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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 1-5
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Little Magazines and Modernism:
Suzanne W. Churchill
Scene— A cellar in Greenwich Village. A few chairs and tables, weird and grotesque paintings and sketches on the walls, a battered upright piano in one corner and windows curtained with batik, complete the picture. A shabbily dressed man and woman are chatting at one of the tables. In the corner a waitress in Russian village costume sits reading a copy of the Dial.1
George S. Schuyler's caricatured scene of bohemian life in 1925 provides a fitting introduction to this special issue of American Periodicals, which examines the integral role played by little magazines in the development of modernism. Schuyler's coffee house is set in Greenwich Village, a center of cultural innovation during an era of particularly rapid transformation, and the scene he presents is notable both for its shabby heterogeneity and for its unifying elements. The room is a hodgepodge of modernist styles, the patrons are in noticeable financial difficulty, and their potential class politics is underscored by the waitress's costume, which gestures toward revolutionary Russia. The final touch to this scene—the element that holds everything together—is the Dial, one of modernism's most influential little magazines. Schuyler's parody of Bohemia was published in the Messenger, which was the most politically radical journal little magazine of the Harlem Renaissance, and his sketch rather handily illustrates the centrality of little magazines to modernism, because in "At the Coffee House," little magazines simultaneously constitute an original site of publication, a concrete element of modern life, and a significant aesthetic detail. The essays in this issue recover such moments [End Page 1] of convergence in order to reconsider the multiple—and endlessly fascinating—relationships between little magazines and American modernism.
The appearance of an elite literary magazine in the pages of a politically oriented, African American little magazine suggests a significant line of contact between purportedly separate modernist movements. However, further examination of "At the Coffee House" complicates this picture of cross-fertilization by drawing attention to the dissent and resistance embodied by the story itself. As it unfolds, Schuyler's satirical portrait of Bohemia dramatizes how white modernists achieve fame and fortune by capitalizing on Negro stereotypes, while African American writers remain poor and unpublished. When we meet the same writers at the coffee house three months later, they have successfully manipulated the racist expectations of white, mainstream readers by writing suitably palatable but wildly inaccurate depictions of black life, thus securing their reputations and enabling one of the characters to buy and renovate the coffeehouse (he transforms it into a Polynesian fantasy—a further manipulation of raced expectations). The sketch thus exposes the white avant garde's appropriation of African American subject matter, underscoring how economic conditions and social expectations set the parameters of modernist artistic expression. In various ways, the essays in this issue of American Periodicals return to little magazines in order to explore other examples of the material conditions, ideological underpinnings, and formal practices limned by Schuyler's contribution tothe Messenger.
Little magazines acted as open, heterogeneous social settings in which writers of various races, nationalities, and classes read and responded to each other's work. Today, they provide loci of identification and difference, allowing us to map the lines of connection, influence, conflict, and resistance that entangled the many strands of modernism. Little magazines sometimes galvanized their readers, but just as often they shocked and even repelled their audiences. Some attracted relatively broad readerships, while other little magazines—sometimes the most influential—were noticed at first only by small coteries of aesthetic avant-gardists and political radicals. Sometimes they even incurred governmental wrath and censorship. In short, little magazines pulsed with the excitement of their times, and they often anticipated or forged future literary and political trends. By reading little magazines carefully, we can see how they set the stage for surprising collaborative efforts, wove...