- Playing Smart: New York Women and Modern Magazine Culture
Middlebrow magazines of the interwar years promised their readers freedom, mobility, and urbanity by promoting a commodity culture that, in reality, worked to maintain limiting binaries of gender and racial hierarchies. Undergirding this culture was the modernist Great Divide, which characterized valid artistic production as masculine, resistant to the market, and intellectually and politically informed; mass culture, by contrast, was feminine, artistically bankrupt, and mindlessly complicit with the worst elements of capitalism and consumerism. For women humor writers working in the spotlight of middlebrow print culture, “playing smart” meant laughing behind the glamorous but restrictive mask of female celebrity in order to expose and ironize the limitations and absurdities of American modernity.
In Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture, Catherine Keyser reads Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lois Long, Jesse Fauset, Nella Larsen, Dawn Powell, and Mary McCarthy in order to demonstrate how they simultaneously inhabited and challenged middlebrow magazine culture. These writers found themselves in a double bind, because “smartness” was just as confining as it was desirable. On one hand, smartness referred to sharp intellect, cultural and political savvy, and an urbanity that could easily navigate the modern city, particularly New York City. On the other hand, smartness was almost always gendered female, and it too often defined the “feminine in very narrow terms . . . that emphasized woman’s role as consumer, sex object, and charming companion” (6). The authors Keyser studies self-consciously adopted the pre-scripted role of the smart woman, but by employing “irony, narrative perspective, and theatrical tropes,” they were able to critique the “gender roles, mass media, and modernity” (2) promoted by American magazines. These writers were, therefore, playing double roles, wearing the sleek mask of chic, witty, but ultimately frivolous female urbanity while simultaneously pursuing aggressive cultural critiques through “the literary tools of ironic juxtaposition, comic exaggeration, and self-conscious theatricality” (6). Keyser deftly notes that, through this doubleness, “The guise of one facilitated the guile of the other” (6).
Chapters One and Two focus primarily on the work Millay and Parker did for middlebrow magazines in the 1920s. Millay wrote light verse and “distressing [End Page 218] dialogues” for Vanity Fair—under both her own name and as Nancy Boyd—that successfully adopted the magazine’s flippant, sophisticated tone and cultivated her celebrity as a smart woman writer. As her letters indicate, Millay understood the restrictiveness of the femininity advanced by Vanity Fair, and she thus used Nancy Boyd’s “wiseacre iconoclasm” (27) and the rebellious energy of her light verse to expose the artifice of publicity culture, to challenge gender norms, and to assert modern woman’s sexual autonomy.
Parker was less sanguine about the advantages of playing smart in the public eye. In her contributions to the New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, she voiced her impatience with the frivolous modern flapper, who substituted “a cult of the body for intellectual development and narcissism for ambition” (52). Taking on the “illusion of feminine glamour” (56) and the desirability of female celebrity, Parker emphasized instead her own “limited body and exhausted resources” (53), warning readers that the phantasmal world projected by American print culture was more likely to “disappoint and constrain . . . than transport and liberate” (60). Looking back on her career, Parker ultimately “deemed smartness the error of her age” (78).
Keyser’s remaining chapters examine writers who contributed to magazines but are remembered chiefly for their novels—books that treat smart women, print culture, and the subversiveness of humor both formally and thematically. Chapter Three explores Jesse Fauset’s critique of smartness as a white fantasy of cosmopolitanism and shows how “magazines are the locus of racial exclusion” in her novels (105). More importantly, Keyser argues that Fauset “links her black female characters’ evolving understanding of themselves with their increasing access to a sense of humor.” As Fauset’s protagonists cultivate their ironic sensibilities, they move toward greater awareness and discover “a more improvisatory and...