I think the first thing I need to do is offer a definition of what I see as the Beat Era. It’s a period in my mind that stretches from roughly 1957 to roughly 1963. This isn’t to suggest that the Beat writers, or at least some of them, weren’t active before and after those years. But what I’m looking at is the spread of little magazines in that period. It can be argued that 1963 is something if an arbitrary cut-off point and that certain magazines carried on post-1963 and a few continued to maintain what might be called the spirit of the Beats. But Seymour Krim thought that by 1963 the movement had “splintered and broken up”. For what it’s worth that’s my own impression of the Beat literary movement. What many people like to think of as The Sixties, with its emphasis on social protest, rock music, flower power, the hippies, etc. truly got under way around 1963. Underground  newspapers and the like began to partially replace little magazines. I think we can see this in the way that a key publication such as Evergreen Review began to change. Not only in its format but also in its contents. I’ll look a little closer at that later.

It’s necessary to go back beyond 1957 to understand why what happened with little magazines late in the 1950s, and into the early Sixties, seems in retrospect quite unusual. There have always been little magazines, of course, printing new and old poets and prose writers. And certain periods, such as the 1920a, gave them a prominence because they published writers who later became famous. If you look at the magazines published in Paris, such as This Quarter. Transatlantic Review, transition, Broom, and a few others, their importance becomes evident. And during the 1930s there were more than a few magazines which represented the social and political inclinations of the time. There is a book called The Red Decade by Eugene Lyons, originally published in 1941, which, in part, purports to give the lowdown on communist cultural activity in the USA in the 1930s, and mentions magazines like Anvil, Left, Left Front, Left Review, The Partisan, Blast, Dynamo, Leftward…..well, I think the titles alone give an indication of where, as the saying goes, they were coming from.

Obviously, I’m dealing primarily with little magazines in the United States. But it may be relevant to mention in passing that the 1940s saw a surprising rise in the number of little magazines published in Britain between 1940 and 1950. There were literally dozens of them, some like Horizon and Penguin New Writing well-known, others (Modern Reading, Now, Kingdom Come, to name a few) less so. What many of them represented was the democratic spirit of the time, and they published a wide variety of writers. What they indicate on the whole is that experimental literature was not of premium concern. Poets and prose writers produced a literature that was often about the day-to-day concerns of people caught up in often extreme wartime situations. It’s significant that, as things returned to a kind of normality in the lat-1940s most of these magazines closed down. People had other more-pressing concerns about families, jobs, housing. There was less time for reading and writing.

But let me move on to the 1950s and a talk that Saul Bellow’s friend, Isaac Rosenfeld, himself a novelist, short-story writer, and critic, gave at the University of Chicago in 1956. It was later reprinted in The Chicago Review Anthology, and was entitled  ”On the Role of the Writer and the Little Magazine”.  It’s a fascinating piece from the point of view of literary history and Rosenfeld has some interesting things to say about the role of the writer in society, the idea and function of an avant-garde, and such matters. But what concerns me here are comments he made about the existence and purpose of little magazines. He was concerned to point out that the rise of the affluent society, and the ways in which writers once seen as avant-garde were now quickly absorbed into the mainstream and available in cheap, attractively-produced paperbacks, had, in his view, destroyed the old idea of an avant-garde. It no longer existed in its original sense. And he pointed to a rise in so-called little magazines published by commercial companies.

One of the best-known was New World Writing, a quarterly paperback published between 1952 and 1960. There was another called Discovery which lasted for 6 issues in the early-1950s. Both were backed by major publishers. Rosenfeld mentions Perspectives, which had funding from a large foundation. It is worth pointing out that early indications of the arrival of some Beat writers could be seen in New World Writing, where Kerouac’s “Jazz of the Beat Generation” and Kenneth Rexroth’s influential essay, “Disengagement: the Art of the Beat Generation” were published.  Discovery, had contributions from John Clellon Holmes. New Directions, founded in 1936, gave space to writers outside the conventional or established institutions. But as Rosenfeld said, none of these, and others, such as Partisan Review and Dissent, were what he would think of as true little magazines.  And there were, of course, the magazines with university backing, such as the Kenyon Review, the Sewanee Review, and others. Rosenfeld gave his talk to the staff of the Chicago Review, a magazine which had a role to play when the Beats started to appear in print. But let me quote him on the subject of little magazines which had secure financial support:

“The little magazines at one time were part of the image of garret poverty and obscurity. Now they survive, but survive with a certain opulence that threatens to crush them. Surely the specific idea of the little magazine, just as the specific idea of the avant-garde, gets lost in such a translation. And that idea was that of a small but vigorous and very vital, active, and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance”. 

Rosenfeld died in 1956 so we can’t know what he would have thought of the resurgence of little magazine activity that became evident in the late-1950s. There had been magazines which focused on publishing offbeat material. Cid Corman’s Origin, started in 1951, might be a good example. And Gilbert Sorrentino’s Neon kicked off in 1956. There was also the seventh and final issue of Black Mountain Review from the famous Black Mountain College in 1957. The Beats and related writers – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Whalen, and McClure – all made an appearance.

