Review: ‘Radical America: Revolutionary, Dissident and Extremist Magazines’, The Second Network of American Periodical Studies Symposium

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‘Radical America: Revolutionary, Dissident and Extremist Magazines’, The Second Network of American Periodical Studies Symposium, University of Sussex, 20 May 2016

The independent and self-published periodical in America has long held particular significance as an outlet for radical voices of all stripes. From the self-published Boston Quarterly (1838-1842) of Orestes Brownson through to the graphical radicalism of The Masses magazine (1911-1917) and its heir The New Masses (1926-1948), the radical periodical in America has an extensive history. The radically liberal mantle was later taken up by college papers like The Berkeley Barb (1965-1980) and the San Francisco Oracle (1966-1968), and carried on by the mimeographed and xeroxed comix zines of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.  Meanwhile, the racist publications of the White Citizens Council show a darker side to the radical freedoms of the independently published. The relationship between independent publishing and the radical formed the basis of discussion at the recent second meeting of the Network of American Periodical Studies (NAPS).

The day began with the unveiling of what promises to be a critical new resource for scholars of radical American publishing; the newly available New Masses archive, collated, catalogued and digitised by Sue Currell (University of Sussex), collector Francis Booth, and archivists at the Keep from existing, fragile microfiche archives and Booth’s own collection of over 100 issues of the initial print run. These valuable print culture artefacts are increasingly accessible online at https://blogs.sussex.ac.uk/newmasses/about-the-project/. This archive will make available, for the first time to many scholars, an almost complete run of one of the ‘foremost organs of the American Left’ from the time of the great depression to its eventual demise at the hands of the rising anti-communist sentiment of the 1940s.

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One of the final articles to be published in New Masses was Betty Millard’s now-famous ‘Woman Against Myth’ (1948), a critically important early work on the history of the women’s movement in America. Fittingly enough, many of the papers at this conference considered radical portrayals of gender and the censorship. The focus of the discussion following the papers of Sinead McEneaney (St Mary’s University), John Fagg (University of Birmingham) and Victoria Bazin (Northumbria University) fell largely on this topic. In particular the discussion focussed on the attention that depiction of the naked (most often female) body in radical productions including The Masses, The Oracle and Shrew (1969-1976) have often attracted from censors seeking ways in which to limit the reach that these radical publications could attain. However, the limitations of the radicalism of many of these magazines was also called into question—especially those from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and particularly in reference to the recording of the history of women’s radicalism—and the often conventional roles countercultural women found themselves inhabiting within the movement and in the pages of its publications. This was especially true in McEneaney’s paper, which addressed the disconnection between the supposed radical aims of 1960s magazines and the limited roles their – mostly male—editors allowed women to adopt, both in the pages of their magazines and in their personal lives. McEneaney’s was a discussion thrown nicely into relief by the more radical and overtly political positions adopted by the painters of The Masses magazine discussed in John Fagg’s paper, in which the magazine’s politics and its visual culture was altogether more closely integrated.

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Courtesy of Howard Ramsby/Psyche Southwell

Many radical periodicals have struggled to attain the level of publication and distribution achieved by even these early radical periodicals, lacking the financial backing of The Masses or the reliable campus audience of The Berkeley Barb. Some have been suppressed on political grounds, of course, yet the limitations faced by others were along racial lines. The papers of James West (University of Manchester), Bradley Phipps (University of Leicester) and Olivia Wright (University of Nottingham) set up a fascinating three-way dialogue between the struggles faced by the Negro Digest (1942-1951)–later Black World (1961-1975)—to stay in print and fulfil the radical ambitions of its editor Hoyt W. Fuller, the struggles of the women’s prison zine Break de Chains (1976) to even see print, and the paradoxical survival of the openly white supremacist The Citizen Magazine (1961-1979). This prompted a productive discussion on the differences between the published—and thus beholden to the market—magazine and the community-published—and therefore potentially more radical—zine. In particular, the panellists addressed the differing types and modes of censorship, from market censorship to word-of-mouth and community funded support.

Similar concerns fed into the papers of Diarmuid Hester (University of Sussex), Benjamin Pickford (University of Nottingham) and Elizabeth O’Connor (Washington College). Each of these papers looked at people who—in contexts as diverse as the punk scene of the 1970s, the economic crisis following the Specie Circular of 1837, and the hostile publishing market of the early 1900s—rejected conventional community and even collaboration in pursuit of a kind of radically individual sincerity. These diverse yet related papers resulted in vibrant discussion; focusing on the necessity of textual relationships in capitalistic economies, the tests of scepticism these relationships often invite, and the radical position that the truly sincere find themselves inhabiting, in any age.

Context was a consistent theme across the papers of Hugo Frey (University of Chichester), Jo Pawlik (University of Sussex), and Paul Williams (University of Exeter). Whether it was the uprooted images of the French New Wave placed into lurid magazines aimed at teenage readers in the US, the relocated and politicised surrealism of the Chicago Surrealist Group, or the underground comix as championed by Paul Buhle, all three speakers were keen to examine the ways in which the context in which we encounter texts has a profound effect on reception and understanding. Once again the spectre of censorship reared its head in the discussions that followed, during which several panel members pointed out that the threat of censorship can be just as effective in limiting the reach of radical periodicals as more overt legal repression.

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The day closed with a fascinating keynote delivered by Abe Peck (Northwestern University). As the former editor of the Chicago Seed (1967-1974), Peck delivered a remarkable participant’s history of the magazine, its growth and its eventual collapse. Many of the issues discussed across the day returned here, with debates around censorship, printing, and distribution all viewed through the lens of one of the most significant radical papers of the era. Finally, in the discussion following his paper, Peck was keen to make connections between these established debates and the rise of the Occupy movement, and the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders, while acknowledging the difficulties of teaching these utopian moments to modern students. The legacies of these radical publications are still being felt, even as scholars continue to explore the origins, struggles, and issues surrounding a movement that, though it may appear in different places and at different times, often finds itself struggling with the same debates around politics, publication, and censorship wherever and whenever it might manifest.

About Daniel King

Daniel King is an Associate Lecturer at the University of Derby, who has published articles on Cormac McCarthy and Jaime Hernandez. His first book, Cormac McCarthy's Literary Evolution, will be published in September by Tennessee University Press.
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