Realism and the Discursive Dynamics of the Popular Periodical, 1900-1930

Article excerpt

Realism cannot be understood only in relation to the world it represents; it is also a debate [...] with competing modes of representation.

--Amy Kaplan, The Social Construction of American Realism

Cultural historians have long noted the strong relation between periodical culture and literary realism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, various serial publications hosted debates about the efficacy of realism as an aesthetic approach, lending it legitimacy in the broader cultural arena; moreover, both literary and mainstream magazines provided remunerative publishing opportunities for realist writers of all types (including naturalists and regionalists), keeping them and their works viable while helping to strengthen the perception of realism as an accessible literary mode, especially in contrast to high modernism. Just recently, American Literary Realism acknowledged the continuing interest in this link by dedicating an entire number (Spring 2010) to the intersection of realism and periodicals; the published articles demonstrate anew the importance of popular magazines as a venue for literary realism.

Yet magazines may also have performed important cultural work for realist fiction in ways that reached beyond merely showcasing realist-oriented content. Specifically, the kinetic energy of the popular periodical--its lively integration of stories, editorial features, and advertisements--helped condition the magazine-reading public not only to distinguish the signifiers of the "real" (a key concept in the popular culture of the early twentieth century), but also to appreciate its merits. Furthermore, the modern magazine format, still very much evolving in the period between 1900 and 1930, embodied a certain instability that can be seen in retrospect as reflecting and enabling the unsettled position of literature itself. As Nancy Bentley argues in Frantic Panoramas, her study of American literature and mass culture, the "advent of mass culture" in these years made it "far more difficult to give literature and the arts pride of place as a laboratory of the human imagination" (9). Indeed, within the context of the mainstream magazine, realist fiction was merely one among many discursive locations exploiting notions of the real, and these different sites necessarily affected and inflected each other. To be sure, popular magazines constantly reinscribed conventional boundaries between the "real" and the "not-real"--partly by stressing distinctions between, say, realism and sensationalism, or, even more broadly, between fiction and nonfiction--but they also manipulated those boundaries in ways that presumably intrigued and even titillated their readers. (1)

The increasingly reflexive nature of the popular periodical between 1890 and 1930 has been the topic of substantial scholarship. The 1890s is generally considered the era of the "magazine revolution"--when lower prices resulted in hugely increased circulations that, in turn, enticed advertisers--but the resulting synergy between editorial and marketing interests led to other pivotal developments as well (see Peterson, Chapter 1). Ellen Gruber Garvey has demonstrated that during this decade magazine readers, especially women, were actively encouraged through contests and other incentives to "play" with advertising materials; these games both foregrounded advertising's relations to other sites in the magazine and underscored the reader's active role in bringing the magazine's disparate discourses together (76-79). Since the games furthered the interests of both editors and advertisers, it is perhaps not surprising that other means of cross-referencing the magazine's various sites and discourses also developed, with the result that, by the 1920s, popular magazines exhibited a complex and often calculated interpenetration among their various internal offerings. As Jennifer Scanlon describes it in her study of Ladies' Home Journal, distinctions among editorial materials, features, short stories, and advertising became "less than clearly drawn": these different discursive domains not only alluded to each other, but also borrowed presentational strategies from one another, resulting in a verbal and imagistic give-and-take that was "complementary" but "not without tensions" (170). …