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Sally Dennison. (Alternative) Literary Publishing: Five Modern Histories. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1984. 240 pp. Cloth $12.95; pb. $9.95

For all of the contemporary critical interest in literature as text, as artifact, and as communication, there has been surprisingly little scholarly consideration of the cause and effect of literary publication. The facts of publication have not been ignored, especially in terms of the major modernists, but often the meaning of the act of publication remains a relatively uncharted area of literary understanding. Although biographical and bibliographical critics of individual writers often have illuminated individual works, still we lack an overview of literary publication in technological, commercial, social, and artistic terms.

The achievement of Sally Dennison's (Alternative) Literary Publishing exists precisely in its exploration of one major branch of literary publication in the twentieth century—the small press as the handmaiden of great writing. Her (alternative) publishing includes self-publication, little magazines, readings, university presses, etc. Dennison's accomplishment lies not in the study of the small press phenomenon or even of her five featured writers—Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, Nin, Nabokov. Rather, it is found in the common themes that emerge from the comparison and contrast of her individuals. Her yoking of these disparate talents in terms of the mechanics of their publication (their act of making public their art) proves fascinating for the student of modern literature. Dennison does more than retell biography or reiterate bibliography; she links lives and books, causes and effects, society and literature. Her thesis, muted by subtle and careful exemplification, seems to be that the circumstances of publication both shape and direct literary [End Page 864] careers. Her subthesis is that small press publication became both the cause and effect of literary modernism as exhibited in the work of her five authors and others.

In fact, Dennison considers more than her central five. She begins, as one might expect, with Pound, and she concludes, appropriately enough, with Purdy. Between them she views a dozen others along with the five major figures. Of course, Eliot and Joyce are the most important examples, the seminal modernist poet and fictionist. Dennison works from established scholarship, and she tells readers much that they already know. What seems most important is the way she tells it. The well-known lives and works gain fresh meaning from the viewpoint of publication, and Dennison's text is as much the narrative as the fictions of her subjects. She is a superb stylist and storyteller.

Dennison proves even better with her female subjects, Woolf and Nin, marshalling feminist criticism to the analysis of the particularly female problems of the act of making oneself public in print. Again, Nin's story is more interesting than Woolf's because it is less well known. In turn it leads to perhaps the best effort, "Vladimir Nabokov: The Work of Art as a Dirty Book." This essay remains the most insightful not only because of Nabokov's somewhat neglected genius but because Dennison here makes her most original fusion of the artistic consequences of the commercial and social aspects of publications. The play between literary and popular genres in Nabokov's fiction reflects the publication history of his books. This consideration of Nabokov leads to a consideration of other contemporary talents in the concluding chapter.

The reviewer might fault Dennison's book only in wishing there were more of it. The writers mentioned in the last chapter tease the reader with possibilities. One might ask for a more direct connection with contemporary literary theory or, for that matter, for more close analysis of key texts. Yet Dennison provides so much for the reader that these observations remain more wishes than criticism.

In all, Sally Dennison has written a fine book. It began as a dissertation at Tulsa University, was published alternatively with the University of Iowa Press (it is a handsome production, by the way), and has been shaped by these circumstances and by the fact that Dennison is the copublisher of Council Oaks Books in Tulsa. One can only hope that, like the works of her subject, Dennison's book will influence the course of contemporary...


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