This special issue of JMPS grows out of a conference organized in October 2018 at Aix-Marseille Université, entitled “Mediating American Modernist Literature. The Case of/for Big Magazines, 1880–1960.”1 Its aim was threefold: first, to investigate a wide range of big magazines from the perspective of modernist studies; second, to illustrate, in so doing, innovative approaches and methodologies; and, third, to reflect on the connection between American modernist literature and mass-market magazines over a period of eighty years, from the emergence of industrialized journalism and the “fully-fledged magazine” (Scholes)2 to the rise of television and the related decline of the magazine as “the major form of repeated cultural experience for people in the United States.”3 The conference was inspired by recent research on modernist periodicals, which had sought to demonstrate the importance of big magazines as a venue for literary and aesthetic innovation or, as Donal Harris puts it in his pioneering work On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines, to show that American modernism evolved “within rather than against the mass culture of its moment.”4 [End Page v]
defining big magazines
At this early stage in what is still a collective work in progress, based on a new set of assumptions, it is not surprising that epistemological uncertainties should attend the very effort to define big magazines as a category. What are they? What criteria have been used, or should one use, to define them? How big is big? Is the category homogeneous? Doesn’t it, upon closer inspection, dissolve into a variety of contiguous or overlapping families, genera, and species? Instead of offering abstract answers to such questions, which would inevitably give rise to corresponding objections or exceptions, it is more useful to recognize that any definition of big magazines is conditioned by the methodologies through which they are approached and must, at the same time, contend with earlier theorizations emanating from critical currents or disciplines such as modernist studies, literary theory, or sociology. This also poses a difficulty, since these critical currents or disciplines rarely approached or defined “big magazines” as such, but perceived them through the various terminologies and biases inherent to their own practices, assigning to them a specific place and value within the overall literary field.
This is particularly true of modernist studies, which grew from the start out of a strong prejudice against big magazines. Such magazines were generally considered only as the rather nebulous opposite of the “little” or “small” ones that, in circular fashion, they served to define. Large distribution; expensive production values (suggested in their often being referred to as “slicks”5); middle-class prejudices; editorial policies dictated by financial interest; contents that, in Ezra Pound’s words, “were selected rigorously on the basis of how much expensive advertising they would carry”6: such were their dominant traits, each one a negative image of the idealized ones of little magazines. This negativity appears fully in the opening pages of Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen, and Carolyn F. Ulrich’s classic The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography (1946), which defines big magazines by exclusion—as the kind of “commercial” periodicals that would reject the work printed by the small ones.7 The binary nature of this opposition is so perfect that to these contrasting kinds of magazines could be apportioned reciprocal shares of all the literary production of value: “the best of our little magazines” are said to have printed “about 80 per cent of our most important post-1912 critics, novelists, poets, and storytellers,” whereas “commercial houses or magazines of [End Page vi] the past thirty years [. . .] have discovered and sponsored only about 20 per cent of our post-1912 writers.”8 What is significant here is not so much the very shaky ground on which such statistics rest as the mutually exclusive relationship that defines the two (and only two) kinds of periodicals, as though each found its identity in opposing the other and in not publishing the same authors, or at least in not publishing them at the same time. This...