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date: 26 November 2022

Little Magazinesfree

Little Magazinesfree

  • Michael Barsanti


  • North American Literatures

“Little magazines” is a term referring to a set of literary periodicals published between roughly 1912 and 1939 that are characterized by their small readership, financial fragility, and artistic innovation. Little magazines were the nursery of several literary movements but are most closely connected to the birth of American modernism. They provided a place where writers of new, unusual, and often iconoclastic work could get into print. Those who published little magazines were amateurs and often artists themselves. Their goals were more likely to be artistic than commercial, a distinction borne out by their overwhelming tendency to be short-lived. They were especially important in creating and developing new American poetry and in consolidating and establishing ties between literary communities all over the world, but especially those in the urban centers of Chicago, New York City, London, and Paris.

The little magazines were the product of several converging social, technological, and artistic forces. Technological improvements and efficiencies in the manufacture of printed materials in the late nineteenth century (such as Linotype machines, which dramatically increased the speed with which type could be set, and web-fed presses that made it possible to print large print runs quickly) made magazines significantly cheaper to produce. The expansion of literary and commercial markets across national and international borders and the creation of new ways for periodicals to earn money from advertising and subscriptions that were developed in the 1890s made smaller publications possible, though not always feasible. The growth of an educated middle class meant that there was a larger audience of consumers to which to sell. These factors alone produced a formidable popular press at the beginning of the twentieth century—a popular press that was responsible for the novel idea of popular culture. While the little magazines benefited from the technologies and strategies that the popular press had brought into being, popular culture gave them something to kick against.

Throughout the early twentieth century the rejection of conventional culture, the defiance of standard artistic and commercial practices, and the energetic search for new artists and new audiences characterized the attitude, if not always the practice, of the little magazine. While these elements remained constant, the kinds of things the magazines published and the range of magazines available changed over time, a change that can be roughly divided into four different periods. In the time immediately before 1912— the year of the watershed appearance of the Chicago publication, Poetry: A Journal of Modern Verse—several similar but unrelated periodicals made the idea of little magazines viable. From 1912 to 1920 they enjoyed a period of frenetic activity and diversification as magazines competed to lead the avant-garde of a new movement—a competition that at times appeared to be arranged if not entirely, than at least in part, by the poet, critic, and promoter of artists, Ezra Pound. By the 1920s the field began to become more organized and its members more specialized, while the threat of censorship loomed. Finally, in the decade that followed the stock market crash of 1929 and preceded World War II, many little magazines responded to economic and political uncertainty by becoming more closely affiliated with political movements and educational institutions. Little magazines—or publications like them—still exist; the rise of the Internet has produced a flood of online publications that exceeds that of the early twentieth century in diversity and volume. The phenomenon of the first little magazines, however, rises out of a distinct moment in American literary history where new ideas and artistic modes of expression found a new medium and a new audience, changing everything that came after them.

Before 1912: Antecedents

The little magazines originated from several sources. They derived independence and stylistic innovation from the emergence in late Victorian Britain of avant-garde literary magazines, such as The Yellow Book (1894–1897) and The Savoy (1896), that combined elaborate visual presentation with audacious content. Closer to home, they are linked to a tradition of more sober, intellectual American reviews that go as far back as the original incarnation of The Dial (1840–1844), published by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller. The idea of a literary review made up exclusively of work by new artists can be connected most immediately to the Chap Book, published in Chicago from 1894 to 1898, but also to the English Review of Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford), which began publication in 1908.

Traditional accounts of the little magazines concentrate, for understandable reasons, on the literary journals. One of the distinguishing features of modernism as a movement, however, was the way in which it thrived on cross-pollination from different artistic spheres. Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work (1903–1917) became best known for its pioneering advancement of photography as an art form, yet it also served (especially late in its career) as a forum for writers, such as Gertrude Stein and Mina Loy, who were interested in the textual representation of images. This broader interest survived into the successor journal to Camera Work, called 291, which was named after Stieglitz's New York City gallery. The change from photographer's magazine to art journal alienated many of Camera Work's original subscribers but attracted others who wanted to follow the dramatic change that Stieglitz was effecting in the art world. The pattern of a relatively small and specialized magazine becoming the harbinger of a new kind of artistic expression would be repeated many times in the following years.

