Women of the Little Magazine in the City of Big Shoulders

Harriet Monroe, seated at desk. c. 1912-1922. Harry Hansen Papers, Newberry Library.

The history of Chicago’s literary renaissance is often the history of literary men. Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg traditionally dominate the narrative of Chicago’s literary greats. But published work by famous authors is not the city’s only contribution to American literature. Published works are in some ways the end of complex histories, not their beginning. The tidy, seemingly complete format of the printed word masks the myriad of contributions that go into publication, from the labor of typesetters to the directives of an editor. Many of these lesser-known figures were women. The profile of these important, but overlooked figures can problematize the established male literary canon. But their contribution is no less vital.

Nearby at the Poetry Foundation, Scholl Center director Liesl Olson delves into the fascinating role women played in Chicago’s literary renaissance. She focuses on the founding of Poetry magazine. First published in 1912, the magazine was at first just one of the many “little magazine” devoted to literature at the dawn of the twentieth century. But as Poetry magazine now celebrates its one hundredth anniversary, Olson reflects on the crucial role women editors played in the magazine’s success. Founding editor Harriet Monroe, for example, did more than just publish the writings of men. She recruited, edited, and in many instances guided male authors through the publishing process, imprinting her own voice upon their projects along the way. Monroe, moreover, would also use Poetry as an important outlet for female authors. As Olson summarizes,

… [To] tell the story of Poetry magazine through archival records is to see that the magazine was extraordinarily indebted to the labor of its women. Indeed, in the beginning the staff was mostly women… . But when Monroe looked up the numbers, she was surprised to learn that from April 1919 through March 1920 she had printed 64 men and 41 women; in total pages, the ratio of work by men to that by women was “almost exactly two to one.” Men still dominated the pages of Poetry despite the fact that the editorial vision of the magazine, especially in the beginning, came from women. Soon after this point, however, the ratio would equalize and then tip in the other direction: more women than men were published in Poetry’s pages in the early 1920s.

The Newberry was also central to this poetic renaissance–and remains so today. Poetry Magazine was located at the library at two important periods in its history during the twentieth century, and the Newberry remains an essential repository for the works and personal papers of these little magazine women. The library’s Modern Manuscript Collection includes a number of sources by or about Harriet Monroe and Eunice Tietjens as well as other noted literary women such as Chicago Tribune literary editor Fanny Butcher. These collections are a testament to the Newberry’s strength as an archive of American literature, and Olson’s essay is a preview of her work on the overlooked history of Chicago’s literary renaissance.

By Chris Cantwell

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