In Search of Multivocality: Periodical Studies and a Humanities Lab in Practice

As a field Periodical Studies is particularly well-suited to encourage innovative and interdisciplinary methodologies not only among experts but also among young scholars encountering the discipline for the first time. Periodicals are diverse, multi-authored visual and textual objects that when taught effectively can improve students’ close reading and distant reading skills, demand their equal attention toward art and advertisement, and teach them how to imagine the audience of a different historical time and place. They also invite digital humanities work that can enrich students’ critical methods and put their traditional modes of analysis in dialogue with other skills. At a broader theoretical level, the careful study of a periodical’s lifespan encourages students to recognize multivocality within a complex, evolving, and highly collaborative medium.

Looking at The Western Home Monthly through Childhood Studies

Childhood Studies is a fairly new field, interdisciplinary in its nature and drawing participants from psychology, sociology, anthropology, literary studies, and the sciences, among other areas.[1] With the premise that better understanding the figure of the child in a culture is a method of better understanding that culture’s formations of agency and power, Childhood Studies is a discipline that examines conceptions of childhood across many cultures and historical eras. Whatever their field, practitioners of Childhood Studies acknowledge childhood as a social construction and work to discern the intersection between the lived lives of those persons biologically coded as children and the ways that cultures construct childhood to do specific work.[2] Childhood Studies explores how cultures conceive of childhood, how children are discussed and leveraged in politics and media, and further how all of these constructions create expectations for how actual children should behave and be treated. In particular, practitioners of Childhood Studies are deeply concerned with agency, considering how children as participants within their culture negotiate, defy, and/or comply with those expectations.

Spatial Dialectics: Pursuing Geospatial Imaginaries with Word Embedding Models and Mapping

The relationship between human beings and their environment is one of the key problematics explored in twentieth-century literature. As modernist studies has turned its attention to contexts beyond Britain, Europe and the United States, so questions around space, place and geography have been necessarily reconfigured to take account of the effects of imperialism and globalization, and to destabilize the Anglo- and Eurocentrism of prevailing critical perspectives on space within modernist writing. Roughly concomitant with the development of these geomodernist approaches, significant advances have been made within the field of spatial humanities by scholars who have sought ways to use powerful GIS software in pursuit of research questions specific to the humanities.[1] Some of the most interesting research in this area has sought to directly confront the difficulties of using software that requires quantitative input to account for the complexities of spatial imaginaries, understood here as an imbricating set of discursive constructs concerned with the elaboration of spatial meanings. While such discursive constructs can sometimes be anchored to locations in the material world with specific latitude and longitude coordinates, they are more likely to occupy an ambiguous position in relation to the exigencies of georeferencing, or even to float entirely free from such constraints. Unravelling the workings of spatial imaginaries within a corpus that combines both georeferenceable and non-georeferenceable entities thus engages one of the core debates animating work in the digital humanities: using technologies that often mandate binary distinctions and discrete categories to represent and interrogate a world of non-binary human experiences.

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.

The Western Home Monthly and Canadian Home Journal: A Comparative Approach

In Citizens and Nation (2000), Gerald Friesen makes a compelling argument that “the very acts of communication—the social contexts created by voice, writing, print and modern electronic forms—establish a framework for citizenship and nationality and thus Canada.”[1] Canadian magazines undoubtedly played a significant role in the negotiation and articulation of constructions of national identity and citizenship, privileging certain characteristics over others. Indeed, the centrality of both familial and national conceptions of the home is evident in the titles and taglines of the Canadian Home Journal (1905–1958) and The Western Home Monthly (1899–1932). Both titles contained a similar format and range of content and—like the vast majority of Canadian magazines—made use of the now recognizable stylistic and economic models which had been tried and tested in the United States. This is perhaps why Canadian magazines have often been rather unflatteringly dismissed as merely derivative of their American counterparts. Yet these assumptions ignore the complexities of these texts, particularly in relation to the ways in which Canadian magazines constructed their readership and worked towards aims which were, at times, highly distinct from those of American publications.

Embodying Word and Image: Magazines in Illustration Studies

“Do you like illustrated articles?” asked The Western Home Monthly in 1901.[1] The answer was obvious, but drawing attention to illustration reminded prairie and northern readers what a magazine subscription offered that small-town newspapers largely did not. In 1903 editors boasted that WHM was going to be “Amply Illustrated”—special articles in particular, “so that they may be of greater value along the line of instruction”—and that the cover newly printed in two colors and larger format would specifically “give better attention to illustration.”[2] WHM also doubled as a showpiece for parent company Stovel Printing, which offered art services: some WHM illustrations are signed by Stovel Studio. An examination of illustration tells us much about publishers’ and audiences’ values—and about the power of the visual, material object to define identity and to act rhetorically.

Reading the Modern Magazine in an Interdisciplinary Humanities Lab

This essay cluster begins with an ending. Specifically, it began with the ending of Patrick Collier’s “What Is Modern Periodical Studies?,” which concludes with a provocation to find a new way to read and study modern periodicals. In order to develop coherent methodological approaches to modern periodicals, Collier argues, we need to resist the urge to “decid[e] in advance where [a] periodical’s value lies.” Instead, he urges us to “start with only one assumption: that the periodical is valuable simply because it exists—because it once performed some desirable functions for some number of people—and set as our first conceptual task reaching some hypotheses on what those functions were.”[1] The seeming simplicity of this provocation—read without having deciding the value of what you’re reading in advance—belies its theoretical and methodological complexity. If modern periodicals are best known for the sheer size and heterogeneity of their archives, then an approach that provides no framing in advance, no specific path for navigating that archival scope, is daunting to say the least.