Modern Journals

The Owl: Radically Conservative

During a time when the most popular literary magazines, such as The Little Review, Poetry, Others, and more were publishing highly political and highly experimental work, there came from the outskirts Robert Graves: a man of comparatively safe literary taste, who was well-established thanks to his wealthy father-in-law, Sir William Nichols. Partial founder and sole editor of The Owl, Graves wanted nothing radical, but what his magazine ended up being quite the opposite. The Owl, despite its attempts towards purposeful conservatism in a lit-mag world of progressive literary movements, turned out to be the talk of the town anyways, radical for its very anti-radicalism. Graves wrote the following in the foreword of The Owl’s first issue: “It must be understood that The Owl has no politics, leads no new movement and is not even the organ of any particular generation—for that matter sixty-seven years separate the oldest and youngest contributors. But we find in common a love of honest work well done, and a distaste for shortcuts to popular success.” The explicit description of his magazine as ‘nothing new’ is what drew the attention of the literary world. The Owl did more than it intended, simply by not doing what everyone else was doing. Major figures and magazine editors like Harriet Monroe seemed to be almost offended by what was by nature a very tame publication. Monroe stated in an interview about her thoughts on Graves’ work, “Almost nothing in the book reminds us of the age we live in.”

The Owl, in its purposeful conservatism, managed to ruffle the feathers of its literary peers and popular ‘rivals.’ Where the magazine lacked diversity in form and style, it made up for it with a sort of generational diversity. Graves was only twenty-three at the time the magazine started, and the magazine’s main illustrator, Graves’ father-in-law, was much older. Rather than a pair of middle-aged Ezra Pound’s or T.S. Eliot’s with experimental and political agendas, this (almost) father-son duo set out with an appetite for established talent and a sense for children’s illustrations. The Owl frequently featured artist Randolf Caldecott’s artwork. Caldecott had already been dead for decades by the time The Owl came about, but his whimsical and infantile illustrative work resonated with Sir William Nichols. The Owl also included the work of a twelve-year-old painting prodigy, Pamela Bianco. Though each of these artists’ work—the deceased Caldecott or the adolescent Bianco—did not stray from the Georgian, natural, rural, child-like themes of the magazine, the difference in age between contributors allowed The Owl to avoid becoming the “organ of any particular generation.”

Just several years after The Owl’s final winter issue in 1923, The Criterion published T.S. Eliot’s argument that “It is not enough to present a list of distinguished contributors” or “express a cordial zeal for the diffusion of good literature.” Eliot also says, “[T]he review which makes up its contents merely of what the editor considers “good stuff” will obviously have the character of miscellany, and no other character whatever, except the feeble reflection of the character of a feeble editor.” With Eliot’s words in mind, one might think that Graves’s dedication to something as ambiguous as “Honest work well done” might have been putting too much effort into not being something radical than being anything at all. Yet, just such a miscellaneous magazine was able to catch the attention of literary figures and leaders; The Owl was wildly weak-boned and scandalously conservative.

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