Here is an early (and, as was the case with the most recent Lillian Smith post, really rather different) introduction to the Wyndham Lewis chapter of Literary Obscenities.
Using his first editorial in The Little Review to settle old scores and foment new antagonisms, the newly appointed Pound both disclaimed his hampered involvement hitherto with Harriet Monroe’s Poetry and intimated that Margaret Anderson’s little magazine would prove to be the more tractable instrument of his peculiar blend of scholarship, enthusiasm, and pedagogy. Importantly, this tractability was to be understood as extending to ongoing adjustments within the journal of the hierarchies governing the relationship between aesthetics and religiously-inflected notions of morality: “If any human activity is sacred it is the formulation of thought in clear speech for the use of humanity; any falsification or evasion is evil. The codes of propriety are all local, parochial, transient; a consideration of them, other than as subject matter, has no place in the arts.”[i] Pound’s emphasis here is not on the purgation of morality altogether from the pages of The Little Review, but rather on the necessity of interfusing moral codes with compositional principles thereafter capable of guiding one’s discriminative judgments of good and evil, with evil understood as manifesting itself in thoughts that are poorly expressed. Pound subordinates the moral to the aesthetic, thereby neutralizing one of the era’s more widely-used means to control objectionable cultural objects. According to Pound’s editorial, immorality and impropriety are not reducible to transgression as such; correlatively, charges like those of obscenity can no longer meaningfully be made, whether in the popular press or in the courthouse, because their grounds are too particular and ephemeral when measured by the universalizable assessments that art properly demands.[ii]
For Pound, therefore, the antagonism to be pursued at all costs is that between The Little Review and those of its readers who would presume to possess their own critical standards. If up to 1917, as one modernist scholar has recently argued, The Little Review had actively and successfully targeted American youth markets, then the advent of Pound as foreign editor marked a formidable attempt to liquidate whatever hold those markets might have had on the journal from here on out[iii]: “The shell-fish grows its own shell, the genius creates its own milieu. You, the public, can kill genius by actual physical starvation, you may perhaps thwart or distort it, but you can in no way create it.”[iv] Tellingly, Pound turns his back not only on the magazine’s practice of niche marketing but also on the market altogether, at least rhetorically, for the value model Pound evokes is analogous to feudal prestige and obligation rather than capitalist profit. The artist should, according to his virtue, receive a just tributary reward. Marketplace competition does not drive the innovative development of the arts; only artists and their own independently pursued creative efforts can do that. The patron provides the artist with a welcome service rather than the other way round.[v]
Yet the primary figure evoked here is not economic so much as ecological. According to Pound, the artist-as-shellfish is the absolutely autonomous creator and master of his environment, save for the small matter of food, for which the mollusky demiurge in no way incurs a debt payable by him to his provider. If anything, Pound argues, the patron-as-subsistence-provider (and precisely not the provisioned artist) is the parasite in this ecosystem because it is the artist who gives his patron and the world-at-large something neither would have otherwise had.[vi] Moreover, it is this belief in the improbable self-sufficiency of the artist in his calcareous shell that motivates Pound’s final “humanist” blast against the mob in favor of “detached individuals,” which echoes throughout the complementary prose pieces contributed by T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis to the May 1917 issue of The Little Review.[vii]
Although the replacement of a fleshy and pliant epidermis with the dead, hardened exterior of a shell was already a privileged emblem of sorts in his visual and literary work, Lewis’ inaugural contribution to The Little Review focuses instead upon a popular classical intertext, the Circe episodes of The Odyssey, in the first of his “Imaginary Letters” in order to convey the effort required not to yield to the mimetic drift operative in consumerism and mass politics.[viii] For instance, among the squibs aimed at “the gentleman-animal” and those who would prize happiness above all other worldly pursuits, Lewis has his fictional William Bland Burn write disenchantedly to his wife of their shared Circean circumstances:
I feel that we are obviously in the position of Ulysses’ companions; and there is nothing I resent more than people settling down to become what is sensible for a swine. I will stalk about with my stumpy legs, and hold my snout high, however absurd it may be. We must get through this enchantment without too many memories of abasement. We most need, in the inner fact, changing back into men again! And I don’t want the “happiness” of the swill-pail, but a perpetual restlessness until the magic is over![ix]
In turn, the first part of Eliot’s agonistic dialogue, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” also revolves around the problems presented by contemporary liberal and democratic ideologies to those who would obstinately remain individuals. At one point in their spectatorial and analytic tête-à-tête, Eeldrop even concedes to Appleplex, “The ‘individualist’ is a member of a mob as fully as any other man: and the mob of individualists is the most unpleasing, because it has the least character. . . . We cannot escape the label, but let it be one which carries no distinction, and arouses no self-consciousness. Sufficient that we should find simple labels, and not further exploit them.”[x] Whereas Pound’s editorial appears able to define and defend the humanism of valuing “detached individuals” because it has no trouble presupposing that such a separation from the vulgar rabblement is even possible in the first place, the Lewis and Eliot submissions unveil the tenuousness of such a distinction.
