Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Le Petit Journal des Refusées

cubist smallNewspaper cartoonists in the nineteen-teens had a great time with Cubism: what on earth would those crazy modern artists get up to next? But we all know that Cubism emerged from Picasso’s Demoiselles of 1907; so what’s this drawing all about – in 1896? Come to that, what’s the whole magazine about?

19th century Yankee humour can be an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring, as anyone will know who’s ever discovered Artemus Ward. But this is something else – Le Petit Journal des Refusées, written, illustrated and published in San Francisco by “James Marrion”, a pen name of humourist Gelett Burgess, and a spin-off from his more successful – and more orthodox – The Lark. In 1894 Burgess had been dismissed from his post at the University of California at Berkeley for his part in the vandalistic demolition of a temperance fountain. In addition, he is credited with the invention of the term “blurb”.

cover smallLe Petit Journal, which proclaimed itself a quarterly, lasted for exactly one issue. It was printed on leftover wallpaper, on pages cut to a trapezium, and apparently with slightly different contents in different copies. Some pages are typeset in mixed fonts, or with letters randomly inverted.

The mock-decadent cover promises contributions on Art, Literature, Counterpoint, Vulgar Fractions, Dress Reform and Yachting, but the contents, as the title suggests, all claim to be works by “feminine authoresses” (with names such as Anne Southampton Bliss, Alice Rainbird and Howardine de Pel) that have been “ruthlessly rejected by less large-hearted and appreciative editors” of such well known periodicals (real or imaginary) as the War Cry, the Butcher’s Advocate and the American Journal of Insanity. Though to say that the “contributions” are parodies of literary fashions would be something short of the mark. Burgess mocks some aspects of the feminist agenda, though not without affection, and apparently not from a reactionary standpoint.tongues small

The drawings that frame the pages, often overpowering the texts, are extraordinary; some belong more in the San Francisco of 1967 that that of 1896. The “Cubist” page I’ve already noted, but this heavy, angular black line that zig zags around a rather incompatible frieze of tramping feet belongs to no style then current, and seems to anticipate Vorticism.

feet smallThe overall effect is of a proto-Dada, and it’s fascinating to see how humour, as a genre, is stretched here into a form of avant-gardism, albeit an avant-gardism that does not know itself to be such. Burgess died in 1951; his Wiki page indicates he was still writing in the late ‘thirties, but I rather think he hit his peak with Le Petit Journal. Three variant copies are available online in the splendid and invaluable Modernist Journals Project hosted by Brown University and the University of Tulsa. Well worth a browse.


One response to “Le Petit Journal des Refusées

  1. Roger Allen February 2, 2013 at 5:12 am

    You say ‘it’s fascinating to see how humour, as a genre, is stretched here into a form of avant-gardism, albeit an avant-gardism that does not know itself to be such.’
    An interesting comment on parody, which takes it further: ‘It’s very hard to write a parody of a work that you do not in part admire, or at least a part of you admires it; maybe the best parodies come when one writer has very mixed feelings about another, and uses the genre to try to sort them out.
    Sometimes writing a parody can be liberating, as in the odd case of H.P.Lovecraft, an American best known as a writer of horror fiction, though he saw himself as a poet….it does seem far far better than Lovecraft’s non-parodic pieces, which are killed stone-dead by their archaic diction so very distant from ordinary speech.
    Writing the parody seems to have liberated Lovecraft’

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