- European Avant-Garde Coteries and the Modernist Magazine
Modernism is synonymous with cosmopolitanism. In their groundbreaking collection of essays, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane argued: “Conspicuous in the age of Modernism is an unprecedented acceleration in the intellectual traffic between nations . . . in this climate, international exchanges and unacknowledged borrowings flourished.”1 Successive waves of transnational avant-garde movements—symbolism, expressionism, cubism, Futurism, Dada, surrealism, constructivism— swept across Europe. In Extraterritorial (1972), George Steiner directed attention to the polyglot milieu of twentieth-century literature shaped by exile and expatriation, and, following the upheavals occasioned by two world wars, the displacement of millions of refugees. Steiner’s attention to a modern multilingualism as a condition of “extraterritoriality” indicates that concepts like “modernism” may be more culture-bound and stubbornly resistant to translation than we think.
Modernist art thrived in cities—in cafés, private clubs, salons, galleries, theaters, libraries, bookshops, publishing houses, and magazines—or in the “metropolis,” as it is customary to say in modernist studies, although the term should be used with discrimination (the entire population of Zürich in 1880 would fit into modern-day Wembley Stadium). Little magazines were arguably the key institution of modernism constituting the social channels that energized artistic communities and facilitated the dissemination of ideas and styles. The third volume of Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker’s Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, which examines a large selection of twentieth-century European periodicals, recruits two new editors—Saschu Bru and Christian Weikop—to strengthen an approach [End Page 811] to wider comparative angles of intellectual history. This undertaking presented the editors with considerable theoretical and methodological challenges.
Volume 1 covered British and Irish magazines and concluded in 1955, embracing the entire run of Scrutiny (which, aside from a brief flirtation with the poetry of Ronald Bottrall, did not champion creative writing). Volume 2 on North American periodicals extended to 1960, taking in its stride the smart middlebrow New Yorker and Esquire magazines. Volume 3 stops abruptly in 1940 and focuses on the historical avant-garde. Brooker’s general introduction confronts Peter Bürger’s over-simplified theorizing of an impassable divide between the political activism of the avant-garde and the bourgeois meliorism of modernism. Brooker seeks to pull the vanguard closer to the modernist mainstream by employing Raymond Williams’s pluralism of “alternative,” “oppositional,” “emergent,” or “residual” cultural formations, turning down the political temperature of pre- and postwar Europe to lukewarm. When Brooker says that “the avant-garde migrated in a rhizomatic movement across national and international borders” (15), one wonders how these non-hierarchical networks intersected with fascism and communism, crucial contexts for the understanding of Italian and Russian Futurism.
Several thousand European cultural magazines were published in the period from 1880 to 1940. Faced with an almost impossible task of navigating a clear path through periodicals so dissimilar in form and function, Brooker’s introduction keeps an admirably cool head as he plunges into the labyrinthine “twisted paths” (2) of sixty years of European history (political, socio-cultural, economic, technological). He rejects a “totalizing survey,” adding that “the many magazines discussed here do not add up to one story; indeed they resist the very impulse to search for or enforce a single narrative” (21). This is wise, especially when the narrative to be imposed would be an Anglophone one, inevitably heavily weighted towards American and British scholarship (of the fifty-six chapters here, forty-two were contributed by individuals working in English-speaking institutions). The editors’ selection of some 300 magazines from nineteen European countries does represent a significant shift in focus from the earlier volumes. Only one of The Criterion’s four like-minded European collaborators on an international fiction prize in 1930 is accorded a place in this volume. This decision is evidence of a bias towards the editorial policies and polemics of programmatic, coterie, low-circulation, and short-lived avant-garde magazines, thereby downplaying the significance of the more eclectic...