- “How Fatally Outmoded Is Your Point of View?”Vanity Fair’s Articulation of Modernist Culture to the Modern Reader
“modernism is sweeping the intelligent world,” declares a Vanity Fair ad in the February 1928 issue:
You find it in music, in the arts, in literature. You can’t ignore it. Yet, what do you know about it? What do you think of it?
You won’t always understand modernism. But you should at least be able to appreciate it.
There is a way, an easy way, to know and enjoy the newest schools of modern thought and art. … A forum where the most brilliant minds of two continents exchange their ideas.
This forum is the magazine Vanity Fair.1
In the 1920s, Vanity Fair, staying true to the origins of its name, promised to expose readers to every flavor in the modernist smorgasbord by keeping them up to date with the latest in culture, even if they could not understand it. The ad also lists the magazine’s “Distinguished Modern Contributors”: Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Walter Lippman, [End Page 19] Paul Morand, Carl Van Vechten, Marie Laurencin, Pablo Picasso, and Edward Steichen, to name a few (see figure 1). These contributors establish Vanity Fair’s commitment to modernist criticism, literature, painting, and photography. Moreover, the ad’s marketing of modernist writers and artists indicates that Vanity Fair’s intended audience was not hoi polloi, but a portion of the public interested in highbrow culture, if not already part of it.
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During the rapid transformations occurring across economic, aesthetic, and political spectrums in this decade, Vanity Fair took advantage of the chaos to establish itself as the how-to guide for mastering modernism and modern culture. However, the magazine’s publisher, editor, authors, and audience made [End Page 20] for a more complex relationship than a pedagogical stance might imply: its commitment to humor and irony depended on the audience’s familiarity with the latest in verse and art for the jokes to be funny. Thus Vanity Fair’s primary function during the 1920s was to articulate modernism and modernity while emphasizing the importance of being “modern” to its upper- and middle-class readers. To that end, it published poetry by Langston Hughes and essays by D. H. Lawrence alongside satirical reviews such as “Three Literary Radicals: Wherein F. Scott Fitzgerald, Anita Loos, and H. L. Mencken Are Completely Vivisected”2 and “Poems Appraised at Practically Nothing: A Parody Review of the Current School of Clever Verse, and Other Literary Phobias of the Month,”3 in which John Riddell gleefully appropriates the style of various modern poets to suggest that, perhaps, the current school is not all that clever. Investigating Vanity Fair’s bibliographic code throughout this decade reveals its reception and construction of Jazz Age modernism; an examination of its intended readership uncovers a more nuanced interplay between commercial publishing venues and broader audiences than has previously been considered by modernist scholarship on the “little magazines” like Poetry and the Egoist.4 Ultimately, Vanity Fair successfully promoted modernism by appealing to its readers’ desires to be perceived as modern, while simultaneously assuming an audience sophisticated enough to appreciate an ironic treatment of an aesthetic movement that, at times, took itself too seriously.
Earlier modernist scholarship, such as Andreas Huyssen’s now infamous After the Great Divide, argued that modernists’ “constant fear” was “the nightmare of being devoured by mass culture through co-option, commodification, and the ‘wrong’ kind of success.”5 Recent scholarship, however, has begun to acknowledge the role consumer culture played in the development of modernism in larger-circulating venues. The growing field of periodical studies has uncovered modernism’s participation in the complex interplay between high and popular culture, problematizing Huyssen’s assertions regarding the antagonistic nature of the high/popular binary. As Sean Latham and Robert Scholes observe, “High literature, art, and advertising have mingled in periodicals from their earliest years, and major authors have been published in magazines both little and big.”6 Scholes and Clifford Wulfman have also urged scholars to pursue “the extent to which modernist art...