Back to TOC

Philip Fried

Introduction: A Tribute to the American Little Magazine

By way of introducing this millennial issue of The Manhattan Review, I would like to pay tribute to all American little magazines, past and present.

If entrepreneurial drive is a crucial part of the American character, then America's poets are its entrepreneurs of the spirit. Their inventions of breath and word, though not registered at the patent office, are at least as important in defining who we are as Edison's phonograph or light bulb. And the little magazines have sustained American poets throughout the twentieth century.

These publications, often defiantly noncommercial in pursuit of poetic quality and innovation, are our country's small businesses of the soul. The adjective "little," first used during World War I, refers more to the size of their readership than to their physical dimensions or their cultural ambitions. They each embody the dream of a single person or a small group, and their addresses are all the hometowns of our country, from Nashville, Tennessee, to New York City, to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Their business "warehouses," with shelves of issues bearing offbeat or exotic names like Literal Latte, Clown War, and Xanadu, are linen closets, kitchen cabinets, or garages.

Like many small businesses, little magazines can be as ephemeral as mayflies. Taken collectively, however, these magazines have been the bedrock of American poetry in the twentieth century. They have supported poets, movements, milieux, and literary scenes. They are, by virtue of a magnificent paradox, eccentric enterprises that are centrally important to American poetry and culture.

The authors of The Little Magazine (Princeton University Press, 1946) estimate "that at least 95% of our post-1912 poets were introduced by such magazines . . ." And of that 95%, some were publishing incipient classicsfor example, Wallace Stevens's "Peter Quince at the Clavier," which appeared in Others, Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," first published in Crisis, and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," featured in the Dial. And as continuing proof of the importance of these magazines, even for established poets, we need only glance at the acknowledgments page of A.R. Ammons's throwaway classic Garbage (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993). It shows that portions of this highly-praised poem appeared first in little magazines like CrossRoads and Pearl.

It is time to honorwith an extensive exhibition, a documentary film, or boththe poets and editors whose hands are stained with the honorable, indelible ink of little-magazine production. Coming from a variety of regions, literary persuasions, and ethnic groups, often quirky, and always impassioned, these practitioners display what Michael Anania has called the "essential brave lunacy" of their calling. They affirm the idea that culture is not something one receives as a gift from on high but is a homemade product, something local that can travel far in space and time.

A tribute is especially fitting in this unique moment of the little-magazine saga, a time to remember one century and to dream of the next. In particular, the dramatic growth of the Internet, with its ability to foster the cultural enterprises of individuals and small groups, makes this a turning point in the history of the little magazine. Poetry web sites and cyber-magazines are springing up by the thousands. And a tradition born in the early twentieth century, on the streets of Chicago and Greenwich Village, is inspiring a new generation that publishes electronically and meets not in cafes but in virtual chat rooms.

Long live the little magazineon paper, on screen, in all its future incarnations!