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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 6-22
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Poetry's Opening Door:
Harriet Monroe and American Modernism
John Timberman Newcomb
American literary history has long taken for granted that the modernist ferment of the 1910s was catalyzed in the little magazine, a new discursive form capable of challenging a repressed and obsolete genteel culture while also circumventing the economic limitations of mass-market publishing. But until recently, little has been done to investigate critically how portrayals of little magazines by their participants and historians helped to construct canonical versions of modernism. Since the landmark 1946 volume The Little Magazine: A History and Bibliography, scholarship on these publications has inhabited a powerfully authorial framework of value, in which the importance of a given magazine largely equates to its sponsorship of canonical high modernists. In this model, the little magazine is merely a "proving ground," as Frederick Hoffman put it, for titanic individuals to develop their own unique modes of writing.1 Most histories done in the wake of The Little Magazine treat the magazine field as a universe of empty space only made meaningful by the few comets who shot through it on their way to canonical glory. They obscure rather than clarify the complex roles played by groups, institutions, and overlooked individuals in the ideological formation of American modernism.
But more recently scholars have begun to ask new questions: how did little magazines help to monumentalize the "great modernist author" as an evaluative category; how did they create the conditions for a few particular authors, and not others, to assume that role; perhaps most important, how do they offer alternative accounts of the function and value of modernist writing? By treating modernist little magazines and their authors as productively embedded within the cultural economies, ideologies, and practices of the early twentieth century, this new approach can help to demystify the evaluative economies [End Page 6] underlying the particular, perhaps peculiar, shape canonical modernism took, and promote the recovery of other modernisms more responsive to the diversity and specificity of their times, and ours. In that spirit, I'd like to re-examine the familiar modernist story of the early years of one little magazine, Harriet Monroe's Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, which began in Chicago in October 1912, and over the next decade published nearly all those who became known as the most important poets of the modernist era. After briefly critiquing conventionally gendered views of Monroe and her magazine, I'll outline an alternative account that values Poetry not merely for its sponsorship of canonical authors, but for its construction of an American avant-garde sensibility, and for its forceful engagement with modernity.
The magnitude of Poetry's importance to modernism has never been fully appreciated. More than any literary endeavor of its times, Monroe's magazine challenged the prevailing notion that poetry had no business in urban-industrial modernity, and theorized the continued value of verse at a time when to many, the genre seemed about to end its days as a refuge for spineless dilettantes, "the rickety dream-child of neurotic aestheticism," as Ferris Greenslet worried in 1899.2 In October 1912, barely a year after beginning the venture, with no precedent or evidence that it could succeed, Monroe had created what American poets and poetry-lovers had long bemoaned as impossible: a stable and energetic discursive space committed to defending poets' experiments in both versification and subject matter, while also publicizing virtually all the significant books of American and British verse.
Though Poetry has always maintained a significant place in modernist literary history, many influential accounts are remarkably grudging. Their unwillingness to credit Monroe's accomplishment reveals longtime tensions and repressions of modernist history-writing. The magazine's complex relations with Ezra Pound, and its sometimes reluctant (though by no means unimportant) support of certain poets within his orbit, have frequently been used to imply the editors' insufficiently modern temperament, their desire to cling to the inhibitions of Victorian gentility. Pound and...