A Few Don’ts by a Periodical Student

Scholars of Modernism have long noted the period’s propensity for…. well, ism(s): Surrealism, Fauvism, Imagism(e), Vorticisim, Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism, (Post-)Impressionism, Symbolism…  While most dictionaries still discuss “ism” according to its lowly history as a noun suffix, “ism” (noun) is understood as an informal term meaning a distinctive (often derogatory or oppressive) ideology or practice.  Even without the implications of derogation, an ism certainly has strictures, rules– at a minimum firmly articulated best practices.  As a noun, “ism” is a word that punctuates the discussion of the modernist periodicals; one of the ways in which each is characterized is whether it does, or does not, act as a mouthpiece for a particular ism, something traceable in editorial statements, manifestos, aesthetic philosophies, or simply the creative work gathered within the covers. The term is present even in the periodicals themselves, as when Jane Heap wrote in 1926 in The Little Review that it has “unostentatiously presented all the new systems of art to America . . . about twenty Isms, in the last few years.”*

Of course, isms can be proactive and exhortative, and they can, as well, be exclusionary and prescriptive.  One of the things that has surprised me about my reading in periodical studies as a discipline (a punishment to correct disobedience; a branch of knowledge) is the extent to which it is also an ism of sorts, with more explicitly expressed rules for best practice than perhaps any other field I’ve encountered in my scholarship.

The most obvious (easily perceived; lacking in subtlety) example so far is from the foundational text by Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman called Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction (Yale UP, 2010).  Foundational architects of the MJP, Scholes and Wulfman use their book in part to give suggestions and set guidelines for teaching and scholarship with modernist periodicals.  [Sidenote: the emphasis on teaching is exemplary (model, rather than cautionary) in the MJP and its offshoots.]  In this particular book, I find phrases such as “reading any magazine from the past must start by taking up a single issue of that magazine” (ideally in one’s hands, with digital access as a lesser but acceptable substitute); or, “The best way to begin reading a magazine like this is simply to read it–to read every page.”  Though Scholes and Wulfman are explicitly directive, it is only their tone, rather than their intent, that distinguishes statements like this from some of my other readings in the field.

Perhaps the sense that one is being given directions (a course to follow; supervision or control), even step-by-step ones, is intensified by the language of/attention to data.  It’s not a word we encounter a lot in literary studies, but it appears rather frequently in the Scholes and Wulfman text as they set out the primary (early; of chief importance) goal of the painstaking (diligent or assiduous; plodding or dogged) task of collecting, listing, graphing information about the modernist periodicals such as price (and changes thereof), editors (and changes thereof), years of publication, size and length (and changes thereof), place of publication (and etc.), and more. I have also been working through the massive, rich (heavy or full-flavored; plentiful; fertile) volumes of The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, and I note formulaic qualities to the essays there as well, which, in addition to their more varied and discursive histories of the personalities, finances, and purposes that shape a given periodical, tend to catalogue information about cover design, paper, major authors published . . .that is to say, data.

Undoubtedly, timelines, lists, tables, and graphs of this information will be invaluable to scholars of the magazines–in no way do I mean to question that.  Rather, I am noting the discourse and collection of data, of clearly articulated or even prescribed best practice, that distinguishes some of the work in this field.  Because my thinking tends to find echoes, I see some interesting parallels to the period of Modernism itself, a time not only of isms and manifestos but also of the increasing professionalization (first known use of “professionalize”: 1856) of literary studies and criticism, motivated partly by the increasing social reliance on skilled scientific interpretation of data as a fundamental way of understanding our world.

* quoted on page 82 of Alan Golding’s “The Little Review (1914-29).”  The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines Vol. II: North American 1894-1960.  Eds. Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.  61-84.


3 thoughts on “A Few Don’ts by a Periodical Student

  1. I’m running into similar trouble with periodical studies as-discipline. The books I’m reading often follow a pattern: author has “angle” with which they revise the “picture of modernism.” Angle is then followed cogently and completely. I learn a lot about history, about what modernism might have been, etc. I don’t learn how to read, or rather, my readings of texts (especially poems) themselves rarely changes. I remember you advising students not to add information to their essays unless the info changed something in the reading of the text.

    The Franco Moretti distant-reading approach might be part of the reason there’s so much data and so few close readings? I don’t know a ton about it myself, but the combination of an expanding archive and disintegration of the canon seems to leave little space for reading poems.

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  3. I have also assumed that Moretti’s influence, which I know holds sway in periodical and digital studies, is at work in the talk of data compilation, although, despite the language of “quantitative analysis,” which kind of gives me the creeps, many of the projects are pretty interesting: http://litlab.stanford.edu/ . But close reading of poetic texts, they are not. And yet they don’t have to be contradictory projects, right, or am I crazy?

    Recently read ….some….thing… kind of kicking myself that I didn’t flag it more clearly because it was a good example of a piece that was in the vein of much other work in the field (lots of info about material artifact of mags, info about personalities that drove it etc., a reconsideration of what we have known about modernism) but drew richly on illustrative poetic texts with rich discussion. Damn. I THINK it was the essay by Suzanne Churchill and Ethan Jaffee in volume II of the Brooker and Thacker Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines: “The New Poetry: The Glebe (1913-14); Others (1915-19), and Poetry Review of America (1916-17). 299-319. (I had to return the massive book through ILL and thus am now questioning my notes.) Very interesting chapter, at any rate, on vers libre magazines and I knew next to nothing about William Stanley Braithwaite before reading it, which is shameful. (Lots of shame on this blog.)

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