1912–1920: The Outburst

Prior to Harriet Monroe's first issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse in 1912, there were no national periodicals dedicated to publishing serious poetry. Monroe, an accomplished poet herself, saw this gap and sought to fill it with a small magazine that she would edit with her colleague, Alice Corbin Henderson. The plan for the magazine was simple: to find and publish the best new poetry available. Poetry was not very popular in America at the beginning of the twentieth century; its marginal position among the arts was not even widely seen as a problem.

Despite this, Poetry's system of economic support was unusually solid. Unlike other founders of little magazines, Monroe was careful to get her financing in place first. With the help of H. C. Chatfield-Taylor, a businessman and patron of the arts, she spent months in 1911 and early 1912 seeking guarantors in Chicago's arts and business communities who would give the magazine fifty dollars a year for five years. Once she had over one hundred names, she proceeded to spend the summer of 1912 in the Chicago Public Library reading all the poetry that had been published in the previous five years and writing down all the names of writers who interested her.

While it is possible that Poetry's roots in the practical world of businessmen and traditional patrons made it steer a safer course when it came to choosing work, it was never more radical than it was in its first five years of existence. Monroe invited the poets she found in her reading to submit work to her new magazine. Ezra Pound responded quickly and persuaded Monroe to accept not only his own work, but that of writers he had been cultivating for years. Monroe made Pound the “foreign editor” of Poetry, a title he held from 1912 to 1917, scouting talent from an exile's perch in London. Pound's tastes were very different from Monroe's. He preferred writers who looked to Europe (and to the French in particular) for inspiration and wrote compact, elliptical poems that emphasized visual experience, poets like H. D., Richard Aldington, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. In the March 1913 issue of Poetry, Pound defined the basic tenets of “imagism,” a term he created (but would soon abandon).

Monroe, in contrast, seemed to prefer poets who spoke in a more distinctly American, even midwestern, voice, such as Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, and Vachel Lindsay. Overall, the two collaborated successfully for several years, but they came into conflict on several occasions involving prize contests. In 1913, for example, Pound argued that Poetry's two-hundred-fifty-dollar Guarantor's Prize should go to Yeats for The Grey Rock. Though Monroe preferred Lindsay's General William Booth Enters into Heaven, she eventually deferred to Pound's wishes. She did not do so, however, in 1914, when she gave the newly named Levinson Prize to Carl Sandburg for Chicago. At around the same time, Pound submitted T. S. Eliot's Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to Monroe, who fretted over publishing it for nine months until, after urgent complaints from Pound, she finally put it at the back of the June 1915 issue. Pound began to shift his allegiance to other periodicals after this and left Poetry in 1917. Poetry's roster of published work is as eclectic as it is impressive—most of the eminent poets of the twentieth century were first brought before an American public in its pages. Publication there meant, and still means, arrival on the national stage.

Poetry arrived first, but many others followed. William Stanley Braithwaite, an African-American poet and editor living in Boston, brought his Poetry Journal out within weeks of Monroe's first issue. He published more conservative work, however, and was not as successful in attracting attention or funding in the long run. In Ridgefield, New Jersey, Alfred Kreymborg, a writer and editor, combined with Man Ray, a painter who would soon become famous for his radical artistic photographs, to create The Glebe in 1913. The Glebe was as eccentric as it was short-lived (its last issue came out in 1915), but it is remembered mostly for the February 1914 issue, a special number called Des Imagistes. This issue, which was compiled by Pound and shortly thereafter published as a separate anthology, contained works by Aldington, H.D., Amy Lowell, Williams, James Joyce, and Pound himself, among others. The Glebe was succeeded by Others, a more viable journal edited by Kreymborg, with Walter Arensberg, that was dedicated to poetry and, as the title suggests, defined against a mainstream of poetic taste that Poetry magazine had begun to represent. Its contributors occasionally met at Kreymborg's house in Ridgefield and collectively decided what would go in to the next issue, conducting a sort of rural salon. It was published from 1915 to 1919 and featured the work of Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, Moore, Kreymborg, Stevens, and Djuna Barnes, to name a few.

