Magazines, Travel and Middlebrow Culture in Canada 1925-1960

Steamship Prince Rupert

The research focuses on an area of Canadian print culture which, though extremely influential, has been almost entirely neglected by critics: the middlebrow periodical market. It investigates the aspirational dimension of Canadian middlebrow culture, using magazine writing on travel as a focus. The aims are to understand the role of magazines in circulating fantasies of cosmopolitanism and upward mobility, to explore exchanges between anglophone and francophone cultures in the pages of magazines, and to examine the self-conscious ways in which the magazines place themselves and their readers in relation to social and cultural hierarchies. The titles we are focusing on are: Mayfair, La Revue Moderne, Chatelaine, Maclean’s, the Canadian Home Journal, and La Revue Populaire.

In the earlier 20th century, Canadian literary and commercial discourses consistently highlighted Paris, London and New York as centres of culture, fashion and taste. Their desirability as travel destinations was enhanced by their combination of the exotic and the familiar; although culturally and linguistically intelligible places, they also focussed white Canadians’ anxieties about their intimate yet vexed post/colonial relationships with America and Europe. The research explores the conflicted representation of European cities as centres of nostalgia and origin, on the one hand, and sites of urban sophistication, on the other. It also examines resonances with government-sponsored periodical advertising of Montreal as a city combining European flair with North American modernity.

More broadly, the project traces the magazines’ strategies for recasting geographical mobility as a form of upward mobility, and for distinguishing leisure travel from the enforced movement of migration and diaspora. It investigates how foreign and domestic travel were marketed using competing narratives of modernity versus pristine natural beauty, and how the presentation of travel and foreignness was inflected by the consumerist and nationalist agendas which, to varying extents, shaped all the magazines included in our study. Finally, it tests the hypothesis that travel and its associated narratives actually enabled important cultural exchanges within Canada, as magazines became key sites for interaction across linguistic boundaries. The method involves detailed study of advertisements, travel features, fictions of travel, and dispatches from foreign correspondents (mainly fashion letters and literary columns sent from Paris, London or New York). Runs of the six magazines are held at Library and Archives Canada, and we are grateful for their support; further research is being conducted at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

Comparative readings will work along three axes: chronological (shifts over time), geographical (destinations represented), and cultural (francophone / anglophone magazines). The magazines will be considered in the context of broader developments in transatlantic middlebrow culture, and the research begins in 1925, the year the word ‘middlebrow’ first appeared in print. The decade following WWI, a period of developing cultural nationalism, saw the establishment of several of the most important mainstream Canadian magazines, and the growth in circulation of existing titles. We will investigate exchanges of personnel, contributors and ideas among these magazines, and particularly across the language boundary. The study concludes in 1960, a point when the magazine market was undergoing significant transformation as middlebrow titles were merged, discontinued or reinvented in more popular formats. Our interpretations will be informed by an attention to the materiality of the page and an understanding of the practical imperatives of the periodical marketplace. The results of our research will resonate with current debates in Canada and the UK about the funding and subsidy of magazines and about language policy in relation to the press.

The project has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (£220,000), and runs from August 2011 for two years. The money will support various outputs and events, including a digital resource on the Canadian periodical marketplace in the early to mid twentieth century. This will offer visual representation of geo-spatial and chronological data that reveal Canadian and transatlantic interconnections. These will include interactive historical maps of New York, London, Paris, Montreal and Toronto, plotting the proximity and movements of editorial offices and magazine contributors. Interactive timelines and diagrams will permit exploration of the Canadian periodical marketplace, drilling down to accounts of individual magazines and to individual issues. We also intend to digitise sample issues of pre-1933 magazines and selected contents pages and travel-themed advertisements and features, and to provide access information, bibliographic data etc.

This project emerges from the Middlebrow Network, a transatlantic, interdisciplinary network also funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Lead researcher: Professor Faye Hammill (web page), University of Strathclyde

Project team: Dr Michelle Smith

Online content developer: Cristina Ritchie

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