The Egoist

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by Elyse Graham

The final issue of The Egoist, modernism’s archetypal little magazine, appeared in December 1919. It had run for five years, during which time it had seen circulation fall from 2,000 to 1,500 to 1,000 to, at last, 400 copies. 1 During the war it downsized from weekly to monthly distribution. Even with these cuts, costs so exceeded earnings that the magazine required the support of a patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver.

What make the magazine famous today are the hugely compelling reasons to buy it, apparently overlooked on a mass scale. During its short run, The Egoist published a serial version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the literary criticism of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, and selected installments of Ulysses. Its pages were an important forum for Vorticist and Imagist poets, a space for them to share technique and work out historical narratives that would center them as schools. Pound served as literary editor; Eliot as assistant editor; Wyndham Lewis drew editorial cartoons.

But there were also plenty of reasons not to buy the magazine. The editor, Dora Marsden, insisted on printing at the front of the book her own philosophical writings, which ran for many pages and contributed to philosophy more smoke than fire: “VI. Observations Preliminary to a Definition of ‘Imaginary’”; “XV: The Constitution of the World and the Character of our Scientific Knowledge.” 2 Contributors such as Richard Adlington indulged in a level of self-regard that could be off-putting. (“I almost fancy that Mr. W.S. Blunt and I are the only English poets living,” he remarked.) 3 Then again, this was also the tone of Pound and Eliot, and when history settled they turned out to be right. The literary practices and values of which they were respectively the chief advocate and theoretician dominated literature’s guiding forces for the following century.

Central to these values was an imperative to rupture and disturb. “From the beginning of the world,” Pound wrote in The Egoist in 1914, “there has been the traditional struggle, the struggle of Voltaire, of Stendhal and of Flaubert, the struggle of driving the shaft of intelligence into the dull mass of mankind.” 4

Pound thought that the means of achieving this goal were threatened by the insipidity of modern intellectual life, a condition that corporate publishing culture threatened to institutionalize. The sensibility of the literary establishment, whet against the soft clay of the nineteenth century, sustained by a growing popular readership, was too dull to drive anything worthwhile into national thought. 5

Hence the competitor against which The Egoist defined itself was The Times Literary Supplement, an exemplar of establishment status. For a while the little magazine published a regular section, sardonically titled “Revelations” or “Revolutionary Maxims,” of Podsnapperisms ripped from TLS’s pages:

“The position of Keats among our poets is no longer questioned.”
—Ernest de Selincourt in the Times Literary Supplement 6
“An Englishman, even if at times he can mouth the formulas of democracy, tends to accept the assurances of the highly born and still has a sneaking belief that what he reads in a newspaper must be true.”
Times Literary Supplement 7
“Men have been tired of the merely intellectual pastime called thinking.”
Times Literary Supplement 8

The general point is that the great literary institutions were hopelessly stuck in the eighteen-fifties. It was important, as well, to make TLS appear not just hidebound but ignorant, an opponent whose side nobody would take with self-respect. And because each appearance of “Revolutionary Maxims” used quotes from the two previous issues of TLS, it encouraged those who read both magazines—in effect all Egoist subscribers—while reading TLS to guess at what would next draw mockery. It taught readers to look at the competition through the eyes of an Egoist editor.

If some of the quotations throw out context—the line about Englishmen seems to make a patriotic case for gullibility, but the original article means it as a straw man—presumably the reader knows and still laughs. The misquotes flaunt The Egoist’s royal right to twist and tease—for the culture, including TLS, is now theirs to do with as they like, inherited from old owners who just don’t know it yet. A king may poach his own deer.

The sense of being a chosen people with divine injunction to destroy the old regime shows up in some of the little magazine’s editorial cartoons. One shows Pound and Lewis trumpeting down the walls of Jericho, which display the graffito “1837-1900” and seem ready to tumble onto a little man reading The Times.9

What was wrong with TLS? The magazine resembled in many ways the three-button autocrat of The Egoist’s caricature. It judged the motor car distasteful to “men of sentiment.” 10 It was astonished that a colony like Canada, for example, might want a different military arrangement than to simply send funds to the British Admiralty.  11 It bristled at one novelist’s observation that British victories at the Olympics had been declining. “We are,” it explained, “still the most competent all-round athletic people… That is not only the reasonable and wholesome view, but it is the true one.” 12

But since TLS was not the work of a single writer—it ran the work of notable contributors with bylines, regular writers without—its political tone was more miscellaneous, and often more progressive, than The Egoist’s outtakes suggest. Even more diverse were its literary views. Possibly The Egoist resented that TLS liked so much. Its praise went everywhere: novels, histories, stories of “fancy,” college verses, the poems of A.E. and Whitman. There were limits, of course, mostly connected to extraliterary matters. TLS enjoyed female authors but gently rejected suffragettes. 13 It was ready to love the contemporary, but it distrusted the technologically up-to-date.