The use of the term “little magazine” to refer to a historically specific category has no certain origin, but it can be partly traced to another Chicago-born publication called The Little Review (1914–1929). In its fearless publication of difficult and controversial work, its always-desperate financial condition, and its importance to the literary circles of New York City and London, it serves as the paradigm of the little magazine. Its motto was “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste,” and the confiscation of several issues by the U.S. Post Office proved they meant it.

Margaret Anderson founded The Little Review in 1914 not to compete with Poetry so much as to have an outlet for her own creative and spiritual energies, which were considerable. It is tempting to compare the two Chicago-born journals, launched within two years of each other by women who were part of the same intellectual moment. As has often been noted, their different temperaments are reflected in their journals. With relatively secure funding and a clear sense of its mission and market, Poetry published regularly into the twenty-first century. It took measured risks, especially in its early years, but balanced those risks with a diverse assortment of work. The Little Review had irregular funding at best and published erratically. (In the summer of 1915, Anderson was forced to move out of her apartment and live in a tent on Lake Michigan to save money.) Its mission was defined more by the intensity or vividness of the work it espoused (in Anderson's eyes) than by any more tangible or objective criteria. The Little Review took big risks and was both celebrated and prosecuted for them.

After Pound left Poetry, his allegiance (and his stable of writers) shifted to several other periodicals, including The Glebe, and then to The Little Review. Before Pound, Anderson went through several phases, first publishing work from the fringes of Chicago's avant-garde, then adopting Emma Goldman's anarchism, then Amy Lowell's brand of imagism. In February 1916, Anderson met Jane Heap; the two women became lovers and Heap joined the magazine, beginning a new, energetic phase. They spent the summer in California and, despairing of the meager material they had for the September 1916 issue, chose to publish it with many blank pages and to call the entire issue a “want ad” for new talent. The gesture caught Pound's attention, and he arranged to have his patron and friend, the New York lawyer John Quinn, contribute to The Little Review in exchange for Pound's service as “foreign editor” (as he had been for Poetry).

Pound's legacy as a talent scout and promoter is at least as significant as that left by his own work. The story of his involvement with Poetry, however, has often been told in such a way as to overshadow the importance of Monroe and Henderson, who made the final decisions of what to publish and when. Similar problems confront the reader who looks at Pound's relationship with Harriet Shaw Weaver at the New Freewoman (renamed the Egoist in 1914) or his experience with The Little Review, where Anderson and Heap were the principal editors. Recent scholars have noted the conspicuous number of women who wrote for, edited, and supported the little magazines. It was possible for women to have more influence and make a greater difference in these places than elsewhere because they were on the margins of the literary establishment and there was no preexisting institutional bias to keep them out. Over time, their presence exerted a defining influence on the nature of modernism itself.

The high point of Pound's attachment to The Little Review was the publication of James Joyce's novel Ulysses (1922) in installments beginning in March 1918. Pound had first heard of Joyce through Yeats in 1913 and had placed Joyce's poetry and fiction in various magazines on both sides of the Atlantic—most prominently, he arranged for the publication of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) in the Egoist in 1914 and 1915. Pound hoped to publish Ulysses simultaneously in the Egoist and The Little Review, but because of legal difficulties, only a few episodes came out in the British journal. Anderson and Heap moved to New York City in 1917, and their magazine immediately began to take on the city scene with pugnacity and a determined disregard for convention. They thought that the opportunity to publish Ulysses was the chance of a lifetime; after the first few chapters they did little or no censoring of it, and several issues were seized and destroyed by the post office. This outrage only emboldened them.

