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  • Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine: The Modern Figures of the Masses by Rachel Schreiber
  • Craig Monk
Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine: The Modern Figures of the Masses. By Rachel Schreiber. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2011. 194 pp. $104.95.

Rachel Schreiber examines the use of illustrations in the Masses, launched in New York in 1911, and argues that the ways in which its visual art was created and disseminated, as much as what it suggested, supported the magazine's socialist worldview. Its "artists' strike" of 1916 underlined tensions between illustrators and editors and led to the departure of contributors like Maurice Becker and Stuart Davis, who hoped to publish work that was less overtly political without the cloying intervention of collaborators who insisted on illustrative captions. The author reminds us throughout Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine that we should be mindful of the depiction of both women and men in the Masses, and her study is most captivating when similar topics are discussed through a contrast between published images of the two sexes. Beyond an introduction intended, in part, to explain the importance of the magazine to readers who know little about its history and a conclusion that outlines how its pacifism led to its suppression by the American government, this book is organized around an examination of four broad topics, each chapter introduced, less formally, by a discussion of one principal artist.

Schreiber's reading of labor issues relies, initially, on Robert Minor's drawings and concludes that while depictions of women's domestic work was unsatisfactorily narrow, the magazine made great use of images of the brawny male worker towering over either a feeble or a spoiled boss. As the Masses abandoned the arts and crafts movement in order to temper its own dogmatism with humor, it sacrificed some of the noble mien of its classical figures and left workers to overpower rather than outmanoeuver the capitalists. While the chapter on family begins with the work of Art Young, an artist who drew the poverty of urban families in order to underline the larger inequalities of American life, Schreiber shows readers how other artists were concerned with specific details of the domestic sphere, risking censure by discussing family planning, for example, a topic in which both women and men had an obvious [End Page 87] interest. It is here that the reader truly gets the sense that illustrations complemented articles in the Masses, rather than simply accompanying them, though in a study focused on visual art the text of these articles is only ever really paraphrased rather than examined fully.

The issue of sex itself, introduced first through an examination of John Sloan's work, is shown to have been treated with care and with nuance in the Masses, as the magazine responded to an America otherwise titillated by the idea of "white slavery" while its citizens were forced by Comstockery to consider only ever indirectly the actual conditions of vice. In discussing these illustrations, Schreiber demonstrates her keen eye for detail and a knack for identifying the most salient elements of representation. She is careful not to over-determine these most cunning images, sometimes providing two or three interpretations of them, and readers will likely identify two or three more, themselves. The author does, however, battle a tendency to over-explain: in one illustration that contrasts begging and solicitation, in part by juxtaposing a wooden limb with a seductive one, we are told what it means to put our best foot forward. The chapter on war, which begins with the work undertaken by Annie Lou Rogers to link pacifism with suffrage rights, demonstrates again the occasionally superficial treatment of labor in a magazine devoted to the issue. But while the strapping and exploited soldier is now left to battle with the profiteer, women are depicted both as the ideal of serene motherhood and as the temporary worker newly dragged into the labor force. Though periodical scholarship may prosper when editorial statements, for example, are measured against the other contributions published in a magazine, this study demonstrates here the limitations inherent to a book devoted to a single periodical. Women...


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pp. 87-89
Launched on MUSE
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