Seldom taken for granted by these three writers, individuality instead remains an ever-unfolding processual project, and consequential first steps toward the development of something like a successful individuation appear to involve the sorts of antagonistic relations instantiated by Pound in his opening editorial.[xi] Accordingly, the “Ezraized Little Review” soon enough estranged longtime subscribers to Anderson’s little magazine.[xii] Starting with the June 1917 issue, the pages of “The Reader Critic,” the section of the journal devoted to reprinting letters from readers and responses to those letters by the editorial staff, became the site both for indexing this tense breach between publisher and consumer as well as for staging the journal’s programmatic inflexibility when it came to giving readers what they thought they wanted. Despite two letters voicing their unwavering support of the new Little Review (including one quick missive from James Joyce in Zurich), the correspondence in the June “Reader Critic” expresses worries about the potentially deleterious effects of Pound’s notions of art on American artistic life and the troubling ramifications for the little magazine of his capriciously Manichean approaches to artistic production.[xiii] A group of New York subscribers threaten to withdraw their “moral and financial support” unless “The Reader Critic” reappears in future issues of The Little Review (it was excised in the May 1917 issue due to lack of space), presumably because they wish to have a reliable public forum in which to register their increasing dissatisfaction with the journal.[xiv] In addition to complaining about the mere announcement of Pound’s foreign editorship in the April 1917 issue, the final letter in the June “Reader Critic” attempts to undercut the adversarial poses adopted by The Little Review in apparent collusion with Pound: a reader from Massachusetts writes, “You see it is a fact that your ‘art for art’s sake’ cannot exist without supporters: nothing is free from economic conditions which are the creators and destroyers of people’s tendencies and deeds.”[xv] Contrary to Pound’s shellfish, milieu rather than genius ultimately determines the destruction and creation of art.
These letters, as well as those selectively included in subsequent installments of “The Reader Critic,” only partly reveal what Pound’s inauguration into the pages of The Little Review represented to its editorial staff.[xvi] In her August 1917 essay, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” Margaret Anderson takes stock of Poundian influences on the journal by comparing them favorably to the more directly interventionist stances officially assumed by the little magazine in its first three years of publication.[xvii] In particular, Anderson refers disparagingly to the proletariat and anarchist sympathies voiced in early issues of The Little Review as youthful follies distracting her and the journal from what really matters: “Art and good talk about Art.”[xviii] According to Anderson, only these two things are worthy of attention, and in comparison, anarchism and class politics are “ideas [that] were not interesting enough to have bothered about.”[xix] This differentiates The Little Review from the masses because “the curious thing about America is that while she thinks such insipid and pleasant and harmless ideas [i.e., anarchism and class politics] are abominable and dangerous, she also thinks they are interesting!”[xx] What the public is presumably incapable of finding interesting are not the actions of an Emma Goldman, but rather the works of a Pound, an Eliot, or a Lewis (Joyce had not yet started serializing Ulysses in her journal).