1920–1929: Consolidation

The Little Review continued publishing Ulysses in installments until the summer of 1920, when Anderson and Heap were arrested for publishing obscenity in the form of the Nausicaa episode of the novel, which depicts masturbation. John Quinn, who had warned them about sending unsolicited complimentary copies of Ulysses through the mails (the practice that got the attention of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice), begrudgingly defended them by arguing that Ulysses was too difficult to understand to be obscene. The women were found guilty on Valentine's Day 1921, fined fifty dollars, and told to publish no more James Joyce. This derailed the book publication of the novel in the United States for over twelve years and nearly shut down The Little Review, but the magazine went on without Pound and eventually without Anderson, who left it to Heap in 1924. It continued into 1929 under Heap, changing direction by publishing more artwork and opening the Little Review Gallery. The trial, however, marked a small turning point for the little magazines. The exuberance that characterized the earlier decade was diminished, and those energies were redirected into the establishment and reinforcement of more secure, more focused publications.

One of the holdovers from the earlier period, however, was Broom, an international review first published by expatriate Americans in Italy that then moved on to Germany and New York City. It published many of the authors who had been affiliated with Kreymborg's Others during its three years of existence from 1921 to 1924, but was also known for its art reproductions, its avant-garde fiction, and its arresting design. Secession had a similar beginning in Europe and migration to America and is often linked with Broom through its shared history and several shared authors, though in its pages it vigorously defied any comparison. During Secession's two-year life from 1922 to 1924, it relentlessly advertised itself as the production of a discrete group of young artists who sought the furthest leading edge of the new, while it criticized its near-twin Broom for being like a serialized anthology that followed the leading trends. In practice, the magazines had far more in common than their quarreling would have suggested.

As mentioned earlier, one of the characteristics of modernism was the mutual influences that occurred between different art forms. Modernist writers were especially interested in the visual arts, and magazines like Secession and Broom emphasized their interrelationship. The Dial, probably the biggest and most influential little magazine of the 1920s, reported on different art forms and had reporters assigned to cover music, dance, and art. Emerson and Fuller's original Dial had ceased publishing in 1844, but the title was revived in 1880 for a political journal, again published out of Chicago, that also covered some literary subjects. By 1918 it had become stuck in financial and ideological quagmires and was purchased by the wealthy, well-connected, and intellectually expansive James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer. The Dial of the 1920s would be largely financed by Thayer, who also used his resources to build an important collection of modern art.

These works of art were regularly featured in The Dial, as were reviews of music, dance, and theater. The Dial was primarily a critical review; most of its contents in any given issue were prose pieces that set and described the tastes of the period. Because it was privately supported, it took no advertising and thus maintained greater independence. It was an expensive magazine to produce, however, both because of its high production values, its large staff, and the relatively generous amounts it paid to its contributors. One of The Dial's greatest coups was the first American publication of Eliot's The Waste Land in November 1922, for which it paid Eliot over two thousand dollars. The lion's share of this payment came in the form of The Dial's annual prize.

At the same time that The Dial was publishing The Waste Land, Eliot printed the poem in his own journal, Criterion, which was based in London. Criterion resembled The Dial in some respects—it, too, emphasized criticism over original work and occupied a position more elevated and authoritative than cutting edge in the literary marketplace. Eliot had been the assistant editor of the Egoist from 1915 to 1917 and was an editor for British publishers Faber and Faber, but Criterion allowed him his own arena. As the journal developed through the 1930s, it became increasingly interested in (and disturbed about) the rise of the competing ideologies of communism and fascism, often leaning away from the leftist sympathies that characterized the politics of so many other little magazines.

It was the nature of the little magazines, however, to speak for constituencies that had not had a voice in the larger cultural arena. As we have seen, this was first true for artists who were interested in jumping ahead of conventional tastes and producing modern work. It was also true, however, for underrepresented people of particular racial, class, gender, or even regional backgrounds. The Double Dealer was an early regional magazine started by Julius Weis Friend in New Orleans in 1921 and lasting until 1926. During those five years it initiated a southern literary renaissance, bringing out writing by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Thornton Wilder, and Jean Toomer. Its most famous discovery, however, was Ernest Hemingway, whose first short story was published there in 1922.

The Fugitive, a journal begun at Vanderbilt University, was part of the legacy of the Double Dealer. From 1922 to 1925 it was another platform for the growing southern school of literature and criticism as represented by the work of Tate and Ransom, but also later Robert Penn Warren. It spawned some of the most influential and enduring American literary magazines of the century, including the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Sewanee Review.

Within the African-American community, magazines also gave writers an important stage on which to present their work. While The Crisis (1910–), the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), might have been too large to qualify as a little magazine in the strictest sense, its role as an engine of the Harlem Renaissance, identifying and promoting African-American artists and writers under the editorship of W. E. B. Du Bois between 1910 and 1934 (with the novelist Jessie R. Fauset as literary editor from 1919 to 1926), makes it too important to omit from any account of the time. Its principal rival was Opportunity (1923–1949), a publication of the National Urban League that emphasized the representation of a New Negro in art. Together, these two magazines helped launch the careers of Fauset as well as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Bennett. More in the spirit of Poetry or The Little Review was Fire!!, created by Wallace Thurman in 1926 together with other Harlem Renaissance writers who wanted to establish an independent African-American review dedicated to the arts. While the group was unable to publish a second issue, Fire!! still broke important ground as the record of an African-American avant-garde.

1929–1939: Causes and Colleges

With the onset of the Great Depression, it became much harder to publish magazines. Many of those that were produced took activist stands to energize readers who sought social justice and economic reform. Little magazines had political agendas from the very beginning—The Little Review described itself as a magazine of “art and revolution” and published the writings of anarchist Emma Goldman next to its poetry and fiction. The Masses defined itself almost entirely through the application of literature and art to the causes of the left, including but not limited to socialism. Published from 1911 to 1917, The Masses was at its peak during the editorship of Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, which began in 1913. It published writers like Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, and Louis Untermeyer, but it was also known for its striking graphic design and illustration. By the end of its short life (an end that was accelerated by its frequent run-ins with the post office and the law), The Masses was making decisions about the contents of each issue through consensus of its entire staff, which gave it even more of a polyglot, eccentric feel.

The Masses was succeeded in 1918 by The Liberator, which, though it did not survive the 1920s, became the model for many other politically engaged literary reviews. One of the foremost of these was the Partisan Review, which began publication in 1934 and continued past the twentieth century, combining liberal politics with writers from across a broad spectrum, such as W. H. Auden, Randall Jarrell, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Wallace Stevens. While the Partisan Review was explicit about its political orientation, it was criticized (as was The Liberator and The Masses itself) throughout the 1930s by those farther on the left who felt that a more urgent call to action to a more radical form of communism was needed—a position embodied by The New Masses, edited by the activist writers Mike Gold and John Sloan.

Other magazines found security and a critical mass of intellectual activity on college and university campuses. Hound and Horn began in 1927 as a student magazine at Harvard University edited by Lincoln Kirstein. Mostly a critical review, it became an early outlet for the work of the New Critics such as R. P. Blackmur. Similarly, Contempo began at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, founded by Anthony Buttitta and Milton Abernethy in 1931. Contempo had a stronger political orientation than Hound and Horn, devoting an issue to the support of the Scottsboro defendants (nine African-American youths who were accused of rape at an infamous 1931 trial in Alabama) but also to the work of William Faulkner and James Joyce.

