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Lost in the (National) Archive: The Modern Girl and the Magazine

“Times have changed, and so have merchandise and business methods,” The Western Home Monthly declared in its July 1919 editorial, as the visuality of modern design and advertising began to enter its pages after two decades of continuous publication, and as it made other strategic changes in apparent attempts to capture a modernizing readership.[1] Rather than addressing a wide-open swath of “the great middle classes” it had sought to attract in its early days at the turn of the century, the magazine now pledged itself to the service of “the thousands of women in this country who were no longer satisfied with the idea that things were good enough ‘because mother did it that way’” and promised that it would seek to satisfy “the human needs of a woman’s life.”[2] No doubt hoping to avoid alienating older long-time male readers, such as the “Octogenerian” whose letter of praise addressed the magazine as “Dear Old W.H.M.,” the periodical nonetheless began to court a younger, predominantly female audience.[3] While WHM remained largely a household magazine, addressing, as Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith have identified, “women of several different generations” and “all the members of a middle-class family,” the age of the Modern Girl was dawning on the prairie, and her image began appearing throughout the pages of the periodical where she registered as both the object and subject of address.[4] Characterised by her bobbed hair, increasing use of cosmetics, a willing embrace of glamour and commodity culture, and her frank acknowledgment of inner life, her image emblazoned the cover of magazines with increasing frequency in the late 1920s and heightened intensity in the early 1930s. This was true of Canada’s The Western Home Monthly (1899–1932) as much as elsewhere, though her absence in Canadian literary history is particularly acute. Her presense in this Canadian publication potentially challenges established narratives of the Canadian literary past, and destabilizes established hierarchies of cultural value, as she not only appeared as a commercial icon but also infiltrated literary aspects of the magazine, including its illustrated serialised novels and short stories.

Encounters with Modernism: Ian McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri, and the Ethics of Abstraction

What distinguishes modernism’s legacies from the afterlives of other literary or cultural movements? To begin to answer this question, let’s glance back to 1941, when several writers of transatlantic renown composed what we might call obituaries for the modernist arts. Djuna Barnes’s “Lament for the Left Bank,” for example, an elegiac piece published in the American periodical Town and Country, memorialized a Paris made brilliant by overlapping arcs of collaborative innovation: Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes; George Antheil and Ezra Pound; Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, and Coco Chanel. The essay ends with the line, “The dreadful thing is not that all these things were done, but that they are over.”[1] The things that were done and the things that are over: Barnes identifies the tensions that would come to mark modernism’s legacy in the twenty-first century, the dialectical occurrences of cultural continuity and discontinuity, of originality and repetition. For Barnes, Left Bank artists in the 1920s and 1930s did “things”—a single, compact word for modernism’s kaleidoscopic transformations—that were over by 1941, a conviction varied and echoed in other coeval “art-historical post-mortems,” to borrow from Richard Meyers, by Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Anaïs Nin, and Cyril Connolly.[2]