History 301:Margaret Anderson was an anti-establishment heroine

This feature originally appeared in the June 2017 edition of Urban Times.


Contributing editor

‘We are on trial for revealing the unavoidable natural thoughts of a 16-year-old girl,” Margaret Carolyn Anderson said at her court hearing in 1921. She and her partner, Jane Heap, were fighting for their First Amendment right to publish, in serial form, James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, in their magazine, the Little Review. Anderson and Heap wound up in court after the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had them arrested for obscenity. 

Anderson considered Ulysses the “literary masterpiece of a generation” and she had risked her business to publish it. In the end, the court won and the Little Review stopped publishing segments of Ulysses – after the 23rd installment.

By nurture, Margaret Anderson, born in Indianapolis in 1886, was an unlikely heroine for this anti-establishment story. But by nature, this daughter of Arthur Aubrey Anderson, an executive for the Citizens Street Railway Co., and Jessie Shortridge, daughter of Indianapolis businessman and state legislator William C. Shortridge, was a proud, budding anarchist. And this wasn’t the first time she’d risked almost everything in order to bring great works to the public, or at least the artsy counter-culture portion of the public that read the Little Review.

Anderson, whose family had moved around after leaving Indianapolis about 1900, founded the avant garde Little Review in Chicago in 1914. She’d found her way to that city in 1908 after graduating from high school in Anderson, Ind., in 1903 and then finishing one year of college at Western College in Miami, Ohio. She was 22 when she and her younger sister, Lois, moved to Chicago. Margaret set her cap on a career in the literary world in the era that has come to be known as the “Chicago Renaissance.”

She became a contributing writer for the religiously focused The Continent magazine and the arts-focused The Dial.  Then she became a book critic for the Chicago Evening Post in 1913. Margaret must have decided a year of experience was enough of an apprenticeship in the literary world because a year later and she became editor and publisher of the Little Review.

The first issue of the monthly magazine that would become a beacon to the intellectual art and literary world of the 1910s and 1920s was published in March 1914. The magazine’s “ambitious aim is to produce criticism of books, music, art, drama, and life that shall be fresh and constructive, and intelligent from the artist’s point of view,” according to that first issue. In addition to book reviews, there was poetry, reviews of plays seen (by Margaret), an article about Nietzsche, a “feminist discussion,” thought pieces and more. Sixty-five pages in all, written by Margaret and other authors.

The Little Review, even in its premier issue, was a serious undertaking. So serious was Margaret Anderson that she published the September 1916 issue of The Little Review with pages 1 through 13 left blank and “offered as a Want Ad” for writers of serious literary criticism and intelligent topical discourse.  Pages 14 and 15 featured a cartoon depiction of the “light occupations of the editor while there is nothing to edit.” These “light occupations” included practicing the piano, “converting the Sheriff to anarchism. . . suffering for humanity at Emma Goldman’s lectures, [and] gathering her own firewood.”

The clever cartoon might be taken as hyperbole, but it was a known fact that these were exactly the type of activities Margaret enjoyed. And she was not too proud to gather her own firewood. In fact, not long after she began publication of the Little Review, Margaret found she was unable to pay the rent for her office space and the landlord evicted her. A weaker-willed woman might have given up, but she moved instead to a location where she could live and continue to work for free – “The colony decided to move down to the beach near Ravinia park,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “where Uncle Sam charged no rent.”

There, for six months Margaret, her sister and her assistant, Harriett Dean, also from Indianapolis, produced the Little Review from their tents on the shore of Lake Michigan, gathering and cutting their own firewood for heat, bundling up in sweaters as they worked. Although probably not planned as a publicity stunt, this sacrifice for art garnered Anderson and the Little Review a great deal of press: “Two Young Hoosier Women Martyrs To Their Beliefs” was the headline that ran above The Indianapolis Star article about Margaret’s and Harriett’s stoic devotion to the literary arts from their sandy, windswept tents.

The Little Review survived and eventually made enough money to pay the rent, and Margaret and crew moved publication back to a real office. Jane Heap joined the staff in 1916, bringing an artist’s eye and stunning typography to the little magazine that could. In 1917, the two women moved the Little Review to New York. Ezra Pound became the magazine’s foreign editor that year. Over the next few years the Little Review published writers including Hart Crane, T.S. Eliot, Emma Goldman, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and William Carlos Williams, and artists such as Picasso, before ceasing publication in 1929.

Not long after the court case over the publication of Ulysses, Margaret followed the path of many of America’s literati; she moved to France, turning over editorship of Little Review to Jane Heap in 1923. For the next almost two decades Margaret lived in Le Cannet on the French Riveria. There she wrote her memoirs and lived for nearly 20 years with the French singer Georgette Leblanc.

Margaret wrote and studied piano, enjoying a life that included friendships with other famous lesbian couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas and Indianapolis-native Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, until LeBlanc’s death in 1941. The following year she returned to the U.S. and soon became the lover of Enrique Caruso’s widow, Dorothy, with whom she lived until Dorothy’s death in 1951. In 1953, she returned to Le Cannet and wrote a second volume of memoirs after Caruso’s death.

Margaret C. Anderson, Indianapolis girl, died in France in 1973. Writer, publisher, editor Kathleen Rooney, said in a Chicago Tribune article in 1915, that Margaret Anderson’s “fearless editing of The Little Review — on a shoestring and in the face of censorship — established the template for innumerable literary magazines and small presses that followed.”

Anderson’s papers are archived at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The entire run of her Little Review is available online through the Modernist Journal’s Project at Brown University.