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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 42-55

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The Dial, The Little Review, and The Dialogics of Modernism

Thinking that he had lost the chance to publish The Waste Land, which he had not yet actually seen, Scofield Thayer, joint owner and editor of the Dial, wrote to his staff in March 1922 that "if Eliot's long poem was anything like Pound's Cantos, perhaps we are unwillingly blessed" in losing it.1 Accepting the poem subsequently under pressure from his partner James Sibley Watson and his Paris correspondent Pound did not improve Thayer's opinion of it. In October 1922, the month of The Waste Land's publication, he wrote to his prospective new managing editor Alyse Gregory: "I feel forced to refrain in the future from publishing such matter as the silly cantos of Ezra Pound and as the very disappointing 'Waste Land' and I should like to secure for the Dial the work of such recognized American authors as Edith Wharton."2 Thayer was about to preside over a turning point in the institutionalization of Anglo-American modernism, and in the positioning of his own magazine within that institution. Under the circumstances, these hardly sound like words calculated to make The Dial one of the most influential literary reviews ever published in America.

Yet the aesthetic conservatism implied in Thayer's choice of examples—Wharton over Pound and Eliot—was, paradoxically, necessary to the Dial's promotion of aesthetic revolution. Already an established magazine, under Thayer and Watson the Dial put experimental modernist work in a context that made it more palatable to a general audience. Meanwhile, the Little Review (1914–29), a contemporary of the Dial (1920–29) and perhaps the quintessential little magazine, provided a first outlet and encouragement for much of that experiment. By emphasizing the relationship between these two equally important, though very different, magazines, we can better understand how together they helped shape one version of an emerging modern American [End Page 42] poetry canon. The relationship between the Dial and the Little Review also demonstrates how, in its rapprochement with a mainstream publishing outlet, early twentieth-century American avant-gardism bears a very different relation to its mainstream contemporaries from that of the European movements on which canonical theories of the avant-garde rest. Thus we need to theorize the relationship between the avant-garde and modernism differently for the American scene—to think in terms of avant-garde tendencies, impulses, or moments rather than movements. Mainly, however, I want to propose here a historically based model for considering how the shaping of taste by modernist magazines is a collective project, not a matter of the atomized influence of single publications. Such a model would complicate center-margin oppositions and blur some of the binaries proposed in an influential theory of the avant-garde like Peter Burger's, by suggesting how the Dial and the Little Review needed each other to accomplish their cultural work. This is not to deny that some magazines have a longer-lasting and deeper impact than others. It is to assert, however, that even those magazines—like individual canonical authors—have their meaning and effect not in isolation but in relation to others.

Commentators on modernist magazines have consistently linked the Dial and the Little Review, usually to contrast them, and apologists for both magazines have used the example of one to excoriate the other as it suits them. Nicholas Joost describes the Dial in terms typically reserved for the high modernist art work, defining it as a "disciplined and ordered artifact" in opposition to the "glittering, and occasionally silly, hodgepodge" of the Little Review's failure to offer anything "more than self-expression."3 Gorham Munson, who had kicked off his little magazine Secession in spring 1922 with a critique of the Dial, subsequently contrasted the Dial and the Little Review to the latter's advantage under the title "How to Run a Little Magazine": "The Little...


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