The magazine transition carried forward the international type of little magazine, whose most immediate forerunners were Broom and Secession. Edited by Eugene Jolas in Paris, transition was published between 1927 and 1938. It called for a revolution of the word and selected critical and imaginative work from all over the world that called into question the most basic assumptions about the operations of language. For this reason, transition is often associated with the dada movement, but it is best known for its publication of James Joyce's “Work in Progress,” which when published in book form in 1939 took on the more familiar name of Finnegans Wake.

As a phenomenon, the little magazines were produced by the confluence of several distinct forces and opportunities. Technological advancements made the production of magazines less expensive while the growth of consumer markets made subscriptions and the advertising of consumer products one viable, or nearly viable, way of generating revenue. For many magazines, however, support came from wealthy patrons whose interest in periodicals (as recipients of support analogous to artists themselves) constituted its own important trend. Meanwhile, the artistic forces behind trends that would come to be called literary modernism, as well as regionalism and the Harlem Renaissance, were generating material that needed ways to reach an audience. Because so much of this material was opposed, or even actively hostile, to the tastes and standards of the mainstream press, alternative outlets were required. Once set in motion, the system of little magazine publication acquired a momentum of its own that quickly radiated outwards, giving voice to otherwise-marginalized people and groups.

Literary movements are created in real and imaginary spaces, where kindred writers can associate with, be inspired by, or criticize one another. For writers of the pre–World War I period, these were often real spaces—salons, galleries, or cafés in major cities—but just as often those spaces were “virtual,” existing between the covers of magazines. Writers became associated with the journals that published them, often forming clannish groups or schools that would seldom last very long but would help to define that group against a broader field. The editors of these magazines established the terms under which these communities operated and participated in them as artists themselves. One of the enduring legacies of the little magazine is this figure of the editor who answers to the artistic and political goals set by his or her community of writers, as well as to his or her own individual taste. It is this style of editorial leadership, whether by an individual or a group, that helps distinguish the little magazine from what came before or after it, as well as the energy with which it asserted its singular identity and its independence from the conventions and tastes not just of the broader society or of the marketplace, but of the other little magazines. They are therefore best understood not as collections or samplers of artwork, but as works of art themselves.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Elliott, and Mary Kinzie, eds. The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History. Yonkers, N.Y., 1978. While mostly concerned with little magazines published after World War II, this eclectic collection illuminates the legacy of the earlier generation.
  • Benstock, Shari, and Bernard Benstock. The Role of Little Magazines in the Emergence of Modernism. Library Chronicle of the University of Texas 20, no. 4 (1991): 68–87. Discusses the importance of primary documents in tracing the relationships and communities at the heart of the little magazines.
  • Hoffman, Frederick J., Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich. The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography. 2d ed. Princeton, N.J., 1947. This is the standard work on the subject, an excellent reference source, though it should not be considered comprehensive.
  • Johnson, Abby Arthur, and Ronald Mayberry Johnson. Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro-American Magazines in the Twentieth Century. Amherst, Mass., 1979. One of the few books on the role of little magazines in the African-American arts community.
  • Marek, Jayne E. Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History. Lexington, Ky., 1995. Emphasizes the neglected importance of women to the little magazines.
  • Morrisson, Mark S. The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905–1920. Madison, Wis., 2001. On the little magazines and what they learned from mass-market publications.
  • Rainey, Lawrence. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. The Henry McBride Series in Modernism and Modernity. New Haven, Conn., 1998. Rainey's book concentrates on the economic relationships at the center of many of the events of literary modernism.
  • Watson, Steven. Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde. New York, 1991. An entertaining and readable history of the early years of modernism, ending in 1920.
  • Williams, Ellen. Harriet Monroe and the Poetry Renaissance. Urbana, Ill., 1977. A history of the first ten years of Poetry magazine.