In effect, Anderson was telling her readers that The Little Review was trading in its social revolutionary pretensions for a more assertive role in projects of cultural revolution extending beyond the provincially localized concerns of the United States into more comparative and cosmopolitan fields. The Little Review was to be thus transformed from a somewhat fashionably politicized organ within an increasingly fractured liberal public sphere into a more outspoken agent striving to dissolve that multiform sphere and reconstitute it into a more unified totality.[xxi] Despite what the New York subscribers referred to above might have assumed, therefore, “The Reader Critic” was no longer going to be a place for endless discussion and negotiation. Instead, it would function as an ad hoc tribunal of sorts, sniffing out unreconstructed elements among its old contributors, subscribers, and readers. Of these contributors, Maxwell Bodenheim received the brunt of such criticism, even though his essays and creative works continued to appear in The Little Review after May 1917. For instance, immediately following a letter from Bodenheim in the June 1917 “Reader Critic” chastising Pound for his spurious autocratic propensities, Anderson responds by summarily putting Bodenheim in his place: “Now it is a fact that one particular kind of brain can put forward this claim and establish its legitimate autocracy. It is the brain that functions aesthetically rather than emotionally. Most artists haven’t this kind. Their work drains their aesthetic reserve—and they usually talk rot about art. There are thousands of examples—such as Beethoven treasuring the worst poetry he could find. There are notable exceptions, such as Leonardo, such as Gaudier-Brzeska. Ezra Pound seems to have this kind of brain.”[xxii] The implication, of course, is that Bodenheim does not share with Pound, da Vinci, and Brzeska the exceptional kind of brain that is rich in “aesthetic reserves.” Instead, he is an illegitimate autocrat whose artistic and critical precepts no longer necessarily coincide with those of The Little Review; hence Bodenheim’s criticism appeared in “The Reader Critic” rather than in the body of the journal. In the final item included in “The Reader Critic” three months later, Bodenheim came in for an even more explicit drubbing, this time in bullying schoolyard doggerel: “Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / Bury bloody Bodenheim / And Johnny Rodker too.”[xxiii]
Similarly, Jane Heap used “The Reader Critic” to assail those readers still expecting to find something of the old Little Review in the Ezraized journal. The June 1917 issue begins with Heap’s “Push-Face,” a diffuse essay critical not only of U.S. involvement in World War I but also seemingly of any political action whatsoever: “And it’s all right, this game of push-face: everyone plays it. When you’re little children you play it and call it push-face; nations call it government; the ‘people’ are playing it now in Russia and call it revolution.”[xxiv] The response in the pages of “The Reader Critic” was characteristically violent. A reader from Pennsylvania wrote, “After reading your article ‘Push Face’ [sic] in your June number I have torn the magazine to pieces and burned it in the fire. You may discontinue my subscription.”[xxv] A more temperate, but no less critical letter from Illinois raises similar objections: “Why should one be a Democrat or a Christian or a Militarist or a Mrs. Potter-Palmer or a push-face policeman to believe in our cause for entering the war. [sic] I wish every paper and magazine might inspire the right sort of war enthusiasm. . . . Anyway I would rather give a dollar and a half to the Red Cross than subscribe for The Little Review. And also I’m not intellectual enough to enjoy it.”[xxvi] Though Heap’s reply to this letter mechanically repeats the magazine’s motto (“No Compromise with the Public Taste”), her response to an inquiry in the following month’s “Reader Critic” proved to be more expansive with respect to the relationship between The Little Review, World War I, and this Russia business. A reader from Kansas succinctly observes, “The Little Review is the only magazine I have laid eyes on in months that hasn’t had a word in it about this blasted war. How do you do it?”[xxvii] In her rejoinder, Heap boldly asserts the illegitimacy of war as “an interesting subject for Art” because it is not “the focal point of any fundamental emotion for any of the peoples engaged in it.”[xxviii] Soberly assessed, war comprises little more than a surface disturbance in our affective lives, the depths of which it can hardly plumb. While she is quick to concede that revolutions and civil wars are perhaps different in this respect, Heap is no less insistent in pessimistically observing that “[t]here never has been a real revolution yet” and civil wars always devolve into “the fight of the self-righteous uncultivated against the cultivated and the suave.”[xxix]
In short, then, this was the context in which Wyndham Lewis discharged his “indecorous” Cantleman at the world in October 1917.[xxx] In the pages of The Little Review, the project of replacing moral precepts with aesthetic ones was said to be in the process of reducing propriety to a content or mere subject matter like any other. Moreover, the journal was pursuing (artistic) individuation both by cultivating pro forma right-wing herd animus and asserting artistic self-sufficiency, despite adverse contemporary conditions for the production of art. This autonomously generative creativity was expressed through the autocratic stances taken in The Little Review’s creative and critical work, both of which were meant to demonstrate to the little magazine’s readers that freedom from historical and economic determinisms was not only possible but also being achieved monthly in its pages. Finally, the Great War may have been causing a big stir in the mainstream American press of the day, but one could have read The Little Review up to June 1917 and hardly known a World War was then being fought. When this war finally did appear in The Little Review in the bilious and uncompromising form of Cantleman, however, it presented the occasion for negating almost all of these projects and hopes of Anderson’s journal from within.
