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The Public Face of Modernism:
Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920
Mark Morrison. The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2001. xiv + 279 pp.
"No theory escapes the marketplace," wrote Theodor Adorno in the 1960s. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, in literary studies at least, it seems that the obverse is equally true: no marketplace escapes theorization. Mark Morrison addresses the publication of so-called "little magazines," some "littler" than others—there are separate chapters on TheEnglish Review, Poetry and Drama, The Egoist (and its two-time supplement, Blast), TheLittle Review, and TheMasses—placing them against the backdrop of the broader development of consumer culture in the early twentieth century. Opposing the "contamination anxiety" theory espoused in various ways by Andreas Huyssen, Peter Bürger, and others, in which modernist avant-garde writers and artists are viewed as disgusted at the excesses of commerce, concerned about its power to reify subjectivity and language, and wary of their own complicity with market forces, Morrison argues that British and American literary modernists' "engagements with the commercial mass market were rich and diverse." Consequently, he seeks to "contribute to a 're-visioning' of modernism"—the kind of revision being undertaken in different ways by Jennifer Wicke, Lawrence Rainey, and others—"by exploring its complex and fascinating interdependence with the mass market press." [End Page 511]
Morrison goes some way in showing how that richness, diversity, and complexity shaped the objects of his study. He convincingly treats Ford Madox Ford's (pre-Good Soldier) efforts to draw on the public-minded Enlightenment ideals of the literary journal Mercure de France in his London based Poetry Review; Margaret Anderson's shaping TheLittle Review in direct relation to emerging popular magazines catering to youth audiences; and the left-wing journal TheMasses' inclusion of such poets as William Carlos Williams in its editors' aim to forge a new, radicalized populace. Particularly impressive is Morrison's theorization of what he calls the "pure voice" of pre-World War I London, in which he suggests that "modernist hopes to 'purify the dialect of the tribe'"—Eliot's proclamation in Four Quartets—"emerged in England against the backdrop of a class-based sociocultural movement" to homogenize upper middle-class "standard" English, in part through the formation of "elocutionary communities" in which poetry was memorized and recited. Although he undertakes few sustained readings of particular texts, generally preferring cultural-critical contextualization, Morrison's extended analysis of Wyndham Lewis's play, Enemy of the Stars, is especially illuminating. According to Morrison, "Lewis produces in Enemy of the Stars a vision of the artist-hero as spectacle that is couched both in terms of advertising and in terms of the discourse of energy and violence that pervades Blast." Here, Morrison persuasively complicates Hugh Kenner's nigh canonical philosophical reading of the text, emphasizing "the political and social positions" that Lewis had insisted upon (and ranted against).
Less persuasive, to me, is Morrison's argument concerning the seminal role of audience in shaping literary meaning. In order to draw his portrait of modernism's "public face," Morrison relies substantially on Jürgen Habermas's influential claims, in Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, that the bourgeois public sphere instantiated a new kind of private/public divide in which public discourse of a certain type—"culture debating" in Morrison's shorthand—could thrive. But, following Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge's pro-proletarian critique of Habermas, Morrison denies that modern public discourse deteriorated in the twentieth century into the type of "culture consuming" society as theorized by Habermas (following his teacher Adorno). Rather, in early modernist Anglo-American little magazines, Morrison sees evidence of a vital attempt to "debate"—and respond to—mass culture in a very public way. [End Page 512] He quite convincingly makes that case, but in fairness to the complexity of Habermas's argument, further consideration might have been given to...