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Life Among the Littles

Back in 1931, a magazine called Contempo appeared in Chapel Hill, N.C. By 1934, it had disappeared, but during its brief life it baited the literary establishmentwith Conrad Aiken, Faulkner, Kay Boyle, Pound, Wallace Stevens and D. H. Lawrence. Recently, through the offices of the Kraus Reprint Corporation, a company that specializes in out-of-print periodical publishing, Contempo achieved a belated karma, along with 26 other experimental magazines that include The Dial, Laughing Horse, Little Review and Pagany. These have been photographed, bound and offered for sale – in all, 351 volumes, 126,000 pages. You can have the complete set for $5,454.

The Kraus project is concerned only with vanished glories. The “littles” with us today may have a new source of income. The National Endowment for the Arts has set aside $50,000 for resuscitory work among ailing literary publications. To be administered by the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (on which sit representatives of 34 well-established publications), the sum must be matched from private sources; and at this writing, United States Steel has sweetened the kitty with $10,000.

Requests for help pour in. Wormwood Review, up in Storrs, Conn.,wants an electric typewriter (won’t IBM help out here?), The Virginia Quarterly Review an addressograph machine. In New Orleans, The Outsider, edited by Jon Edgar and Louise (“Gypsy Lou”) Webb, needs a printing press. The last issue of The Outsider that I saw contained work by William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Kenneth Patchen and a batch of 35-year-old letters by Henry Miller. Then the press broke down, and the backlog of manuscripts began to pile up. A grant from the Council will reduce the inventory.

There are about 600 literary and “little” magazines on the market today, all of which have been invited to apply for help. The $100,000 question: who will get the money. Most independent “littles” have odd, migratory habits: they don't stay around – or in one place – long enough to be considered good risks. Trace, a twice-a-year magazine printed on interlarded white, green and poster-yellow pages, carries a “periodicity key” to its sister publications, but even the editor, James Boyer May, has a hard time keeping up with their erratic schedules. The casualty rate is high, the typography is bad (you're never sure whether this reflects avant garde poetry or unpaid printing bills) and the subject matter is not always the kind that withstands congressional scrutiny.

The trend among the “littles” is away from evangelical literary protest and toward the psychedelic affirmation and “culturo-sexual revolt” of the hippie Sixties. California (north and south) and New York City’s East Village pro-vide “happy obscenity, love, despair, torture” (Entrails) and “impulse manifestoes and synthesia translation” (Anonymous). Earth, located in Santa Monica, Calif., “will take anything with balls behind it . . . guts, meat, no subtlety.” In nearby Hermosa Beach the Scum Publishing Co. puts out a magazine called Horseshit. But these magazines offer almost nothing that is genuinely experimental; there’s a good deal of rather fashionable sophomoric despair.

Collectively, the “littles” seem to soak up all the verse in the country that goes unpublished elsewhere. A survey by John Sankey in 1953 showed that poetry accounted for 43 percent of all material these magazines fronted. Poetry seems to obey some kind of Parkinson’s law which dictates that as outlets expand, so does supply. One side-effect of this is the “coterie” impression that has always characterized the little magazines and which Archibald MacLeish deplored in the first issue of Reed Whittemore’s Furioso in 1939. "A magazine of poetry is a place where poetry gets published. It is not, however, a place where poetry gets read,” he wrote, adding that in such journals “poets read their own poems and sometimes each others.”

Sampling a recent batch of little magazines, I got the feeling of camaraderie among “club” members and a fanatic dedication to the business at hand, which is to thumb one’s nose at the Establishment. Much of the prose has that loosely fractured, pseudo-Joycean syntax. There is not enough first-rate material, even by beginner’s standards, to fill up a hundred, let alone 600 publications. Yet in 1945, Frederick J. Hoffman, Charles Allen and Carolyn Ulrich, in their book The Little Magazine could state that “they [the magazines] have introduced, and sponsored, every noteworthy literary movement or school that has made its appearance in America during the past 30 years,” when Sandburg, William C. Williams, Sherwood Anderson, Hart Crane, Hemingway, Caldwell and literally scores of others were introduced by the “littles.”

Where are their successors? A talented writer today is just as likely to start at the top as at the bottom. Tolerance for the off-beat has broadened. Our tastes are more shock proof, if not necessarily more discerning. The Laughing Horse was run out of California in the 30’s for printing some letters of D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Hubert Selby, Jr. are now available at the corner drugstore. In an ironic sense, the “littles” suffer because of the success of their predecessors. So they are left with the option of advancing the guard even further (chiefly through pornography), going academic (Partisan Review), or retreating into a collective narcissism. This last group embraces most of the hard core, struggling, mimeographer and offset publications that need money the most, and are the most unlikely to get it – at least from the National Endowment.

There is a curious observation, to be made: the physically more attractive publications yield the best writing. Among this letterpress aristocracy, Carleton Miscellany might be called the All-American little magazine; it carries a strong tone of literary dissent without lapsing into a faddish despair or the automatic protest of the New Left. Chelseaemphasizes the work of foreign writers. Evergreen Review is a big “little” that has made it with tasteful pornography and smart promotion. Mutiny is avant garde but anti-beat. Kulchur is just plain beat, although edited from an address on Park Avenue. Paris Review, with its cafe society connections, (it is bankrolled in part by the Aga Khan) publishes material of a high order, but is only vaguely experimental.

Creeping respectability has overtaken most of the academically-sanctioned literary magazines; they no longer die to set verse free. They publish the best writing in the field, but the note of protest is muted. Here, is Academia where Bohemia used to be. It is this group that dominates the Coordinating Council; their directors will pass on the applications for Endowment money, and it is my hunch that in the end they will give most of it to their own members. You don't man the barricades with an electric typewriter.

David Dempsey is a free lance writer on literary subjects.

This article originally ran in the July 8, 1967, issue of the magazine.