spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

August 9, 2009

<< A Much-Needed Hyphen Tutorial | World of Spin and Flame >>

Paper Modernism

Now that my dissertation is good and filed, I want to share a few fragments of what I’ve been working on, on-and-off, for the past few years.

Here’s a few selected grafs from the first chapter:

The history of Modernism is part of the history of paper. That is, the transformation of literary and visual culture announced by Modernism and the avant-garde is inseparable from the transformation of the largely paper-based communication and information technologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries…

From the daguerrotype to the cinema, the history of photography simultaneously parallels and intersects the development of paper and print. A single image, handmade by an artisan, is succeeded by a continuously-fed reel of industrially-made material. In fact, the chemical treatment of wood pulp cellulose with sulfurous acid to produce paper is only slightly different from the chemical treatment of wood fibers with nitric acid to produce celluloid film. Nitrocellulose (also called guncotton) in ether or acetone yields collodion, the albumen alternative that allowed for glass-plate photography; the evaporation of collodion in turn led to the discovery of celluloid film. Celluloid emerges as a paper alternative with Eastman Kodak, the company credited with the introduction of flexible film and the supplier of continuous film rolls for Edison’s early motion pictures. Kodak had originally used ordinary paper treated with collodion in their famous “roll” cameras; amateur photographers could take multiple photographs then send their camera, including the paper film, to the company for development. Kodak’s invention democratized photography by eliminating the chemistry required to prepare a plate and develop a print, but when the plain paper stock produced poor quality negatives, Kodak quickly switched to celluloid, a paper-like (and paper-based) polymer. The earliest popular forms of photography, too, were paper products: the newspaper, which was quick to adapt photography for both journalistic use and graphic interest, and the codex photograph album of course, but also the carte de visite and cabinet card, both of which displayed portraits on thin paper prints glued to inexpensive card stock. The paper document had not been eliminated by the photographic image; the two had transformed together…

“It takes very little to start a little magazine,” Reed Whittemore writes. “As a minimum a secondhand typewriter, some paper, and access to a mimeograph machine will do.” And indeed, the mimeograph, invented in 1876 by Thomas Edison, helped to make several upstart avant-garde magazines possible. Its use is most notable during the postwar period, but what Stephen Clay and Rodney Phillips call “the mimeo revolution” of little magazines between 1960 and 1980 can easily be placed much earlier, in the 1920s, if not before. William Carlos Williams’s account of starting Contact in 1920 with Robert McAlmon gives an especially direct example:

Our poems constantly, continuously and stupidly were rejected by all the pay magazines except Poetry and The Dial. The Little Review didn’t pay. We had no recourse but to establish publications of our own. For after all, the outlets being so meager, we had otherwise far too long a time to wait between drinks. It was the springtime of the little magazines and there was plenty for them to do…

Pa Herman [Williams’s father-in-law, a paper manufacturer] cut up some paper for us and sent us a ton of it—I’m still using it and shall be for the rest of my life I imagine, I’m writing on it now… There were the first two issues, mimeographed and clipped together, then one printed on the same paper, with a printed cover; then a final issue printed and bound on white paper. That was the last. Nobody bought—and there was much else in the wind.

Williams and McAlmon could afford an issue printed on good paper while retaining editorial control because McAlmon had married Bryher, a wealthy heiress and writer also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman, H.D.’s companion who would later co-found the film journal Close Up. McAlmon’s Contact Editions was an early example of an independent American modernist press, and would eventually publish Spring and All in 1923. But it began with Williams’s paper, McAlmon’s earnings from nude modeling, and a mimeograph machine. I contend that Contact may be the first mimeographed literary magazine, predating Yvor Winters’s Gyroscope (Clay and Phillips’s candidate) by nine years…

In “The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism,” Susan Raitt has shown how various modernist formal strategies, from Imagist poetry to stream-of-consciousness fiction, position themselves on the side of verbal, psychological, and social efficiency, in many cases following the model of contemporary theories of scientific management. I think this theory is essentially correct, but I would specify that the principal problem of scientific management during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is the efficient conservation of paper, whether in its scarcity and or its plenitude. During World War I, for example, paper shortages and increased government regulation of the printing trade made publishers and typesetters (who were equally responsible under British law) skittish of printing anything likely to run afoul of the censor or public indifference. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow was seized and burned in 1915, the same year that the British government took steps to restrict and regulate the paper trade, control that intensified as shortages increased throughout the war. In 1916, Ezra Pound promised James Joyce that if printers refused to print A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with objectionable phrases intact, “I shall tell Miss Weaver to print it with blank spaces and then have the typewriting done on good paper and pasted in. If I have to do it myself.” When Portrait reached its second edition in 1918, Pound began his article in The Future by exclaiming:

Despite the War, despite the paper shortage, and despite those old-established publishers whose god is their belly and whose godfather was the late F.T. Palgrave, there is a new edition of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” It is extremely gratifying that this book should have “reached its fourth thousand,” and the fact is significant in just so far as it marks the beginning of a new phase of English publishing… The actual output is small in bulk, a few brochures of translations, Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Joyce’s “A Portrait,” and Wyndham Lewis’ “Tarr” (announced), but I have it on good authority that at least one other periodical will start publishing its authors after the War, so there are new rods in pickle for the old fat-stomached contingent and for the cardboard generation.

It’s no accident, then, that once the shortage had ended, modernist writing found both more outlets for publication and room for longer and more adventurous works. However, it still had to frame itself in the terms of an aesthetic of scarcity formed during the war. As Pound notes in his “Paris Letter” for The Dial published May 1922, Ulysses’s “732 double sized pages” have “greater efficiency,” “greater compactness,” and “more form than any novel of Flaubert’s.”

Posted August 9, 2009 at 10:00 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Object Culture, Self-Disclosure


Wow. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

No wonder you're so good at interpreting the kinds of transformations that define this era.


I love this:

"It takes very little to start a little magazine," Reed Whittemore writes. "As a minimum a secondhand typewriter, some paper, and access to a mimeograph machine will do."

I'm completely fascinated by that era of publishing history -- esp The Dial & its several incarnations, so I was glad to see you reference it at the end there.

Question: What was an average circulation for one of those magazines? The Dial, for instance, or Contact? Just round numbers -- order of magnitude...?

See, this is the sort of stuff Wolfram Alpha ought to be good for!

Contact, I don't know. But according to Lawrence Rainey's "The Cultural Economy of Modernism," the total circulation of The Dial in 1922 was 9,200, including 6,374 subscribers. They ran a deficit that year of $65,000. (They only earned $40,720, including $9,320 from advertising.)

Most little magazines had a smaller circulation; for example, in 1917 (which isn't totally a fair comparison, because of the war), the Little Review had 2500 subscribers.

The reason Rainey knows so much about these particular journals in these particular years is because The Dial published "The Waste Land" in 1922, and The Little Review went on to serialize Joyce's Ulysses.

I have a book about the history of Zines.

But it's in my studio at our foothills place and I'm in downtown Sacramento. Makes you miss the network.

Wow, Tim. This is fantastic stuff: a materialist intellectual history in the best of senses.

I don't know who first commented on the "paperback revolution" in post-WWII mass society, but the stuff you're detailing here feels as if it would be just as important.

Oh, and: Congrats Herr *Doktor* Snarketeer Carmody!

Posted by: Dan on August 10, 2009 at 06:18 PM

Tim! Will your dissertation be published? Is it already? Basically, how do I get my hands on a copy of this thing? Very curious.

spacer image
spacer image