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A brief survey of ten magazines of influence
By Nicholas Sabloff


“A magazine,” Thomas Paine said, “is the nursery of genius.” Upon moving to America, Paine became a contributor and editor at the Pennsylvania Magazine. Not long after, he published Common Sense, the pamphlet that defined the American Revolution.

Generations of young writers and thinkers have been drawn to what is an elusive project: to create a magazine that makes an indelible mark on the course of politics, art, literature, and history. Such idealists have persevered in the face of the debt, disillusionment, meager circulation, and general indifference from which all but a few of these publications inevitably perish.

What follows are brief sketches of a certain variety of little magazine, “little” (with the exception of the American Mercury) by virtue of their circulation. They are not zines or self-published pamphlets or policy journals, all of which may also be entitled to a claim of littleness. The magazines here are united in their commitment to forwarding the causes of literature, high art, and politics; they are best remembered for helping to establish canonical writers and for their contributions to the intellectual culture of their day. The spirit of such magazines was perhaps best captured by Lionel Trilling in the 1950s when he wrote, “They are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have . . . except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.”

 

The Dial, Boston
1840-1844  

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Often considered the progenitor of the “little” magazine in America, the Dial was founded by “Transcendental Club” members Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like many little magazines, the Dial was conceived out of frustration with the other journals of its day. Emerson used the second issue to call for a native literature that represented American culture. To this end, the magazine published obscure writers and poets, most of whom remained that way. The most notable exception was its most popular contributor, Henry David Thoreau. The Transcendentalists’ interest in Eastern religions and philosophy brought the magazine more mockery than readers (“ethereal” was a common complaint): it never had more than 300 subscribers and Emerson came away from the project $300 the poorer. The magazine’s influence, however, has lived on. Resurrected countless times, in the 1920s the Dial became the premier Modernist magazine in the U.S. (it brought T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” to American readers) and gave birth to a publishing house, the Dial Press, that carries on to this day.

 

Poetry, Chicago
1912-Present

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The flourishing of Modernism in the first decades of the twentieth century coincided with a renaissance in American literary magazines. Harriet Monroe’s showcase for American poetry was at the center of this efflorescence. Poetry published T.S. Eliot’s groundbreaking “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in 1915. The poem had been passed along to Monroe by the magazine’s foreign correspondent, Ezra Pound. Poetry’s early years featured Pound’s promotion of imagism and, following the publication of Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago,” passionate defenses of free verse. It published early work by Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. The initial pay rate: a generous $10 a page. The amount the magazine received in a bequest from pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly in 2003: $100 million.

The Masses,
New York
1911-1917

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The Masses advocated for progressive causes such as socialism, pacifism, vegetarianism, and birth control, and published such progressives as Helen Keller, Jane Addams, and Bertrand Russell. The furious satires penned by its cartoonist, Art Young—he pilloried everything from the press to Jesus, and depicted capitalism as an overstuffed bald eagle—brought the magazine its share of controversy and notoriety. Edited by Columbia professor Max Eastman, the Masses was radical enough to print the intrepid American journalist and revolutionary socialist John Reed and antiwar enough to run afoul of the Espionage Act in 1917, resulting in a series of trials that led to the magazine’s demise. After folding in 1917, Eastman and his colleagues returned a year later with the Liberator. Many of these same editors, though not Eastman, regrouped in 1926 to launch the more overtly Marxist New Masses.

The Criterion, London
1922-1939

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T.S. Eliot edited Modernism’s most famous magazine at night after coming home from his job at Lloyds Bank. The Criterion’s editorial office was his house. From these modest origins sprung a debut issue containing “The Waste Land” and a magazine that, in its first year, received contributions from Luigi Pirandello, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, E.M. Forster, and W.B. Yeats. In his effort to convey a European consciousness unlike  that found in other magazines of the time, Eliot’s Criterion became the first periodical to publish Proust in English. Eliot spent the following years trying to establish such writers as W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Wyndham Lewis, while simultaneously expounding his defense of classicism, tradition, and Catholicism. The magazine never reached more than 800 subscribers and Eliot somewhat dispiritedly ended the Criterion in 1939.

The American Mercury, New York
1924-1980

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H.L. Mencken conceived the American Mercury as a magazine capable of taking in the whole absurd carnival of the American scene during the Jazz Age. Irreverent, learned, iconoclastic, and satirical, the magazine became indistinguishable from Mencken himself. It furiously lampooned his favorite targets— creationists, Prohibition, the “booboisie”—in the pungent style of its editor. The premier literary tastemaker of his time, Mencken published fiction by William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Sherwood Anderson alongside articles written by convicts, clergyman, lawyers, dishwashers, and outdoorsmen. At its peak, in 1928, the American Mercury had 84,000 subscribers. The magazine lost momentum after 1929 when Mencken’s satirical edge, defense of laissez-faire economics, and disdain for the proletariat put him out of step with the culture of the Depression era. The man Walter Lippmann once referred to as “the most powerful influence on this whole generation of educated people” left the magazine in 1933.

