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  • The Mess and Muddle of Modernism:The Modernist Journals Project and Modern Periodical Studies
  • Sean Latham (bio)

Recovering Modernism

What we now call modernism took shape in the pages of the magazines, few of which were more important than The Little Review. A crucible for literary experiment brilliantly coedited by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, it sought a revolution in the arts aimed not at "the discriminations of the connoisseur but those of the creator."1 Appearing more or less every month from 1914 to 1922, it bore the famous slogan "MAKING NO COMPROMISE WITH THE PUBLIC TASTE," a provocative riposte aimed at that other influential journal edited by a woman in Chicago, Harriet Monroe's Poetry.2 The latter borrowed a phrase from Walt Whitman to announce that "to have great poets there must be great audiences too."3 This demotic sentiment drove Ezra Pound to distraction, leading him to abandon the magazine where he helped shape Imagism in favor of The Little Review, to which he brought James Joyce's Ulysses. This new forum initially seemed the perfect vehicle for Pound, and he, in fact, devised the new review's famous slogan as a distillation of his philosophical "Egoism." For Anderson, however, that failure to compromise trumpeted on the masthead was charged less with Pound's outsized insistence on the importance of the heroic individual than with a feminist, liberationist agenda that drew its energies from the collaborative, combative, and ultimately generative power of the magazine form itself.

To the perpetual frustration of men like Pound, John Quinn, William Carlos Williams, and others, Anderson refused to separate art into a special sphere of it own, one somehow devoid of history, personality, and the micropolitics of everyday life. Writing of the partnership she shared with her coeditor and lover, she observed that "Jane and I . . . were a great disappointment to the litterati. Somehow we could never lead the kind of life that appeared normal for them . . . . We were dedicated to the ceremonies of living" (p. 155). This remark encompasses more than just her lesbian affair with Heap, her (sometime) anarchist politics, and her often outrageous publicity stunts, like the decision to camp out at the edge of Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago when the magazine's funds ran low. What made [End Page 407] Anderson so unsettling a figure for the litterati who nevertheless sought her pages was her understanding that the magazine was itself a distinctly modern aesthetic form, an emergent genre possessed of its own avant-garde possibilities, pleasures, and politics. "I was born to be an editor," she quips in her memoir, My Thirty Years War, "I always edit everything. I edit my room at least once a week" (p. 58). Easily frustrated with this blend of the personal and the political, Pound tried to assert control over the magazine by narrowing its aesthetic agenda. When rebuffed he grew scornful, writing to Joyce that despite the enormous legal and financial risks Anderson and Heap were taking in publishing Ulysses, "the editrices have merely messed and muddled, NEVER to their own loss."4 A great talent scout but a poor editor, Pound failed to realize that such mess and muddle is precisely the point—that The Little Review succeeded because its editors refused to settle on a single mission and would not be bullied by anyone into narrowing the magazine's range or reconciling its many contradictions.

The Modernist Journals Project

For over fifteen years now, the Modernist Journals Project (MJP) has sought to recover the mess and muddle of the generative magazine culture that Anderson and Heap so successfully embraced.5 These practices, in fact, constitute a far-reaching modernism of their own that was by no means unique to avant-garde journals like The Little Review but was instead one of the major innovations of a period we now recognize as the golden age of print culture. Indeed, when the MJP took shape, we began not with the familiar, often irregularly published little magazines where modernism had traditionally been located but with a then little-known weekly paper called The New Age. Edited by A. R. Orage in London, it mixed politics, philosophy, and aesthetics...


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pp. 407-428
Launched on MUSE
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