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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 531-533

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Book Review

The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920

The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920. Mark S. Morrisson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001. Pp. xiv + 279. $50.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Mark Morrisson's The Public Face of Modernism joins recent scholarly efforts to challenge the purported hostility between modernism and mass culture and to overcome the "Great Divide" theorized by Andreas Hyussen. 1 Some of these studies have turned to little magazines--independent, small-circulation, noncommercial journals--to recover the economic strategies, political maneuvers, and social dynamics of modernist literary production, but Morrisson's is the first to devote its full attention to these important and neglected periodicals. His book is also distinguished by an effort to bridge what may be an even greater divide in modernist studies: the gap between contextual study and textual analysis. He examines the influence of mass culture [End Page 531] not only on the dissemination and reception of early modernist works, but also on their content and form. Although much of the book illuminates the ways in which editors of little magazines negotiated social institutions, market conditions, and audience expectations, Morrisson's rereadings of works such as Ford Madox Ford's Mr. Apollo, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, Wyndham Lewis's Enemy of the Stars, James Joyce's "Nausicaa" chapter of Ulysses, and William Carlos Williams's "Chinese Nightingale" constitute some of his most compelling analyses. His choices of texts debunk the canard that high modernist works are necessarily elitist, and his readings demonstrate how these texts reflect and inflect aspects of modern public life such as the mass market daily, the verse recitation movement in England, the advertising spectacle, the American cult of youth, and the politics of race in America.

Lucid, lively, and impressively researched, this study offers valuable new insights into the commercial developments and popular movements that influenced the rise and course of modernism. Rather than invoking economic and social contexts simply as historical determinants or colorful background, Morrisson emphasizes modernist interventions in the public sphere. He demonstrates that these writers and editors were neither threatened by the forces of the emerging mass market nor plagued by anxieties about contamination by commodity culture; they enthusiastically engaged the tools and strategies of mass commercial culture to transform the public sphere and to revitalize modern art's role within it. The little magazines he examines--The English Review,Poetry and Drama,The Freewoman/New Freewoman/Egoist,The Little Review, and The Masses--were attempts to foreground modernist works in "the vibrant and exciting new print venues of the public sphere," not "to retreat into the private and elite confines of coterie publication" (10).

Even when modernists rejected the profit-based, consensus-driven values of mass commercial culture, they sought to enter the public sphere and attract broad audiences, appropriating commercial advertising tactics to promote their noncommercial "products." Their condemnation of commodity culture served as a way of marketing modernist art as absolutely vital to the masses. Ford, for example, linked the decline of the public sphere to the emergence of mass market print culture, yet used the rhetoric of decline to promote the value of his own little magazine, The English Review. Similarly Harold Monro invoked a myth of the decay of oral culture in order to popularize modern poetry. To attract an audience for public readings at the Poetry Bookshop and to develop a broad readership for Poetry and Drama, he attacked bourgeois cultural institutions and reading habits while appropriating the discourse and practices of the bourgeois verse recitation movement. The "myth of decline" gave early modernists "a useful rhetorical enemy (the new commercial mass-market publications) against which to position their own work--in effect, to promote, to market their own efforts to use modernist literature and art to reshape public culture" (9).

While some writers and editors attempted to intervene directly in the public sphere, others tried to establish alternative oppositional spaces...


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