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How do you write about a topic that lies beyond any one person's reach? That's the challenge Eric Bulson takes up in his ambitious new book, Little Magazine, World Form, in which he attempts to move modernist studies in the direction of world literature through the medium of the little magazine. Starting with the notion that modernism and the avant-garde grew out of little magazines, Bulson argues that our current understanding of this print medium is so narrowly focused by language and national culture that we have overlooked little cultural magazines that circulated just across our borders, including the wide array of such magazines that were published around the globe between the 1910s and 1960s. One of his aims for this book, then, is to supplement our understanding of this medium by "enlarging the geography and expanding the timeline" of the little magazine (3). But by aspiring to a global perspective on the medium, Bulson also believes we can bring into view a worldwide network of little magazines, which in turn might defamiliarize and revitalize how we understand both magazines and modernism. Bulson has few illusions about the difficulties ahead of him: there are too many magazines, written in too many (untranslated) languages, sutured to too many cultural histories for any one scholar to master them all; and that's not even factoring in the way the magazines themselves, if substantial runs have survived, still remain largely inaccessible, scattered across the globe, despite recent efforts to digitize and bring some of them online. Who has the time or expertise or financial wherewithal to do it all?
Which is why this book, in launching this project, is really a call to arms: an appeal to scholars to join Bulson in cultivating this new field, with the author laying the groundwork and pointing the way forward. In his introduction and first chapter, Bulson lays out his methodology and theoretical framework for investigating a worldwide network of little magazines, which he begins to flesh out in successive chapters, by studying British and American little magazines on either side of the Atlantic before and after World War I; Italian little magazines (riviste) published in Milan between the wars; exiled magazines from the same period published by Americans in Europe and European surrealists in America; postcolonial magazines from the West Indies and Africa in the 1950s and 60s; and, back in Italy, a multitude of futurist riviste that, inspired by technology like the wireless telegraph, were used to broadcast the futurist movement across the country. (There's also a short afterword about current technology and the digital remediation of modernist little magazines today.) By the end of the book, Bulson has proven himself to be a first-rate globetrotting scholar and expert travel guide, having led us through substantial discussions of over forty little magazines from five continents. But given the breadth of the field, the book is best regarded as still a series of case studies, more sampler than survey.
Rather than map a new field of study, then, Bulson has modeled a strategy for exploring it, test-driving his methodology in the differing terrains of his six chapters. That methodology is best described as a materialist comparative approach, by which he anchors each magazine in its specific material context while using the common medium of the little magazine to relate different titles from across time, regions, languages, and cultures. I'll talk more about this relational network below, but first let's consider the materialist perspective that lies quietly behind the word "form" in the book's title. By this term, Bulson points us toward the magazine's materiality, "both the internal structure … and its external shape, design, and construction" (22). Drawing from Fredric Jameson's notion of the "form symptom," Bulson also sees the form of the little magazine as concealing "social relationships and political conflict within the concreteness of its structure" (22–23). If we are to articulate the complex relationships among the world's little magazines, we first need to "recover the specificity...