Academic journal article Criticism

From the Historical Avant-Garde to Highbrow Coterie Modernism: The Little Review's Wartime Advances and Retreats

Academic journal article Criticism

From the Historical Avant-Garde to Highbrow Coterie Modernism: The Little Review's Wartime Advances and Retreats

Article excerpt

Shortly after the Anglo-American literary renaissance emerged, the First World War erupted across Europe, influencing the development of one of modernism's foundational enterprises: the little magazine. Revisionary histories have explored the collaborative context of periodicals to recover a broader narrative of modernism,1 yet few studies have differentiated between what type of public engagement might constitute historical avant-garde, modernist, mass culture, or some hybrid. Rather than defining avant-gardism solely through aesthetics, I examine evolving material historical print-culture practices to evaluate the magazine's shifting relationships to countercultural spaces.2 The Little Review (1914-29) originally exemplified the historical avant-garde in the way its editor, Margaret Anderson, maintained a successful marriage of aesthetic and political radicalism. Early issues advanced the alternative worldviews of a variety of sociopolitical causes. Countercultural activism increased further in response to the wartime climate. When wartime production demands amplified tensions between labor and industries, the magazine publicized on behalf of workers and syndicalism. As the public consolidated opinion around nationalism, editorials and essays combated jingoistic culture by promoting applied anarchism and Nietzschean philosophical individualism. Economic, political, and cultural pressures, however, eventually forced the editorial agenda to retreat gradually from its multiple oppositional positions-altering the publication context that produced the cross-pollination between politics and art.

Signs of the magazine's retreat from wider public engagement can be traced across a series of bibliographic silences that responded to key events and ideological controversies. While empty advertising pages drew attention to economic marginalization in 1915, the September 1916 "Blank Issue" was a call for new art resembling aestheticism or "Life for Art's Sake." The final silence appeared in the April 1917 issue, which announced US mobilization with a page entitled "The War," but, other than mentioning possible suppression, Anderson provided no further copy to editorialize the nation's entry into global conflict. The next month, Ezra Pound became Foreign Editor. Under his influence, the magazine's material and business practices (or what Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker refer to as "periodical codes") changed and the table of contents were consistently filled with his coterie.3 The new literature appeared in a reimagined publication context that reflected highbrow coterie modernism to ensure, at least for a while, the Little Review's success in a literary marketplace very different from its moment of origin in prewar Chicago.

March 1914-May 1915: "Prussian Superman of Nietzsche's Cult"

During the earliest phase of its publication history in prewar and early wartime Chicago, the Little Review published the socially engaged literature of the Chicago-based avant-garde alongside feature essays disputing various mainstream political perspectives.4 Since the magazine had a vocal community of Chicago regulars who were more than mere artists, their activism constructed a context steeped in the type of praxis that realized the cross-pollination between art and politics. In addition, the magazine was sustained through counterpublic networking tactics-trading advertising space, targeting like-minded readers, and even sharing contributors with other magazines associated with radical social and political causes.5

The back matter reveals that the magazine was also associated with the mainstream. Early on, Anderson had successfully canvassed and charmed businesses to secure advertising accounts to support her new 64-page publication. Content and advertising alike reflected the diverse cultural and countercultural landscape of the city as the magazine showcased Chicago's writers, artists, bookshops, theaters, musical halls, lecture series, and galleries. …

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