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Playing Smart

Playing Smart: New York Women Writers and Modern Magazine Culture

Catherine Keyser
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 242
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  • Book Info
    Playing Smart
    Book Description:

    Smart women, sophisticated ladies, savvy writers. . . Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos, Lois Long, Jessie Fauset, Dawn Powell, Mary McCarthy, and others imagined New York as a place where they could claim professional status, define urban independence, and shrug off confining feminine roles. It might be said that during the 1920s and 1930s these literary artists painted the town red on the pages of magazines likeVanity Fairand theNew Yorker.Playing Smart, Catherine Keyser's homage to their literary genius, is a captivating celebration of their causes and careers.Through humor writing, this "smart set" expressed both sides of the story-promoting their urbanity and wit while using irony and caricature to challenge feminine stereotypes. Their fiction raised questions about what it meant to be a woman in the public eye, how gender roles would change because men and women were working together, and how the growth of the magazine industry would affect women's relationships to their bodies and minds. Keyser provides a refreshing and informative chronicle, saluting the value of being "smart" as incisive and innovative humor showed off the wit and talent of women writers and satirized the fantasy world created by magazines.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5111-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-XIV)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-19)

    The December 1923 issue ofVanity Fairfeatured “A Very Modern Love Story” by Nancy Hoyt, sister of the poet Elinor Wylie. In this fable, a “young, fashionable, well bred, and rich” man laments that he has “found no maiden at all up to his standard.”¹ He watches a beautiful modern girl, waiting for her to develop sufficiently to spark his interest. Like Goldilocks, the modern girl samples each cultural brew: lowbrow, highbrow, and finally middlebrow, the concoction—or confection—that is just right. First, the modern girl is too uncultivated: “noisy and raucous,” singing a jingle for “‘Booth’s old-time...

  5. 1 Thoroughly Modern Millay and Her Middlebrow Masquerades
    (pp. 20-50)

    In his introduction to the November 1921 issue ofVanity Fair, Donald Ogden Stewart celebrated a female humorist whose byline had appeared in the magazine since January. Like her contemporary Mae West who promised that too much of a good thing could be wonderful, Nancy Boyd vowed to her readers that one could “Sin without ostentation.” In a poem called “I Like Americans,” Boyd staked national pride on American excess: “they know that one roll does not make a breakfast. / Nor one vermouth a cocktail.” Unfazed by the supposedly crucial negotiations of the marriage market, Boyd gave her readers...

  6. 2 “This Unfortunate Exterior”: Dorothy Parker, the Female Body, and Strategic Doubling
    (pp. 51-78)

    In magazines of the 1920s, Art Deco representations of the modern woman rivaled New York City’s rising skyscrapers in height and symbolic glory.¹ One ad for stockings featured a drawing of a giant woman tiptoeing through the New York grid at Park Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street.² The October 1926 issue ofVanity Fairfeatured a portrait of “The New York Girl,” her garters and petticoats exposed by her billowing skirt as she stood atop skyscrapers in high heels. The caption writer rhapsodized that “toward her serenely frivolous body yearns fiercely and perpetually an entire, amorous, upward city—incarnation and epitome...

  7. 3 “First Aid to Laughter”: Jessie Fauset and the Racial Politics of Smartness
    (pp. 79-109)

    In Alain Locke’s famous 1925 collection,The New Negro, Jessie Fauset, the literary editor of theCrisismagazine, published an essay on black stereotypes and humor on the American stage called “The Gift of Laughter.” Fauset immediately announces the irony of the association: “the plight of the slaves under even the mildest of masters could never have been one to awaken laughter.” Given the unlikelihood of the connection, Fauset concludes that the mask of humor is an imposed disguise intended “to camouflage the real feeling and knowledge of his white compatriot.” This psychological need to obscure injustices and the lack...

  8. 4 The Indestructible Glamour Girl: Dawn Powell, Celebrity, and Counterpublics
    (pp. 110-140)

    Dawn Powell is the only writer featured prominently in this book who did not occupy a heralded position in the firmament of interwar literary New York. She remained largely unknown outside literary circles in spite of her impressive productivity as a novelist (publishing fifteen novels, the first in 1925 and the last in 1962), her steady work as a book reviewer for theNew York Evening Postand later (briefly) forMademoiselle, and her prolific freelance writing in magazines such asSnappy Stories, College Humor, and theNew Yorker. In 1962, her friend Edmund Wilson honored her with aNew...

  9. 5 “Scratch a Socialist and You Find a Snob”: Mary McCarthy, Irony, and Politics
    (pp. 141-172)

    For a female magazine writer raised onVogueand educated at Vassar to join a Marxist intellectual elite would seem unlikely if not actively quixotic. Perhaps best known as the author ofThe Group(1963), a novel about a circle of Vassar graduates and their experiences in New York, Mary McCarthy addressed quite a different group in her first novel,The Company She Keeps(1942): leftist thinkers, liberal magazine writers, and New York intellectuals. In this work, McCarthy’s ironic sensibility amplifies the dissonance between her fashionable feminine authorial persona and the milieu of the leftist magazine thePartisan Review. McCarthy...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 173-180)

    In a 2008New York Timeseditorial, Susan Faludi regretfully compared our own era to the 1920s: “Again, the news media showcases young women’s ‘feminist-new style’ pseudo-liberation—the flapper is now a girl-gone-wild.”¹ Faludi, linking the rise in modern print culture with the redirection of women’s choices from politics into consumerism and sexuality, quotes a 1927 issue ofHarper’sthat pitied the previous generation’s political engagement, the suffragists’ “zealotry.” Faludi is not the only contemporary feminist to suspect that we need to look back to the modern period to understand our cultural moment of media saturation. In a 2008 lecture...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 181-208)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 209-216)
  13. Index
    (pp. 217-225)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 226-226)