Position for position, this is different enough from the politics of The Egoist—feminist, individualist, elitist, anti-statist, enamored of technology and the industrial landscape.  Both camps defend tradition, but they give the term opposite meanings. TLS speaks of tradition as the preservation of great souls. The Egoist claims a tradition of deracination, of the break from the past required of the sensibility fully awake to the present—a stage that one can only reach through intense study of the past.

But there is one other, personal point. In the early years of The Egoist’s run, TLS paid almost no attention to the schools and artists the smaller magazine represented. Pound, Lewis, Aldington et al might as well not have existed. (Dubliners received three inches of clammy acknowledgement: “‘Dubliners’ may be recommended to the large class of readers to whom the drab makes an appeal, for it is admirably written.”  Eliot, who wrote for TLS, is an exception.) 14 It is a tonic reminder that there was a dominant culture to rebel against. It also helps to explain the emphasis of modernist critics on intellect, on empiricism, on who represents reason and who does not. For them it was important to establish, against the weight of authority, custom, and prestige, whose side had the science.

The tradition of deracination is connected to the closing of The Egoist in 1919 to create the Egoist Press in 1920. For its editors, the magazine did not exist merely to give them banner space. A periodical had rather large importance for civilization: it represented and could disseminate a state of mind. * Ultimately the Egoist Press was in a position to do this even more successfully, and so seemed more deserving of The Egoist’s resources.

  • This means something larger and more diffuse than the paraphraseable content of The Egoist’s criticism. The poetry and fiction that the magazine championed laid great emphasis on the breaking of verbal surface. The central editorial principle was defamiliarization, the idea that the project of poetry is doing violence to the familiar. In daily life, this thinking goes, a sense of ordinariness dulls our thoughts into rote shorthand. New styles of perception can rip away familiarity and expose us to life again. For Pound and Eliot, poetry is the laboratory of original thought.

1 David Bradshaw and Kevin J. Dettmar. A Companion to Modernist Culture (New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2006): 136

2 The Egoist, 5, 3 (March 1918): 33; The Egoist 4, 2 (February 1917): 17

3 Richard Aldington, “Blast.” The Egoist, 1, 14 (15 July 1914): 272

4 Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis.” The Egoist (June 15, 1914): 233-34

5 So barren was his moment, Pound thought, that it might prevent his generation of artists from developing a sustaining vision:

One has such trivial symbols arrayed against one, there is only ‘The Times’ and all that it implies, and the ‘Century Magazine’ and its likes and all that they imply, and the host of other periodicals and states of mind represented in them… Labour and anarchy can find their opponents in ‘capital’ and ‘government.’ But the mind aching for something that it can honour under the name of ‘civilization,’ the mind seeing that state afar off but clearly, can only flap about pettishly striking at the host of trivial substitutes presented to it.

Ezra Pound, “Wyndham Lewis.” The Egoist (June 15, 1914): 233-34

6 “Revolutionary Maxims.” The Egoist (June 1, 1914); 1,2; 217

7 “Revelations.” The Egoist (June 15, 1914); 1, 3; 235

8 “Revolutionary Maxims.” The Egoist (June 1, 1914); 1,2; 217

9 “The Lewis-Brzeska-Pound Troupe. Blasting their own trumpets before the walls of Jericho.” The Egoist (July 15, 1915); 1, 14; 272

10 “A Dash Through Germany.” London Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, June 11, 1914): 280

11 “The Canadian Spirit.” London Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, June 18, 1914): 200

12 “The Olympic Games.” London Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, June 11, 1914): 285

13 See, for example, “The Future of the Women’s Movement.” London Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, February 5, 1914): 56

14 “Dubliners.” London Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, June 18, 1914): 298

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