They were also all in the famous second issue of Evergreen Review, the San Francisco issue, which in some ways gave a misleading impression of the Beat movement largely originating on the West Coast. And Evergreen Review, though it regularly published Beat writers in its first thirty issues, was not primarily a Beat magazine. It featured a variety of writers from what might be termed the non-establishment literary world. As I remarked earlier, its format and contents altered as the 60s progressed and it picked up on pop music, flower-power, hippies, student protest, pornography, and sensation. The journalist Bruce Cook perhaps summed up the post-1963 issues of Evergreen Review when he remarked: “Accretions of bile and hostility seem to have swollen it so that it now almost resembles the ponderous monoliths of American life that are attacked with such monotonous regularity in its pages”.

The publication and resultant court case surrounding Ginsberg’s Howl, published by City Lights Books in San Francisco, and the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road, more or less launched what can be described as the publicised period of Beat activity. They were in the news and popular misconceptions of what they represented quickly developed. But at the same time there were those who were genuinely interested in the literary aspects of the movement. Irving Rosenthal was, in 1958, editor of the Chicago Review and in the Spring and Summer issues for 1958 had used material by, among others, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan, Burroughs, and Philip Whalen. It all looks quite innocuous, but in 1958 it came to the attention of a journalist on a Chicago newspaper who questioned whether the university authorities were aware of what was being published in the magazine. The result was that Rosenthal was told that he couldn’t use work by Burroughs, Kerouac, and the distinctly non-Beat Edward Dahlberg in his next issue. He and several others linked to the magazine promptly resigned and started an independent publication called Big Table, the first issue of which used the banned material from the Chicago Review and promptly fell foul of the Chicago postal authorities. The magazine carried on for four more issues (Paul Carroll took over from issue 2), but like so many little magazines was eventually defeated by financial and distribution problems. But it had, in its short lifetime, published not only the usual suspects from the Beats, but also Robert Creeley, Norman Mailer, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara. Of particular interest was the fourth issue, devoted to the New American Poets, which offered a variety of poets, including James Wright and Denise Levertov alongside Creeley, Ginsberg, Paul Blackburn, and Harold Norse.

If I can interject a brief personal note, I subscribed to Big Table, Evergreen Review, and The Outsider and can’t forget how exciting and stimulating it was to receive these magazines. I didn’t necessarily like everything in them – John Ashbery and Charles Olson were two poets I could never really relate to – but I read everything just to see what was happening in America.

It might be worth mentioning that the Chicago Review/Big Table affair was duplicated in Edinburgh in 1959 when Alex Neish imported work by Burroughs. Corso, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others for an issue of Jabberwock, the magazine of the University Renaissance Society. Objections were raised and he resigned as editor and started Sidewalk and published Burroughs, Creeley, Michael Rumaker, and more. He was attacked for calling the magazine Sidewalk and not Pavement, or even Plainstaines, and the Glasgow Evening Times ran a feature headed “Along the Sidewalk to the Gutter”.

I don’t think there was ever a genuine Beat literary movement in Britain, as opposed to people playing at being beatniks, but there were editors and poets picking up on what the Beats, New York Poets, Black Mountain Poets, San Francisco poets and others were doing. Mike Horovitz’s New Departures in its early issues between 1959 and 1962 mixed American and British writers, and the two issues of Tom Raworth’s Outburst in 1961 and 1963 had a distinctly American focus. Perhaps the one British poet most likely to be placed under a Beat banner would be Dave Cunliffe, whose magazine Poetmeat inclined in that direction. I think a few other publications deserve to be mentioned in the context of making connections with American writers. Satis, edited by Matthew Mead and Michael Rutherford from Newcastle, was probably the first magazine in Britain to publish work by Charles Bukowski. And Gael Turnbull’s Migrant spotlighted Creeley, Ed Dorn, and others.

The black poet, Leroi Jones, as he was known then, started Yugen in 1958, with the first issue using some of his associates from the Greenwich Village scene of the time. I doubt that the names of Tom Postell, Ed James, and Ernest Kean will mean much these days, other than to collectors of bohemian ephemera, of which I’m happily one. But once the magazine got into its stride it picked up on the work of most of the leading Beats, as well as New York poets like Frank O‘Hara and Gilbert Sorrentino. Jones was married to Hettie Cohen in those days, and though she’s doesn’t get any credit for it in his autobiography she did contribute to the work of getting out a little magazine. The same can be said for Diane di Prima, an interesting poet in her own right, who was probably the driving force (even if Leroi Jones is shown as co-editor on early issues)  behind The Floating Bear, a mimeographed newsletter which in its 37 issues packed in a wide range of new and known poets. 