Partisan Review, New York
1934-2003

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It has been said of Partisan Review that despite rarely having more than ten thousand subscribers, it had the right ten thousand subscribers. When people get nostalgic for the golden days of the “public intellectual” in America, Partisan Review is never far from their minds. Though it began under the auspices of the arts branch of the American Communist Party, the magazine’s founding editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, soon parted ways with the party’s embrace of Stalinism. Staunchly anti-Stalinist and a defender of high art, Partisan Review was a magazine in which Rahv’s critiques of Marxism were followed by Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The flagship publication of the New York Intellectuals, Partisan Review published Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, and such classic essays as Clement Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” The number of little magazines—Macdonald’s Politics, Howe’s Dissent—started by its former contributors over the years, often following an intellectual falling-out, testifies to its influence.

Les Temps Modernes, Paris
1945-Present

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Jean-Paul Sartre launched Les Temps Modernes one year after the liberation of France and at the height of his fame as a novelist, playwright, literary critic, and philosopher. It was truly a magazine of the moment and quickly became the leading exponent of Existentialism. (It, too, peaked at ten thousand subscribers.) The magazine published such titans of postwar experimental literature as Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Raymond Queneau, and Marguerite Duras, as well as Sartre’s monumental literary manifesto, “What Is Writing?” The magazine’s name, taken from the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times, reflected Sartre’s belief that engagement with the present moment was man’s duty. Sartre also believed in the pen’s ability to ignite political change, and in its first decade, Les Temps Modernes condemned capitalism and colonialism, and demanded that France depart from Indochina and Algeria. By the early 1950s, Sartre’s Soviet sympathies had caused all the original editors but Simone de Beauvoir to depart, and it was on the pages of Les Temps Modernes, in one of the defining moments of 1950s intellectual life, that Sartre and Albert Camus’s friendship ended as the two quarreled bitterly in print over Stalinism.

The Paris Review, Paris/New York
1953-Present
The Paris Review, which began life in hopes of recapturing the literary spirit of 1920s Paris, wanted to serve its writers, and George Plimpton, its charismatic co-founder and editor, was not bashful about engaging in a little showmanship to ensure that their voices would be heard. While never as fervently countercultural as Barnet Rosset’s more European-oriented Evergreen Review, in its early years the Paris Review helped to launch Terry Southern, Philip Roth, and Jack Kerouac, and was the first to publish Samuel Beckett in America. Its “Art of Fiction” interviews have become an institution unto themselves. Forever hovering around ten thousand subscribers, the magazine is still going strong despite Plimpton’s death in 2003 and despite the belief of one of its founding editors, Peter Matthiessen, that “little magazines should have short lives and then disappear.”
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The Baffler, Chicago
1988-present

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Founded by Thomas Frank, the Baffler modeled itself after Mencken’s American Mercury, and like his idol, Frank loved to cause mischief by exposing the absurdities and delusions of the “booboisie.” Unlike most little magazines, the Baffler was built around an explicit thesis: that American business culture had co-opted the very idea of dissent by making it a commodity. The magazine spent the 1990s ridiculing one instance after another—from the Gen-X rebel consumers at Details to the peddling of “alternative” culture—in which subversion and rebellion were marketed as lifestyle choices and the counterculture was used only to reinforce the logic of late-twentieth-century capitalism. Despite only publishing seventeen issues to date, the magazine has two anthologies of essays to its name. These days, Frank can be found on the punditry circuit, having brought his critique of the culture wars into the mainstream with his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?
n+1, New York
2004-Present
Over the course of only five issues n+1 has laid claim to being the most important new little magazine to emerge from post-9/11 America. Although its small circulation pales in comparison to such coevals as the Believer and McSweeney’s, n+1 has caused an impressive amount of commotion by responding polemically to the present era. Beyond liberal politics, the editors’ other great passion is the defense of the literary novel: the magazine openly declares itself a descendent of the high seriousness and sense of tradition of Partisan Review. Yet the magazine’s self-conscious tone and its ability to shift casually from discussions of European theory to dissections of pop culture are unmistakably contemporary. In recent issues, the magazine has begun focusing its breezy editorials on exploring the effects that such cultural phenomena as dating, casual sex, porn, and the omnipresence of cell phones and email have had on contemporary consciousness and the experience of everyday life.
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