The subtitle of this loving look at America's literary nooks and crannies is partly misleading. While it is certainly "documentary" - composed of essays and memoirs by the editors and publishers of these periodicals and reviews - it is not a history. It is more like a testimonial dinner, 770 pages of admiring and nostalgic toasts, marred slightly by an occasional intoxicated lapse into academese ("periodicity," "historicity").
There is an implied melancholia about this volume, as if its heft emphasized the shrinking role of "the little magazine" in the gadget culture of the '70s. Almost all the essays look back, either implicity or explicitly. The "new" Southern Review recalls the old Southern Review; Furioso , begun at Yale in 1939, hearkened back at its inception to what was already, as its cofounder Reed Whittemore admits, the "middle-aged modernism" of Pound, Stevens, MacLeish, cummings.
But there is also a wide streak of warmth and wit in several of the essays. Theodore Weiss, in his irreverent reminiscences on The Quarterly Review of Literature , mulls over the magazine's early years like a wine connoisseur rolling favorite vintage over his tongue. He recalls, for instance, that at the end of the review's first decade he contemplated bringing the publicaion to an early retirement, in order to his own writing. "But beyond letters like [William Carlos] William's which helped to keep us editing, my chief goddess, Inertia, scorned such an obvious, sane course."
In the same piece, Weiss quotes from a delightfully biting essay by Williams, which reveals a healthy inconoclasm: Modern poetry, says Williams, is a "a baby art, a screaming, brawling brat. It is in a primary phase and needs to be understood lest we be tempted to strangle it - for relief. We can get little adult pleasure from it as yet."
A similar attitude is revealed by Len Fulton, who founded Dust in 1963 "because I had the urge to do it - and because I had lain fallow long enough, thank you, under the largely self-inflicted notions that there were higher arbiters of taste." And he recalls the fun they had punning on the magazine's name; when it ceased publication in 1972, one subscriber wrote, "It is hard to believe that never again will another dust bite the day."
Perhaps the greatest favor this book can do the reader is to remind him of the wealth of critical writing to be found in years past. In this sense, The Little Magazine in America serves as a gloriously anotated Reader's Guide to its own particular kind of periodical literature. For good measure, the appended bibliography of contemporary little magazines offers handy thumbail sketches of 84 publications. (Pushcart Press, $25)