[i] Ezra Pound, “Editorial,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 3-6, here 4.
[ii] In the very next issue, Pound linked his editorial comments to the problem of legal obscenity more explicitly. See Ezra Pound, “An Anachronism at Chinon,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 14-21. At one point in this dialogue between Rabelais and an early twentieth-century student disgusted with the state of learning in his own era, Pound has the surly young scholar discourse at length about the hypocrisies and category errors made possible by contemporary obscenity law:
Your work is a classic. They also print Trimalcio’s Supper, and the tales of Suetonius, and red-headed virgins annotate the writings of Martial, but let a novelist mention a privvy, or a poet the rearside of a woman, and the whole town reeks with an uproar. In England a scientific work was recently censored. A great discovery was kept secret for three years. For the rest, I do not speak of obscenity. Obscene books are sold in the rubber shops, they are doled out with quack medicines, societies for the Suppression of Vice go into all details, and thereby attain circulation. Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public, but let an unknown man write clear and clean realism; let a poet use the speech of his predecessors, either being as antiseptic as the instruments of a surgeon, and out of the most debased and ignorant classes they choose him his sieve and his censor. (18)
Pound’s student is more than willing to concede the existence of obscenity, but he grants it little status beyond that of a sordid sort of commodity (“they are doled out with quack medicines”) or an unseemly and predatory promotional tactic (“Masterpieces are decked out with lewd covers to entoil one part of the public”). In any case, obscenity has little to do with good writing (“clear and clean realism”). After the student stridently threatens any institution of power that would attempt to interfere with his pleasures (wine, women, and tobacco), the dour and pointedly un-Rabelaisian Rabelais cuts the dialogue short by confessing to the agitated youth, “I am afraid you would have burned in my century” (21).
[iii] For more on the importance of American youth cultures and niche markets during the early years of making and selling The Little Review, see Mark S. Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905-1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 133-66.
[iv] Pound, “Editorial,” 6.
[v] For more on Pound, patronage and the market, see the pathbreaking account provided in Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).
[vi] Much as it was for Pound at the time (“the genius creates its own milieu”), it ought to be noted here that the mere ability of the artist to re-make the world around him briefly became an article of faith for Wyndham Lewis as well in the immediate aftermath of World War I. See esp. Wyndham Lewis, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where Is Your Vortex?, ed. Paul Edwards (Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1986).
[vii] The May 1917 issue of The Little Review was the first time work by either Eliot or Lewis had ever appeared in the journal. Pound in fact begins his editorial in this issue by insisting that he took the foreign editor position with The Little Review so as to secure a dependable means of disseminating the work of Eliot, Lewis, and Joyce. See Pound, “Editorial,” 3.
[viii] Lewis’ first published novel, Tarr (1918), which was serialized in The Egoist from April 1916 to November 1917, anticipates Pound’s artist-as-shellfish at a number of points. As discussed later in the chapter, Lewis’ preoccupation with carapaces was no passing fancy. For a suggestive reading of the defensive functions such shells serve in Lewis’ writing, see Tyrus Miller, Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), esp. 49-54. For a comprehensive discussion of the Cubist-influenced geometrical and armored forms populating many of Lewis’ early paintings and drawings, see Paul Edwards, Wyndham Lewis: Painter and Writer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), esp. 53-137.
[ix] Wyndham Lewis, “Imaginary Letters, I (Six Letters of William Bland Burn to His Wife),” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 19-23, here 21-22.
[x] T.S. Eliot, “Eeldrop and Appleplex,” The Little Review 4, no. 1 (May 1917): 7-11, here 11.
[xi] For a persuasive analysis of the gendered inflections such antagonisms often receive in the critical work of Lewis, Eliot, and Pound, see Peter Nicholls, Modernisms: A Literary Guide (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 185-93.
[xii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32: “An Ezraized Little Review will have no appeal to Young America.” More of this letter is quoted in footnote 16.
[xiii] See “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 27-28. The Manichean criticism came from Maxwell Bodenheim (a longtime contributor to The Little Review), who asserts that Pound has “too great a longing to separate poets into arbitrary teams, of best and worst: Poets are either black or white to him—never grey” (28). For more on Bodenheim’s letters in “The Reader Critic” and the aggressively critical reception they encountered there after the advent of Pound to the foreign editorship, see endnote 23.
