness of modernism, since both can be diagnosed as simply playing the rules of the game in the struggle for cultural and symbolic capital, etc. But that isn’t the subject of this post.
What interests me is the reference to the “famous contributors” above and below:
Glancing at the list of contributors for magazines like The Egoist and the Little Review, one notices a fair bit of overlap. Names like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., and Ford Madox Ford recur again and again.
Mansfield is absolutely correct, of course. Little magazines (and the sites that provide full-text access to them) provide amazing access to writers that most people only encounter between the covers of a book, quite often in a classroom, where the imprimatur of the Oxford University Press or Norton confirm their sanctification as the best that 20th-century culture produced. Magazines let us see them in an earlier, dirtier moment. Dirtier in a couple senses, but mainly in the sense that these were writers still very much trying to achieve some success and security in a competitive marketplace and so we get to see the struggle to define themselves, with all the mistakes, redefinitions, and posturings that come with this struggle and in the sense that the status and future of the-thing(s)-that-would-one-day-be called-modernism was still very murky. A lot of energy was spent, and a lot of mud kicked up in the process, by people trying to clear the water with this and that pronouncement on the state of contemporary culture.
At the same time, I’m struck by Mansfield’s focus on “famous contributors” because it points to a significant problem in the ways historical magazines are discussed and presented digitally. One of the major benefits reading historical periodicals has over reading contemporary editions of canonized literature is that the former give us not just a sense of how large the networks created in and by magazines were but a way to enter into those networks, to negotiate our way through them. The challenge here is that we go to these resources with the disadvantage of hindsight, by which I mean that too often we know who or what we’re looking for. We go back to The Egoist to read Joyce or Blast to read Pound, but we miss the other contributions and contributors, not to mention the scores of other magazines out there that covered similar terrain. As a result, we discover
Names like James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West, Wyndham Lewis, H.D., and Ford Madox Ford [that] recur again and again.
These modernist stars do indeed recur again and again, but, then, so do may others. What about Richard Aldington, Muriel Ciolkowska, and Alec W. G. Randall, who are more prominent in The Egoist than any of the figures named above in at least one of the six years the magazine was published? If you haven’t heard of any of them, that’s just the point. We’re reading magazines too much as if they are books.
Magazines led contemporary readers to writers they might never discover otherwise because the cost of reading unfamiliar material is much lower than with books. It is one thing to buy and read a volume of poetry by a poet I’ve never heard of; it’s a much easier thing to read a poem or two that appears in a periodical I’ve already bought because I trust its taste and/or wanted to read another piece that’s also in the issue. I’m suggesting that we need to read modernist magazines a bit more like their original readers would have, or, really, a bit more like the way we continue to read magazines today–as literary networks, building links within single issues and titles as well as across them. If all we do with sites like the MJP, whether as readers, scholars, or teachers, is go back to Blast and marvel at its typography and inflammatory politics and aesthetics, we’re missing out on one of the magazine’s distinctive traits (its networked nature) as well as some other really great stuff like Le Petit Journal des Réfusées, whose politics, aesthetics, and typography are every bit as weird as Blast. Mansfield, it should be said, does a little networking himself, as he uses Blast as a way to bring up Ford Madox Ford, whom he uses to pivot to a discussion of Ford’s seminal magazine, The English Review.
Where history blinds us, technology might help us appreciate the networked nature of the little magazines. We’re all hyper-aware of how networks work in our lives thanks to the World Wide Web, and it should be a goal for future developers and re-developers of digitized versions of historical magazines to make us as aware of how networks worked in modernism by creating hyperlinks whenever appropriate between articles and periodicals. Magazine articles frequently mentioned other articles and magazines, as did correspondence. The objects of these references should be a click away. The ease with which we might then gain access to a bigger and deeper modernist web would obviously be ahistorical, since no one in the Teens could jump from object to object so quickly. Or could they have, since readers immersed in the world of little magazines could very well have created their own mental network, using memory and association to build links between disparate writers, texts, and periodicals.