- On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines by Donal Harris
In this recent publication of the always interesting Modernist Latitudes series, Donal Harris gives us the ambitious scholarly consideration of “big magazines” in or as American modernism that the field has needed for some time now. Several scholars whose work appears in the pages of JMPS have made key efforts to look at modernism in relation to larger circulation periodicals.1 And recent research has taken advantage of digital research tools for periodical studies, for example in the 2017 JMPS special issue “Digital Archives, Avant-Garde Periodicals” (2017). On Company Time makes an invaluable contribution to this recent turn by giving us a fresh, lucidly written, and significantly broad account of the modernism of a thriving industry in American commercial print culture. Harris does not simply provide instances of the literary and aesthetic experiments we often associate with small circulation little magazines in the 1910s and 1920s appearing instead in large, commercially successful periodicals, as his subtitle might suggest. Rather, he delivers a much more capacious argument about how the impact of the technological and institutional modernization of print media shaped, and in turn, were shaped by American literary modernism, and how, together, they contributed to the cultural juggernaut that, until the advent of the television age, helped articulate the “American century.”
The strength of On Company Time is the dexterity with which Harris weaves together threads that might, in themselves, have been the sole subject of his monograph. The history of professionalization in American [End Page 184] magazines is one such thread. By the end of the nineteenth century, audience and market-share competition began to move magazines away from the amateurish chaotic efforts publishing largely freelanced content toward a feature that newspapers had already adopted: the professional staff system (20). On Company Time lays out this history of professionalism clearly and charts the impact of a staff system as the bedrock of the commercially successful big magazine, but he weaves this account of professionalization together with an assessment of the distinct, and, in many ways modernist, contribution of the magazines he explores.
The phenomenon that Harris calls the “big magazine” was not distinct simply for being large circulation and commercial in intention; indeed, it cut across several magazine sub-genres, including “the muckraking journal, the African American monthly, the newsmagazine, the photomagazine, and the men’s fashion monthly” (6). What makes these magazines so innovative, Harris argues, is that they “respond to commercial demands with formal solutions” by “experiment[ing] with . . . editorial voice,” “visual patterns,” and “‘house style’” (7). By focusing on form in these highly successful journals central to American cultural life, Harris articulates modernism’s constitutive role in the commercial print culture that later critics often understood it to be reacting against. Moreover, Harris’s approach challenges and reinterprets narratives emerging after midcentury about American modernism’s decline into tepid middlebrow culture. In Harris’s revisionary account, the trajectory of American modernism until the television age is much more complicated, and fascinatingly so.
The professional endeavors of big magazines, as scholars of modernism and periodical studies have been aware for some time, involved a surprisingly large number of authors and visual artists we associate with American modernism. But Harris does not simply argue that some American modernists earned a living by working, for example, for McClure’s, The Crisis, or Esquire. He does not merely recount how Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cather, Fauset, or Du Bois paid their bills. Rather, Harris argues that “in addition to employing and publishing so many masscult-phobic novelists and poets whom we now consider modernist, these magazines’ experiments with the limitations and the possibilities of their medium echo the very formal tenets of modernism that popular magazines are often placed in opposition to” (8). This last point, made in other contexts by scholars such as Sean Latham, Bob Scholes, Ann Ardis, and Patrick Collier, augments efforts in modern periodical studies to bridge a rift that began in the academic [End Page 185] disciplines of the 1930s and...