American Little Magazines since 1950: Charting Many Histories

American Little Magazines since 1950: Charting Many Histories

In 2014, I offered a class called “History of American Literary Journals.” At the time, I had a general sense of the shape of that history, but no firm ideas of the scope or breadth of what I was getting into. I knew it was big and that I knew less than I should, but in we plunged. It was a fun class, but it certainly wasn’t what it was billed as, mostly because I had little idea about the true scope of the history I was supposed to be teaching.

A few years later, my temporary course number was expiring and I had to figure out if the class would become a permanent offering, and, if so, what it was really about. The course was housed in my small university’s English department, so an overview of the whens, whos, hows, and whys might be necessary but couldn’t be the primary focus. I’d recently bought a copy of the Hoffman, Allen, and Ullrich book Little Magazines, and one of my colleagues had just gotten our honors program off the ground, and my class was ostensibly interdisciplinary, which he liked, so EL 350H American Literary Journals was born, a permanent course, required for the Editing and Publishing minor I’d recently created. If nothing else, I hoped the class would be a recruiting ground for assistants for Rock & Sling, and provide those students with a sense of scale and context for the work they were doing.

As lit mag enthusiasts know, Little Magazines cuts off in 1947. It details the magazines of the Modernist period quite well, as several other excellent comprehensive resources do. The three-volume Oxford Cultural History series on literary magazines details the work of various little magazines in the US, UK, Europe, and Ireland, but gets no further than 1950. Tri-Quarterly’s excellent “documentary” issue of 1978 surveys several editors of significant magazines in the intervening period, and they provide engaging statements of purpose, origin stories, and “biographical” sketches of their particular magazines. More recent volumes like Spreading the Word, Paper Dreams, and Contemporary Literary Magazines follow a similar model, and those volumes do a great job of capturing the voices of the founding or then-current editors of benchmark magazines.

But those volumes lack the magic of Little Magazines. They don’t connect the dots, provide a sense of context, or show how the on-going phenomenon of little magazines continues to shape the overall project of American literature. Which is a real bummer, because someone needs to do that. It’s important. Little magazines are important, not just for the work that is published in them, but for the actual existence of them. They themselves are literary objects, worthy of study as texts the same as any novel, author, theory, or movement. But the field is undeveloped, from any number of perspectives, especially from the academic side. No text written since Little Magazines comes close to the depth and breadth it offers. Statements by the editors and founders of magazines like n+1 or Bitch are all well and good, and I have nothing against those magazines. I use them in my class. But nothing that I’ve come across provides any sense of the trajectory of little magazines over the last 70 years, or the forces that shaped that trajectory.

One of the better examples of the kind of book I’m interested in is A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, compiled and edited by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips, which chronicles the magazines of the mimeo revolution, specific to New York in the 1950s and 60s. Using copies of the magazines themselves, the book is filled with photos of the magazines, and provides a profile of each, including editorial statements and aesthetics, print history, dates, etc. The book also includes a foldout timeline of the period and the important magazines within it. For a magazine nerd, it is a tantalizing book, capturing the ethos of the period while adding a valuable resource to the scholarly field, such as it is.

For the last two years, I’ve undertaken the ridiculous task of finding out everything about everything. An indispensable resource has been the University of Wisconsin’s Memorial Library, home of the Zukov/Little Magazine collection, which boasts over 7000 little magazine titles. The curator of the collection, Susan Barribeau, is a true believer lit mag nerd, who challenged me to find a magazine they didn’t have. In over six months of trying, I haven’t yet found a title they didn’t have, and most of them are full runs of the title. Every number. While I was there, she turned her entire staff loose in the nine-floor library to locate the gorgeous loose-leaf avant-garde Semina, edited, typeset, and published by Wallace Berman from 1955-1964, which had been mis-shelved. But they had it, and they found it.

That initial trip yielded over 5000 pages of scans from 60 different titles, spanning 1950-1970, with a few excursions into the 70s proper. The work of unpacking those scans continues, but the outline of the scholarship is beginning to take shape, and the research has been incredibly generative. It has given me an intense appreciation for the weird, quirky, freakish magazines that have been produced since the end of World War II. I’d never heard of 90% of them, though as I talk with former professors and mentor writers who were around in those days, some of them just getting started, they nod appreciatively and offer sly smiles. These magazines helped form the zeitgeist of their various eras, during which American literature experienced its second renaissance of the 20th century.

Over the next year, I’ll provide some profiles of the magazines my students and I are studying. Occasionally I’ll group them by type (70s femme mags, 50s Marxist mags, Rothenberg’s mags), and sometimes I’ll just revel in individual titles. I’ll invite students research assistants to pitch in, writing summaries of whatever piques their interest as well.

My thanks to Jeff Dodd and The Review Review for making space for these little historical vignettes. We have so many great magazines right now, but my experience as an editor tells me that most editors are too busy to really delve into the scope and history of the thing they are doing. Heads down, we just plow ahead and make our magazines. Hopefully, the scholarship we’re doing here will be accessible and interesting, and give editors and writers a sense of the grand tradition to which we add our work.

Dr. Thom Caraway teaches editing, book design, writing, and lit mag history in the English department at Whitworth University. He is a co-founder of the Spokane Print & Publishing Center, and serves as editor-in-chief for Rock & Sling, a journal of witness.