[xiv] Ibid., 29.
[xv] Ibid., 32.
[xvi] To be sure, The Little Review had always received, printed, and responded to pan mail. What differentiates the attacks published in “The Reader Critic” after Pound’s arrival from those printed before it, however, is the degree to which the new Little Review seemed to be alienating precisely those readers who had hitherto been favorably disposed towards the little magazine’s artistic and political tendencies. For instance, see “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 32: “For surely the spirit of the old Little Review is dead. You seem to be proud of your evolution, of the graves of your old gods that loom in your eyes like stepping-stones to those heights where you bask in the wisdom of Ezras. I hope your new faith is as sleeve-deep as your former acquired creeds. For the beauty of the old Little Review, the secret of its magnetism and appeal to Young America, lay in its youthfulness, its spontaneity, in its puerility, if you wish. For puerility mates with originality. The Ezras know too much. Their minds are black, scarcely smouldering logs.”
[xvii] A notorious example (for her contemporaries at least) of Anderson’s suspect political enthusiasms was her conversion-like experience at a lecture given by the anarchist, Emma Goldman, in 1914. See Margaret Anderson, My Thirty Years’ War: An Autobiography (New York: Covici, Friede, 1930), 54: “May  . . . and the third number of the Little Review was going to press. I heard Emma Goldman lecture and had just time to turn anarchist before the presses closed.” Cf. Margaret Anderson, “The Challenge of Emma Goldman,” The Little Review, 1, no. 3 (May 1914): 5-9, here 9: “And whatever one believes, of one thing I’m certain: whoever means to face the world and its problems intelligently must know something about Emma Goldman”
[xviii] Margaret Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” The Little Review 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 20-22, here 20. Exactly one year earlier, Anderson had expressed a homologous self-criticism about the political turn The Little Review had taken. See Margaret Anderson, “A Real Magazine,” The Little Review, 3, no. 5 (August 1916): 1-2, here 2: “Now we shall have Art in this magazine or we shall stop publishing it. I don’t care where it comes from—America or the South Sea Islands. I don’t care whether it is brought by youth or age. I only want the miracle!” Accordingly, the next month’s issue infamously included thirteen blank pages “offered as a Want Ad” for art. See The Little Review, 3, no. 6 (September 1916): 1-13, here 1. Within eight months, Pound had answered the ad.
[xix] Anderson, “What the Public Doesn’t Want,” 20.
[xxi] Cf. Tyrus Miller, Time-Images: Alternative Temporalities in Twentieth-Century Theory, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 84ff.
[xxii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 29.
[xxiii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 5 (September 1917): 34. Like Bodenheim, Rodker comprised part of the old guard of contributors to the journal. I would note in passing here that the real end of Bodenheim’s life reads like an impossibly bleaker alternate conclusion to Lewis’ Self-Condemned (1954). Penniless, forgotten, and living on the streets of New York City at the age of sixty-one, Bodenheim was murdered in 1954, along with his wife, in an apartment not far from the Bowery by a psychopathic dishwasher who had taken them in for the night. Bodenheim awoke before dawn to find his wife in flagrante delicto with the dishwasher, and during the ensuing altercation their good Samaritan shot Bodenheim multiple times before stabbing his wife to death as well. At the trial, their murderer requested a medal in exchange for the service he had provided the United States government by slaying two Communists. He was later sent to a state mental institution. As it turns out, Ben Hecht (and not Anderson’s Little Review) ended up burying “bloody Bodenheim.” Also once part of the old guard of contributors at The Little Review, Hecht is said to have paid for Bodenheim’s funeral service in New Jersey. See Jim Burns, Radicals, Beats, and Beboppers (Preston: Penniless Press Publications, 2011), 173-82.
[xxiv] Jane Heap, “Push-Face.” The Little Review, 4, no. 2 (June 1917): 4-7, here 7.
[xxv] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 3 (July 1917): 25.
[xxvi] Ibid., 26.
[xxvii] “The Reader Critic,” The Little Review, 4, no. 4 (August 1917): 25.
[xxx] The adjective is Lewis’. See Timothy Materer, ed., Pound/Lewis: The Letters of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis (New York: New Directions Book, 1985), 108.