Little Magazine, World Form and The World Broke in Two

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The following two reviews first appeared in the Fall 2017 and Winter 2017/18 issues of Rain Taxi, respectively. I have grouped them together here because they quite coincidentally show two different approaches to modernist material: the academic approach of Little Magazine, World Form and the more general approach of The World Broke in Two. The reviews show the risks and benefits of such approaches. Putting the two together, I sound a bit like Goldilocks: the academic book is a little too academic, the general book is not academic enough. It's a difficult balance, I know.


Little Magazine, World Form

Eric Bulson
Columbia University Press
                                              
In recent decades, the academic study of literary modernism has broadened away from the canonical High Modernism of Pound, Joyce, Eliot, etc. and toward a more inclusive idea of small-m, plural modernisms. While this makes some scholars seemingly ready to declare anything and everything modernist, it has also led to thrilling new studies of literary history that demonstrate previously invisible connections and conjunctions between writers and texts.

Eric Bulson’s Little Magazine, World Form isn’t thrilling, but it contains useful information for anyone interested in the history of small press publishing. He tells the story of particular small-press magazines and literary journals (mostly published in the first half of the twentieth century) from the United States, England, Italy, France, Germany, Jamaica, Nigeria, Uganda, India, Japan, and elsewhere, looking closely not only at what they published, but how. Perhaps the greatest virtue of Bulson’s approach is that it is strongly aware of the material realities of publishing, particularly the costs of paper and printing and the challenges of international distribution. Where many accounts of the history of modernist publishing celebrate transnational connections, Bulson repeatedly demonstrates how much material got trapped between national borders.

Though many modernist writers became expatriates and exiles from their native lands, their magazines did not cross borders quite as easily. Bulson writes that “critics have been conflating the transatlantic internationalism of so many modernist writers—whose works were published in different countries and languages—with what was really a more restricted, nationally defined geography of the literary magazines they published.” [79] If a publication could overcome the high cost of international shipping, the vagaries of taxes and regulations, and the ever-present threat of censorship, it could still fall victim to bad weather, careless handling, changed addresses, and the occasional war. Writers and publishers devised creative solutions whenever they could, including simultaneous (or quasi-simultaneous) publication in magazines based in different countries.

Modernist studies are sometimes derided as excessively formalist, and recent trends have shunned formal and aesthetic study for socio-political analysis, but Bulson returns to formalism in interesting ways, looking closely at how little magazines’ formal elements affected the writings they published, and how those formal elements shaped the audiences they sought. He is sensitive to the similarities and differences in the highly visual magazines that emerged from Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism, but also to the formal differences between, for instance, the eclectic American magazine The Dial and T.S. Eliot’s focused, even austere, The Criterion. Formal qualities helped magazines develop and define their identities, and those identities came to affect readers’ perceptions of the work they published. Bulson demonstrates just how this worked with two of the most canonical Modernist works, Ulysses and “The Waste Land.”

Though Bulson makes much of all that didn’t cross borders, he tells us at least as much about what did, and given the many obstacles he shows standing in the way of such crossings, it would be difficult to come away from his book with anything but admiration for the stubborn creativity of little magazine publishers and editors, both then and now.

Moving beyond the best-known writers and texts, Bulson expands his ideas to Italy in a long chapter about the hundreds of little magazines published there between the two world wars. It is here that some of the weaknesses of Bulson’s book, at least for a general reader, begin to sap its strengths. The writing style throughout remains admirably accessible, unhindered by jargon or sentences of tortuous syntax, but as the details accumulate, a reader could be forgiven for wondering, “So what?” His assertion that the little magazine is a medium that shares features across geographies and eras is well supported by his many examples, but he struggles to clarify why it matters.

Further, with each chapter functioning more or less as a separate essay, it’s easy to lose sight of what Bulson ultimately wants to say about magazines, the world, and form, so while he makes a good case that scholars of literary history ought to be aware of everyday realities (such as international shipping costs) before promulgating abstract theories of textual flows, more than that is hard to pin down. Bulson is admirably specific about local effects on the magazines he discusses, but that very specificity sometimes makes it slow going. For a reader seeking information about long-forgotten little magazines from around the world, this book is a gold mine; for the reader seeking anything else, it can be a slog. (A perfunctory afterword, which reads like an afterthought, isn’t much help.) Bulson’s close focus is a virtue in that it provides a depth of information about the magazines he discusses, but it is a hindrance in that it doesn’t allow much breathing room.

