Saturday, November 12, 2016

Donal Harris's "On Company Time"

Donal Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Memphis. His work has appeared in PMLA, Modern Language Quarterly, Criticism: A Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Harris applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, On Company Time: American Modernism in the Big Magazines, and reported the following:
It’s remarkably fitting to apply Ford Madox Ford’s “Page 99 Test” to On Company Time, which explores the give and take between early-twentieth century commercial magazines and the ostensibly non-commercial, “serious” literature known as modernism. Ford travelled in the same London and Parisian literary circles as T.S. Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Ernest Hemingway, all writers who loom large in my book. More specifically, though, Ford’s literary influence depended as much on his role as a magazine editor, first at the English Review and then at the Transatlantic Review, as it did on his own novels. In fact, the basic argument of On Company Time is that Ford’s “double life” in editorial offices and as a novelist is exemplary of modernism in general, which depended on the culture of commercial magazines in a number of unacknowledged ways.

My book focuses mostly American writers and magazines, and Page 99 falls near the end of a chapter on The Crisis, which was (and still is) the house organ of the N.A.A.C.P. This section discusses a wonderful, strange short story, “The Sleeper Wakes,” by Jessie Fausett, which follows a young, possibly mixed-race woman named Amy through a series of “incidents” and “phases” (as Fausett calls them). First she is a dreamy moviegoer, then an East Village bohemian, then a Southern belle, then a Manhattan shop girl, and, eventually, a prodigal daughter returned home to Harlem. Page 99 finds me arguing that the specifics of the story’s publication influence its literary style.

Like a lot of fiction from the time period (it was published in 1920), “The Sleeper Wakes” was serialized over multiple issues, so subscribers to The Crisis who read each issue as it came out wouldn’t experience the whole story at one time. So I suggest that these disjointed phases of Amy’s life are meant to imitate the serial publication of the story. Amy’s experiences are independently meaningful but also part of a longer life story, just as “The Sleeper Wakes” arrives in three different issues of the magazine that make sense by themselves but also add up something greater than the parts. And I attribute this noticeable connection between periodical form (a magazine gets published incrementally, week to week or month to month) and literary form (Amy’s life “phases” also occurs incrementally) to Fausett’s “double life” as editor of and contributor to The Crisis. She managed the daily work of the magazine during its most successful years, but she also contributed a number of essays and stories and served as something of a talent scout among the burgeoning scene that will come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance.

So Page 99 contains an argument about the feedback between Fausett’s day job at The Crisis and her artistic endeavors: her job as an editor effects how she writes fiction, and her fiction helps us to see the editorial norms of the magazine. In that way, it offers a microcosm of On Company Time. But it’s unique, too, because this chapter deals with the special difficulty of trying to create a popular African American magazine in the early 1900s. The Crisis modeled itself on big magazines like McClure’s and Century, but its status as a “race magazine” changes the dynamics of the writers’ attitudes toward print culture, as well as the magazine’s goals for reaching a large audience.

Taking a cue from Jessie Fausett, though, I’ll leave the rest of that argument as a cliffhanger – though one admittedly less enticing as those contained in “The Sleeper Wakes.” To see what happens next, you’ll have to buy the book.
Learn more about On Company Time at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue