Introduction

This site is part of a larger site and a larger ongoing project in the English Department of the University of Virginia. The American Studies 1930s Project, now entering its second year, has produced some of the most impressive web-based work on the subject I have ever seen, and I am genuinely grateful that I can finally consider myself a part of it.

I began this project in what seems like a previous lifetime, and if at times it seems scattered that is because the months in which I worked on it are themselves scattered over the entire year 1998. I cannot help but think a degree of multi-vocality appropriate to any tribute to Vanity Fair. If there are two things that the magazine had above all others, it was the enormous range of its concerns and the amazing multiplicity of perspectives with which it approached them.

This project began because I found it difficulty to locate any published secondary material about Vanity Fair and thought the magazine of singular importance to studies in American modernism - a position I will explore in more detail at the end of Chapter One. It is designed principally for those who have easy access to Vanity Fair, either on microfilm or in its original form. In anticipation of readers who do not have such access, I have included most of the images and texts I discuss, and a few that I do not, in the image gallery that follows the main text. Besides the gallery, the site consists of the introduction you are reading now, the two chapters that follow it, and a final page containing a bibliography and an appendix. The navigation bar appears at the bottom of every page (save the index) so that getting around should be easy. Any questions or comments are welcome, and you may email them to sat4n@virginia.edu or asgrp@virginia.edu.

To some extent all texts may be understood as instruments of subject making. To read a novel, watch a film, or listen to a song is to enact a certain kind of subject position - one structured partially by the specificity of the text at hand and partially out of other variables - for example, the identity of the reader.

This is the key methodological assumption of this project. In looking at Vanity Fair I have not asked questions which presume a simple relationship between the magazine and the historical moment at which it appeared. Thus, the point here is not that Vanity Fair is a kind of ideo-socail seismograph - a passive register for the cultural investments of its writers, readers and editors. Nor is it that Vanity Fair produced the values of its readers - like a coercive arm of corporate America that filled the empty selves of its readers with an insatiable urge to consume one brand of hat rather than another. Vanity Fair was neither of these things - like the "men" of Marx's "Eighteenth Brumaire," Vanity Fair produced history, but not in circumstances of its own choosing (Tucker 595). It can tell the careful reader much about its moment, but it does so primarily through its subject-making strategies - strategies that, to work, had to play meaningfully off of other realities of their historical moment.

So, the central question of this project is: what kind of subjects was Vanity Fair trying to produce? This question opens up two others: why was it trying to produce these subjects (a question about the historical milieu in which the magazine addressed its readers)? and to what extent did it end up producing new kinds of subjectivity (a question about the extent to which the magazine "made" its era)? I believe that these questions do open up a space in which it is possible to learn something about the 1920s and 30s, but the real project here is about understanding the strategies as they work in the texts themselves. They are complicated, and while they may never be understood apart from the moment that produced them, neither may they ever be reduced to it.

Dress and Vanity Fair (the magazine's original title) began publication in September of 1913, but it is not the reason that 1913 is so often sited as the year modernism came to America. In the spring of 1913 The Armory Show - an exhibition of the most modern painting and sculpture from both sides of the Atlantic- opened in New York and alerted Americans to the radical changes in painting and sculpture that were taking place on the other side of the Atlantic. The show featured avant garde paintings by Picasso and Duchamp along side more traditional works, much of the latter by Americans. The exhibition did more than alert Americans radical shifts in aesthetic culture to which they had previously been oblivious. For many the show was an index for all that America lacked culturally in the face of Europe; the Europeans' willingness to depart from representational conventions seemed to evidence a cultural sophistication that the American art lacked. The assumption that America - the rising economic and military power - still could not challenge European cultural dominance was widespread in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Armory Show was part of the chain of events that helped Americans -in particular New Yorkers - to reorganize the terms of their relation to Western art and literature.

In its first years, Vanity Fair was a part of the mapping of that relation. In its second issue Dress and Vanity Fair made this case explicitly if timidly.

In time, we feel confident that "Dress and Vanity Fair" will come very close to being as good, as lively, as pictorially attractive, and as breezy as "The Sketch," The Tatler," and similar London publications. In London alone there are 17 papers like "The Sketch" and "The Tatler." In America there is not one - yet (Hoffman 102).

This kind of reserved optimism was the hallmark of American aesthetic culture's discourse about itself in the years before World War I. Its relentless comparisons of itself to England and other European countries did the two-tiered work of confirming America's inferiority even while it destabilized it. Vanity Fair could only hope to "come very close" to the standard set by its counterparts across the ocean - for now. Indeed, by its hey-day in the late 1920s readers in both England and America recognized Vanity Fair as a one of the finest publications of its kind anywhere in the world (Hoffman 306).

The Armory Show was not the showcase of avant garde European art for which Americanists often misrecognize it. As I noted above, it had many different kinds of art works from many different countries - what they all had in common was that 1913 they were new. But what struck Americans most was the European modernism, and one painting warrants particular emphasis. Marcel Duchamp's name is the one perhaps more closely associated with the Armory Show than any other individual, and that is largely due to Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2. While the painting's title promises a pornographic thrill, what it shows is a machine-like figure in multiple photographic exposures on a single piece of film. The "nude," who perhaps more closely resembles a wood-sculpture, is shown several times in various moments of his/her decent.

The painting borrows from cubism's fracturing of perspective while exploring the relationship of that fracturing to the other perspectival fractures made possible by new technologies, especially the motion picture. It thus maps out and explores what in 1913 was very new territory, the interrelation of high art and mass entertainment - an interrelation woven into the new machines of the twentieth century and somehow bound up with the erotics of androgyny.

The Armory Show, and Nude Descending a Staircase in particular, set the stage onto which Vanity Fair would enter. While there is no evidence connecting the magazine to the Armory Show, the concerns of Duchamp's painting were Vanity Fair's concerns from the time it began publication in the months after the Armory Show until its was integrated with Vouge in 1936. The tensions that governed the magazine were those between the human body and the machine, high art and mass entertainment, and men and women. It changed in enormous ways over its twenty-three year history - it soon became less concerned with testing American sophistication and taste against that of Europe, and with the advent of the depresion it became overtly political - but each issue of the magazine may be meaningfully read against these governing oppositions.

So in asking what kind of subjects Vanity Fair hoped to construct, the answer we expect will be conditioned by these dichotomies. What kind of men and women did Vanity Fair hope to construct, and how did it hope to posit them in relation to one another? Likewise, what was the relationship between a man (or a woman) and machine technology? How did the magazine position its female (or male) readers vis--vis high culture? Or mass culture? And what risks and possibilities did androgyny present - how different did the two subjectivities Vanity Fair made available every month for thirty-five cents need to be?