Fay Hammill and Michelle Smith. Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture: Canadian Periodicals in English and French, 1925-1960.
Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith's Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture offers an important analysis of middlebrow aspirational culture as defined and projected by six Canadian magazines: Mayfair, Chatelaine, Maclean's, La Revue Moderne, the Canadian Home Journal, and La Revue Populaire. As the titles of these most-read Canadian magazines in the period reveal, Hammill and Smith's work eschews the traditional divide between French and English publications. The result is a nuanced analysis of the magazines' diverse content as well as the place of the magazines themselves in Canadian culture. The book begins in 1925 with use of the term "middlebrow" and ends in 1960 when the magazines had either folded or been consolidated with other publications.
The book consists of four thematic chapters on marketplace, pages, fashions, and consumers. The first two chapters focus on magazines as material objects and the latter two closely analyze the content in relation to the themes of travel, mobility, and consumption. In chapter 1 Hammill and Smith perform a multi-dimensional analysis of communities of authors and readers in connection to the shifting tides of Canadian consumer culture and a contested Canadian nationalism. They read broadly across the magazines, finding three points of similarity across the language divide: identical advertisements reflecting a "common consumer ethos" (29); Americanization; and Paris as an important cultural capital and reference point. Hamill and Smith also illustrate the magazines' significance to modern Canadian culture by way of circulation and advertising rates, which they note do not account for readers who accessed the magazine through libraries or otherwise borrowed copies from family members, friends, and neighbours. The chapter concludes with short and focused histories of the individual magazines.
The second chapter is outstanding in its blending of social history and explicit discussions of methodology. It offers an in-depth reading of four perspectives on the magazines as multi-authored texts and physical objects. Beginning with a comparative analysis of individual pages, the chapter slowly broadens its focus through a close analysis of a single issue, an examination of a year of Mayfair, and, finally, an expansive analysis of the complete publication run of La Revue Moderne. The result is a sophisticated interpretation of magazines' historical value and how our methodological approach shapes unique perspectives. Hammill and Smith argue persuasively for working with the actual material objects and not just digitized versions, which blunt important observations of colour, size, scale, and texture. The book itself is richly illustrated with twenty-nine well-chosen colour and black-and-white reproductions of advertisements, tables of contents, articles, and covers. Further images and information can be found on the accompanying website www.middlebrowcanada.org.
Chapter 3 focuses on how transatlantic fashion, nationalism, and cultural aspiration merged in various ways over the period of study. Travel in this chapter is defined broadly as the authors recognize the escapist value of imaginary travel that magazines offered readers. That said, geographical mobility was often equated with upward social mobility for Canadians wishing to improve their status. The chapter covers everything from fashion advertising and patterns for homemade clothing to gossip, expert advice, and Canadian style. The fashioning of a distinct Canadian middlebrow culture meant that magazine contributors and advertisers shaped a place for themselves as guides. As Hammill and Smith write, "Dress, in Canadian periodicals, was not only a mode of middle-class self-fashioning; it could also be a form of gossip, an outlet for creativity, a nationalist practice, and an exotic tour" (145). Throughout the chapter and the book as a whole, Hammill and Smith shape strong thematic arguments while being sensitive to differences among the individual magazines. The result is an argument that interweaves print culture, social history, and cultural history.
The final chapter hones in on consumers and what magazines deemed to be essential material and cultural products for travel in service of the grander goal of self-improvement. Hamill and Smith argue that travel, as presented in the magazines in the period, was defined by luxury and the consolidation of social and cultural capital. The chapter begins with a close analysis of columnist Madge Macbeth's contributions to Mayfair, which informed readers of the informal rules and practices of purchasing haute couture in Paris salons. Despite this particular experience being beyond the means of most Canadians, Macbeth's column was part of a broader trend to sharpen consumers' skills for self-advancement. Articles and advertisements that noted the importance of the correct class self-identification for socially comfortable travel provided other lessons. Food and the correct consumption of souvenirs (local and somewhat ironically homemade in the age of mass consumption) round out the important lessons. Wartime restrictions hampered international travel but Canadian travel by train or simply gazing at advertisements provided escapist pleasures.
Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture is an important addition to a growing field of Canadian consumer histories. The focus on the magazines themselves, as well as the intertwining of travel and consumerism, is interesting and important. In addition, the book is methodologically sophisticated and will make an excellent resource for teaching. Hammill and Smith have also contributed to Canadian women's history in regard to Canadian women's cultural production. Their biography and study of Madge Macbeth's column is a fine example. Hammill and Smith's excellent book concludes that the "origins and histories" of Canadian magazines "deserve to be much better known" (184).
This book is a significant contribution to those histories.
St Jerome's University
University of Waterloo
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|Publication:||English Studies in Canada|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2017|
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