For a book so concerned with magazines’ material form, it’s a shame that its own design is often an impediment to our understanding of some of Bulson’s insights. There are numerous black and white illustrations, but they are often too small to convey any detail. This is a fatal flaw in the final chapter, where a series of seven maps are unreadable without a magnifying glass. Certainly, the publisher saved money by shrinking the illustrations down to keep them from adding many pages (which, I assume, is also the reason the book quite unhelpfully lacks a bibliography), but there are many images that they might as well not have included at all, given how tiny and unreadable they are. Perhaps a future scholar will write a study of academic publishers pricing books well beyond the means of ordinary readers while also cutting corners in the production of those books.

It is perhaps unfair to lament that Little Magazine, World Form is an academic study rather than a narrative history (risking a condemnation of the book for not being what it never claims to be), but Bulson is a skilled enough writer that he could have told the story of these magazines more artfully, less ponderously, creating a book that might offer something to an audience beyond scholars of modernism. But as Kevin Birmingham described when accepting the 2016 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism for The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, academia often punishes scholars who reach for too broad an audience, because books published by trade publishers and reviewed positively by major newspapers and magazines may do nothing for a tenure file, while a $60 book from a university press, which will have little life beyond library shelves, is the gold standard if you want to be an ivy-covered professor in ivy-covered halls. If I were the cynical type, I would say it’s no wonder that Bulson works so hard to find meaning in magazines that seldom reached an audience of more than a few hundred people.


The World Broke in Two: 
Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature 
by Bill Goldstein
Henry Holt and Company

Looking back more than a decade later, Willa Cather said, “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” Though she could trace much of her reputation (and financial success) to winning the Pulitzer Prize for her 1922 novel One of Ours, Cather could not help but feel that her sort of literature had become less fashionable by then. A few years before Cather’s statement, F. Scott Fitzgerald declared that 1922 “was the peak of the younger generation.” It was the year his own second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was published and the year that the novel for which he became most famous, The Great Gatsby, was set. Certainly, 1922 was one of the most miraculous years for literature and culture in the 20th century: It was the year of Joyce’s Ulysses and Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga; of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbit and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha; of Bergson’s Duration and Simultaneity, Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus; of Yeats’s Later Poems, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, César Vallejo’s Trilce, and Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows; of Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party, Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, E.E. Cummings’s The Enormous Room, D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, and Marjorie Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit. It was the year of the first issues of Reader’s Digest and The Criterion, the year the Irish Free State began and the Ottoman Empire came to an end, the year Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered, and the year Nellie Bly, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Marcel Proust died.

With her “thereabouts,” Cather offers a necessary equivocation. After all, Joyce’s Ulysses was published in pieces for years before 1922, and didn’t receive general distribution until years later, after obscenity laws changed. Similarly, Wittgenstein began writing the Tractatus many years before 1922, and it was published in German in 1921; The Forsyte Saga collected novels that first began to be published in 1906. Nonetheless, if any one year must be identified as the apex of a certain strain of modernism, 1922 is as good as any and better than most.

Bill Goldstein has named his book after Cather’s statement, but he doesn’t use the idea to mean only aesthetic or intellectual accomplishments. His premise is that for the writers he focuses on, “1922 had less to do with publication dates than with the personal and creative challenges that indeed broke the world in two for them in 1922.” [2] His is not a story of books, but a story of writers. That makes it rather different from such academic studies as Culture, 1922: The Emergence of a Concept by Marc Manganaro and Reading 1922 by Michael North. The fact that Forster published Alexandria: A History and Guide in 1922 is uninteresting to Goldstein, who barely notes it; his interest is in the emotional upheavals that led Forster to be able to return to A Passage to India, which he had abandoned years earlier, and which would be published in 1924.

Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, and Forster all experienced personal upheavals in 1922, and these upheavals inevitably affected their writing. T.S. Eliot suffered terribly in his marriage and had what is generally described as a nervous breakdown; Woolf began the year with the flu and the existential crisis of her fortieth birthday; Forster felt like a failure for not having finished writing a new novel since 1911, and in May one of the great loves of his life, Mohammed El Adl, died of tuberculosis; Lawrence’s Women in Love was published in its first generally available edition in 1921, leading to negative reviews and legal problems, and he spent 1922 traveling everywhere from Italy to Australia to New Mexico, all the while writing a new novel, Kangaroo—which, unlike The Waste Land, A Passage to India, or Mrs. Dalloway (all works for which 1922 was important), hardly anybody who is not a Lawrence scholar now bothers to read.

The World Broke in Two succeeds as a portrait of writers in the midst of transition, telling the stories of Woolf, Eliot, Forster, and Lawrence clearly and reliably, showing their fears of failure and irrelevance alongside the very practical problems they faced, particularly the problem of how to make money. It is a story available in any of the various biographies of the individual writers, but looking at multiple lives in one particularly important year shows how much they had in common in their struggles and triumphs. The commonalities are clear partly because Goldstein has chosen a rather narrow grouping: four writers who to some extent knew each other, and in the case of Woolf, Eliot, and Forster were (that year, at least) usually friendly and often spent time together. Indeed, Eliot’s 1919 Poems was the fourth book Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press published, and Forster’s Story of a Siren was the ninth. (Oddly, Goldstein never mentions that the Hogarth Press in 1923 was the first to publish The Waste Land as a book in England—Virginia set the type herself.) Had Goldstein expanded his vision beyond the most familiar and canonized modernist writers, he could have found parallels and divergences with, among others, the Harlem Renaissance writers, giving his chronicle more breadth and richer insight.

It is unclear why Goldstein chose to include D.H. Lawrence, and the chapters devoted to him feel tangential. The personal and professional connections between Woolf, Eliot, and Forster make it easy to tell their stories together; Lawrence is more of an outlier, off doing his own thing, bouncing around the world, disliked by many of the people who encounter him. If the book included more textual analysis, the inclusion of Lawrence might make some sense, allowing a fuller exploration of modernist aesthetics, but Goldstein isn’t particularly interested in analyzing what these writers write, nor do his occasional, brief interpretations of texts offer much insight.

Goldstein’s approach in The World Broke in Two is determinedly journalistic, never straying too far toward opinion or any but the most superficial analysis. He selects well from the writers’ letters and diaries, allowing them to speak for themselves, and the structure of the book allows him to show each writer’s interpretation of their common experiences alongside each other. There is a certain naivety to the approach, for Goldstein doesn’t always seem aware of the way the writers shaped their personal writings to particular audiences, but sometimes the technique allows an interesting glimpse of how these writers interacted and how they perceived their literary world. It becomes clear, for example, that Ulysses was a novel they all considered unavoidable in 1922, though only Eliot was entirely enthusiastic about it.

Ultimately, The World Broke in Two feels unsubstantial, because though 1922 was an important year bibliographically and biographically, everything that makes it important is deeply linked to what came before and after. Forster’s struggles are mostly unmoving if seen only through the lens of one year, and though that year provided the breakthrough allowing him to complete A Passage to India, Goldstein spends barely a page of an epilogue on that rich and beguiling novel, since it wasn’t published until 1924. Without showing more of the “thereabouts” in the Willa Cather statement that provides the book its title, and without bringing in a wider array of authors and events, The World Broke in Two is little more than chapters of anecdotes about writers who are far from unfamiliar. These four writers don’t lack for biographies (indeed, Hermione Lee’s of Woolf and P.N. Furbank’s of Forster are among the greatest literary biographies of the 20th century), and returning to any of them reveals just how limiting are Goldstein’s choices not only to stick to one year but to write in such a straightforward manner. That 1922 was a miracle year for literature is unquestionable; that new insights will come from chronicling the lives of four famous writers in that miracle year is more of a question, and one Goldstein’s book doesn’t answer.

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