On the ninth floor of Chicago’s Fine Arts Building in 1914, Margaret C. Anderson launched an experimental magazine called the Little Review. The Indiana writer wanted something amazing, a publication with “the best conversations the world had to offer.”
Lack of money was no obstacle for the ebullient Anderson. She used her wit and beauty to charm people into helping her print it, including architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who gave one hundred dollars, today’s equivalent of $3,000. When she couldn’t pay rent, she lived with family and staff in tents along Lake Michigan, and besotted writers pinned poems to the canvas.
In 1916, Anderson joined with Kansas-born artist Jane Heap. In contrast to the chic and feminine Anderson, Heap dressed like a man, with short hair and trousers. Heap brought more art to the magazine, and balanced Anderson’s sunny vivacity with a dark wit.Together, they published dozens of writers, including Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein, Emma Goldman, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. They moved to New York City, and their influence grew. But they got in trouble serializing James Joyce’s “Ulysses”—and were charged with and convicted of obscenity.
Despite their importance to the history of modern art and literature, no one has managed a complete biography of Anderson and Heap until now. After more than twenty-five years of research, Missouri State University professor emeritus of history Holly A. Baggett has published “Making No Compromise: Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap and the Little Review.”
Baggett thinks one reason no one has done a biography is because of what happened after the Joyce trial—Anderson and Heap went to Paris and became lifelong followers of the Armenian mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, who was either a genius or a fraud. To write the book, Baggett needed to understand why.
“There were these two feminists out there, avant-garde, and the next thing you know they’re following this crazy mystic,” says Baggett in an interview. “I think people just didn’t want to grapple with that. I didn’t, either.” Baggett went to Gurdjieff study groups, met with students of Heap in London, and tried to read Gurdjieff’s “indecipherable” writing, but “I still don’t get these people.”
“I finally came to the conclusion that it’s not really that strange when you think about it because they always were seekers—that’s why they were fascinated by art, they felt art expressed something that couldn’t be found elsewhere,” Baggett says. “When you look at the editorial decisions of the Little Review, in both the early years when Anderson was dominant and in the later years when Heap was, you can see it’s about seeking, it’s about the big questions—is there a god, why are we here, and all of that stuff. It was a continuation of what they had been doing, just on a more intense level, and with a few more puzzling accoutrements. Once I figured that out, it made sense.”
Early twentieth-century modern writers sought answers at a time when Victorian certainties had fallen away, Baggett says. New scientific discoveries, including quantum physics, influenced art. Anderson and Heap were not the only seekers at the beginning of the twentieth century who turned to esoteric forms of spirituality to understand the world—Little Review contributor W.B. Yeats, for example, was part of the “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” a secret spiritual society. Gurdjieff’s circle included philosopher P.D. Ouspensky and writer Katherine Mansfield. As Baggett writes in her book’s introduction, “While I am a Gurdjieffian agnostic, Anderson and Heap were true believers, and I respect their journey.”
Baggett discovered Anderson while she was searching for a topic for her history dissertation in the late nineties. A book mentioned Anderson as a “lesbian anarchist,” and Baggett got interested.
Heap proved even more fascinating, because “there was a mystery about her,” Baggett says. “Anderson wrote three autobiographies, her papers are all over the country, but there was nothing for Heap.”
Baggett wrote to “every scholar she could think of” for information on Heap, and finally uncovered her letters to Florence Reynolds, from the time they became involved romantically in 1908-1909 until Reynolds’ death in 1949. The letters were stored, incredibly, in the back of a dog groomer’s in Hollywood.
Proving that often opposites attract, Heap and Anderson made a good couple, at least for a while. “Anderson was over-the-top extroverted—loud and always clutching her chest because she couldn’t breathe because the painting was too beautiful. Heap was withdrawn, moody, caustic and pessimistic, where Anderson was optimistic. I think she suffered from clinical depression. Anderson described how this part of Heap made her crazy and eventually they broke up.”
Baggett thinks the influence of the Review on artists and writers went far beyond the number of subscriptions—which was about 4,000 at its height. Its impact is similar to what Brian Eno said about the first Velvet Underground record—not many people bought it, but everyone who did started a band. “The Little Review was a tremendous influence on the people who were in the stream of modernism, who were experimenters and artists and editors and critics,” says Baggett.
The hardest part of finishing the book was that “real life kept intervening,” Baggett says. That included a bout with cancer and her own political activism. “Missouri State is in the Ozarks, a very conservative place,” says Baggett. “I was always in the news for gay trouble… good gay trouble.” This included ten years fighting to get sexual orientation into the university’s non-discrimination policy. But she knew she’d finish the Anderson-Heap book if it killed her. “I’m happily still standing.”
While she got aggravated with Heap and Anderson over Gurdjieff, that didn’t make Baggett like them any less. “I’ve always had a strong sense of affection for them. I’m not sure they would like this book. That kind of makes me sad. They’d probably say they didn’t get the Gurdjieff part right. They might be absolutely right about that.” She says Anderson and Heap are “like my relatives”—their pictures and copies of the magazine adorn her Delaware home.
“Making No Compromise: Margaret Anderson, Jane Heap and the Little Review”
By Holly A. Baggett
Northern Illinois University Press, 312 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”