In an interview with Di Prima she recalled that 250 copies of the first issue were mimeographed and it was distributed to “painters, poets, dancers….mostly from New York”. 250 copies seems to have been an adequate number when venturing into the uncertainties of little magazine publishing, especially if funds are low and distribution has to be done on a personal basis. I recall duplicating just 200 copies of Move, a magazine I decided to start in 1964. The Floating Bear may have been mimeographed and distributed without the benefits of large distributing agencies, but to look down the index in the 1973 reprint of all the 37 issues is to read a roll-call of the non-establishment poets of the period concerned. They wanted to be in the magazine despite its limited production qualities.

The role of mimeographed or duplicated publications (we used the term duplicated in the UK, I recall) is important. Yes, many magazines were well-produced, especially if like Evergreen Review they were backed by a larger organisation, in this case Grove Press. But there were numerous cheaply-produced mimeographed publications. Beatitude from San Francisco is a good example, appearing between 1958 and 1960, it had what might be called a loose editorial policy which resulted in a wide variation in the quality of the poems. It would seem that the editorial policy was one of more or less using everything that came in.  So, there is a mixture of the well-known names and people who it would be almost impossible to track down. Some simply signed their poems as “Marc” and “Jo”.  I doubt that, outside a few libraries and private collections, complete sets of Beatitude exist. Even an anthology compiled from the magazine, and published by City Lights books in 1960, is out-of-print and expensive to buy on the internet.

The revival of the tradition of the little magazine as the ephemera of bohemia – and in its way the Beat Era might have been the final fling of the old bohemian literary world – meant that people  looked back to earlier avant-garde practices and personalities, and in doing so brought some poets and others into circulation again. Walter Lowenfels, friend of Henry Miller in 1930s Paris (he’s in Miller’s Black Spring as Jabberwhorl Cronstadt ), and a one-time member of the Communist Party, resurfaced in magazines and edited a couple of anthologies which featured old and new poets, usually those who might have radical leanings. Some elderly Objectivist poets from the 1930s – George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi - were re-discovered and brought back into print.

And a couple of others were involved with little magazines. Jon Edgar Webb (who spent time in prison in the 1930s for armed robbery) and his wife Gypsy Lou Webb launched The Outsider from New Orleans with a policy that combined traditional jazz and new poetry. They were old bohemians with a background in the Depression days of the 1930s, and were particularly fond of Charles Bukowski and Kenneth Patchen.. Their story is inspirational in that they sacrificed most things, including home comforts, to get their magazine printed and circulated. I treasure my copies of the five issues (in four, one being a double issue) and they seem like items from a time it’s hard to imagine now. The Webb’s kind of bohemia just doesn’t appear to exist anymore.

There was also Gilbert Neiman, who produced three issues of Between Worlds from the Inter-American University in Puerto Rico. Neiman had started his literary career in the 1930s and was a friend of Henry Miller whose The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is dedicated to Neiman and his wife. He later had a somewhat chaotic career in teaching because of his heavy drinking, something that Miller noted. But in 1960 he edited Between Worlds which appeared on an annual basis for three years. Like Jon Edgar Webb, Neiman was obviously keen to establish a connection between the Beats, and the newer generation of writers generally, and earlier bohemians and avant-garde poets.. He included work by Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Whalen, Burroughs, Ed Dorn, and Ferlinghetti, alongside Mina Loy, William Carlos Williams, and Harry Roskolenko.

Roskolenko was a poet and a one-time Trotsykist, and as a merchant seaman was wounded when he got involved in a minor insurrection while his ship was docked in Hamburg. For me, this was always one of the most interesting aspects of the little magazines, that through them I came across poets and prose writers who I knew little or nothing about and so was introduced to not only new names but also many from the past. It was an adventure tracking down their books and, where I could, the magazines they’d been in.

I’ve attempted to give a broad survey of at least some of the magazines of the Beat Era. There were others I could have included. Tuli Kupferberg’s Birth started its life in 1958 with an issue devoted to Greenwich Village and Bohemianism, which showed that he knew what was happening as the Beat scene began to expand. And many more, such as Nomad, Exodus, Foot, Wormwood Review, Intrepid, and Kulchur, a classic little magazine which was representative of much that was exciting and interesting in the arts in its lifetime, which ran from 1960 to 1966. There was also Jay Landesman’s Neurotica, which, between 1948 and 1951, gave an indication of the way the wind was blowing when it published John Clellon Holmes, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Chandler Brossard, and Anatole Broyard. There was also a short story by Larry Rivers, a one-time saxophone player and later well-known as an artist, about junkie jazz musicians. Neurotica was a truly idiosyncratic publication. The most-interesting little magazines often were idiosyncratic in that their overall impact reflected the tastes and concerns of their editors. Gael Turnbull’s Migrant might be a good example with its mixture of essays, letters, poems, and some contributions that were difficult to categorise.  


This is the text of a talk given at the Manchester University Symposium on Little Magazines at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, Friday, 6th March, 2020.