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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 23-41

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The Lying Game:

Others and the Great Spectra Hoax of 1917

For all its high seriousness and insistence on authenticity, modernism was full of mischief: in 1910 Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) and her cohorts dressed up in turbans and dark makeup and passed themselves off as the court of the Emperor of Abyssynia, duping British naval officers into giving them a tour of the flag ship H.M.S. Dreadnought; in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted an inverted urinal to the Armory Show, signed R. Mutt; Arthur Cravan vanished in 1918, no one sure whether his disappearance was a murder, an accidental drowning, a suicide, or the ultimate Dada performance art; the brief but brilliant career of Ern Malley, Australia's 'national poet,' was fabricated by two obscure poets in 1944.1 The prevalence of such high jinks suggests that, far from sharing Marlowe's ethical sympathies in Heart of Darkness ("You know I hate, detest, can't bear a lie"), modernism loves a lie, reveling, like Felix Volkbein in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, in "splendid and reeking falsification."2

One of the most successful modernist hoaxes used little magazines to disseminate their specious poetic products, choosing Others: A Magazine of the New Verse as a primary venue. Established in 1915 by Alfred Kreymborg, Others had earned a reputation for extremism by publishing daring and experimental poets such as Mina Loy, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. The magazine had featured the work of Imagists and Futurists and dedicated special issues to dance poems by the Choric School, a Spanish-American Number, and a Woman's Number. Upholding its mission to publish "the new verse," Others devoted its entire January 1917 issue to the latest innovation: the Spectric School. Like the many competing "isms" of the day, Spectrism had a manifesto. Spectra poems by Anne Knish and Emanuel Morgan had appeared in Forum and the New Republic, as well as in Poetry, the Little Review, and Reedy's Mirror, and the [End Page 23] poets issued a volume of Spectra in 1916. The school acquired acolytes around the country, and the Wisconsin Literary Magazine even published a parody of the parody, introducing the Ultra-Violet school.3 The Spectric School earned critical acclaim from respected critics and poets: E. L. Masters praised them for getting "to the core of things."4 Much to the shock of its enthusiasts, however, Spectrism proved to be merely a masquerade—a hoax concocted by conservative poets, Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, to expose the pretensions of modernist poets and audiences alike, especially the Others extremists. What Bynner and Ficke did not anticipate was that the hoax would also uncover something "Other" within themselves: as Bynner complained after the hoax was revealed, "The worst of it is that I can't get rid of Emmanuel Morgan! . . . I don't know where he leaves off and I begin. He's a boomerang!"5

The lesson to be extracted from this comical chapter in modernist literary history is not that the masquerade exposes an underlying essential or true self, but rather that identity emerges through the kinds of dialogues and performances that little magazines enabled. Although many scholars have delighted in retelling the story of the Spectra Hoax, none have considered the importance of little magazines in facilitating it.6 The Spectra Hoax offers a fascinating case study of identity politics in early modernism, demonstrating how gender, sexuality, class, and nation contribute to the dialogical formation of personal identity. Little magazines created a forum for these dialogues, enabling modern identities to be articulated, undercut, and reformulated. In other words, these journals provided an invaluable stage for performing modern identities.

Little magazines were essential venues for modernist identity performances, not only because they were more permissive and open to experiment, but also because the journals were themselves performance spaces, more similar to theaters than books. Little magazines are...


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