Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Le Petit Journal des Refusees

In 1896, a rather short and obscure journal entitled Le Petit Journal des Refusees was published in San Francisco, California by a man named Gelett Burgess. Burgess, whose name was generally associated with humorous, satirical writing, teamed up with Porter Garnett, to produce this one-issued journal. Garnett, like Burgess, was classified as one of the Bohemian writers of San Francisco, was also the assistant curator of the Bankcroft Library from 1907-1912. Both men, well established, came together to produce this journal, of which little is known for sure, but much is supposed.
Burgess began his literary career in 1894 in San Francisco as associate editor of The Wave. While the cover of Les Petit Journal credits James Marrion 2nd as editor of the journal, Mr. Marrion did not in fact exist. Burgess did not sign his name to the journal, although hints to his identity are woven through the articles. Burgess, working by himself and not with Garnett, was also the editor of The Lark, whose publication overlapped with that of Le Petit Journal. The Lark was printed between1895-1897 and Burgess’s name can be clearly found on some covers and often within texts as well. He took open credit for The Lark while with Les Petit, he did not, using a pseudonym on the cover while alluding to himself and his work in other sections of the text. The Lark also contained an illustrated version of his famous poem “Purple Cow” in its first edition and while all three periodicals were considered radical departures from conventional magazines, it was The Lark that gained him considerable notoriety. Often associated with his non-sensical writing, his pattern of rhyme and his manuals for writing rhyme, including his Goop series, are considered children’s literary classics.

It is unclear why Burgess did not sign the one issue of Les Petit Journal that was produced. The journal seems to be dedicated to publishing the voices of ignored and ‘refused’ women, although the names of the women to whom the articles are accredited are barely known or again, unknown because they did not exist. Research shows that there was a real Nellie Hethington, although her married name was not Ford – it was Halbmaier – and her connection to Burgess could not be determined. There are no easily discernable traces of Alisse Rainbird or of Florence Lundberg either, for example. The Modern Journals Project (MJP) claims that all of the work in this journal seems to be that of one person, which would therefore substantiate the inability to identify these women as authors or writers of their time and further lead one to assume that Burgess (or Marrion, as the case may be) penned all of the articles in the journal.

At first glance, even before actually reading an entry, Le Petit Journal de Refusees provides many opportunities to intrigue and peak the interest of any reader. The many facets of the journal that pop out begin with the illustrations and the general shape of the journal itself. The use of whimsical art throughout and bordering every page, the variety in size and application of the font, even the use of outmoded wallpaper that has been cut trapezoidally, all diverge from the common printing practices of the time. Also quite remarkable is the nonsensical writing, both as actual pieces of literature and within the illustrations, deviate from the highly academic and often lofty writing that was being published in small journals of the time.

In comparing the art and illustrations of both Les Petit Journal and The Lark, there are definite stylistic similarities that would also lead one to believe that Burgess was also Marrion. The font styles are similar and so are the curviness of the lines and the feeling of each illustration. Without being an art historian or a curator, a simple study of both illustrations could allow one to deduce that they were both drawn and written by the same hand.

Dada was a cultural movement of artists and writers that looked to ridicule contemporary culture and traditional art forms. It was a reaction toward a morally corrupt society that was capable of creating WWI. It was a nihilistic movement that primarily involved the visual arts, literature, theater, and graphic design. The movement produced art objects in unconventional forms that were produced by unconventional methods.
Likewise, Surrealism sought to create the element of surprise through unexpected juxtapositions and the use of non-sequitor. This was accomplished through the use of conversational and literary devices that were absurd to the point of being humorous and confusing. The goal of Surrealism was to transform human experience by freeing people from the restrictive customs and structures of society.

The poem “Spring” is one of the many examples of how Burgess’s work plays with the ideas of Dada and Surrealism. While the subject of the poem is traditional, the execution of the subject matter is not. The lines do not follow a conventional pattern or form. In fact, the poem looks as if it is being edited in print. In this, Burgess implements typographical freedom. He chooses not to prescribe to traditional formatting. The irony in the illustrations perhaps lies in that while the poem speaks lyrically of green fields, buttercups, and cows, the illustration of alley cats climbing around crowded buildings in an urban setting is hinted at in the background.

Another example in the publication is “Our Clubbing List – refused by The Complete Alphabet of Freaks.” In this section, Burgess takes a very traditional practice used to help children learn the alphabet, and creates a very humorous, and at times scathing, list. He makes reference to fellow writers, artists, and publishers, sometimes in a complementary way, “B is for [Aubrey] Beardsley, this idol supreme. Whose drawings are not half so bad as they, seem”. Others are more scathing, “I am an Idiot, awful result of reading the rot of the Yellow Book cult” and “O is for Oblivion – ultimate fate Of most magazines, published of late”.

The illustrations on these four pages vary from page to page but all have a theme of interconnectedness. The first page of “The Clubbing List” features Burgess’s ‘Goops’ which were to become his trademark illustration.
As can be seen from these two examples, Burgess’s ventures into nonsense verse and cartoonesque illustrations were an attempt to refute literary realism through the affirmation of imaginative absurdity. In another twenty years, this would become the goal of Dadaism and then Surrealism as modernist movement.

Publisher and Editor: James Marrion, psuedonym for Gelett Burgess. Published: Ran for only one issue, Summer 1896. Published in San Fransisco, CA

Text by Cecilia G. Robles and Miriam L.Wallach
Modernist Magazines and Digital Humanities.
Source : www.macaulay.cuny.edu