Friday, 6 December 2013

New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?

Yesterday, 6th December 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Sue Currell (Reader in American Literature, University of Sussex; Chair of the British Association for American Studies) to the fifth seminar of the American Studies Seminar Series of 2013-2014. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of their 'English and American Literature Lecture Series,' Dr. Currell discussed ‘New Masses Magazine: Modernist Communism?’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

As Britain was battered by a winter storm with winds of over 100mph - in what was effectively described as ‘the largest north sea surge for over 60 years’ - Dr. Currell braved the length of the country to give an engaging and insightful lecture based on her current research – which examines the relationship of the arts with political discourse during interwar America, in particular as it relates to the journal New Masses. This formed the focus of her talk – in which she re-examined the political and aesthetic framework within which the Marxist arts and culture magazine New Masses has been understood and assessed by modernist literary studies.

New Masses magazine, published out of New York from 1926-1948, was an American Marxist magazine closely associated with, although not proven to be connected with, the Communist Party in the US. By publishing a large number of visual images along with muckraking political analysis, essays on historical and current events, contemporary fiction, and reviews of art exhibitions, theater, and films, this experimental journal proved to be unique among left and liberal magazines at the time. Originally founded as a monthly magazine of leftist writing and art in 1926, following the model of two earlier American socialist journals, The Masses and The Liberator, it began publishing as a weekly at the height of the Great Depression. It became highly influential in intellectual circles, even being called ‘the principal organ of the American cultural left’ from 1926 onwards, until its final issue appeared in 1948. According to Dr. Currell however, this resource has been left on the shelf of history, inevitably being glossed over when examining this important time period. Thus, Dr. Currell has set out to right this wrong.

According to Dr. Currell, in what little has been published, New Masses has been variously read and interpreted as ‘not-modernist’ and increasingly ‘not-or-anti-modernist’ in its latter period. However, throughout her talk, Dr. Currell challenged this ‘accepted’ paradigm that the magazine took a Stalinist-influenced aesthetic line from the mid-1930s. To do this, Dr. Currell examined the magazine's wider engagement with ideas for a communist modernism more broadly. Unlike contemporary liberal/left magazines such as the Nation, the New Yorker, or Vanity Fair, or radical newspapers such as Art Front and the Daily Worker, New Masses not only promoted explicitly leftist viewpoints but also, in looking beyond the public debates between the literary formalists and the ‘content boys’ that scholars have largely focused on, Dr. Currell was able to show how this incredibly experimental magazine was at the forefront of a nascent Marxism in the US. Accordingly, the early trajectory of New Masses' development was shaped by its founders' fascination with both literary and artistic modernism and Soviet Communist ideals; the tensions posed by these potentially divergent interests revealed themselves in editorial precepts that shifted from the late 1920s into the early and mid-1930s.

Publishing experimental and non-conformist writings of relatively unknown writers, New Masses had both the guise of a ‘little magazine’ and the content of a manifesto – combing them both lyrically to produce a ‘new’ type of magazine. Its editors saw their audience as extremely broad – demonstrated by the magazine’s engagement with both high art and popular culture. Moreover, according to Dr. Currell, the association with leftist political views was at first unofficial, but after Mike Gold took over as chief editor in 1928, a militant proletarianism took precedence over less explicitly anti-capitalist political positions. Gold was influential in making this style of fiction popular during the depression years of 1930s, and was an important presence on the American cultural scene for more than three decades.

With contributions from Ezra Pound, Arthur Miller, and many others, New Masses is an extremely important magazine that must be considered and assessed with a modernist hat on according to Dr. Currell. Moreover, Dr. Currell passed round copies of two New Masses magazines as she spoke – which both brought her talk to life and allowed the audience to identify the various modernist editorial motions and aesthetic qualities she was highlighting. In closing, Dr. Currell argued that as one of the foremost periodicals of a renaissance that transformed American modernism and mass culture, New Masses ultimately deserves a reassessment. And that is just what she has set out to do.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series continues in the New Year with Dr. Catriona Paul (Dundee University) ‘The rise of horse racing and the endorsement of slavery in Kentucky, 1780-1830.’ This will be held on Wednesday 15th January in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5.15pm. All very welcome!