Report by Jack VanderGriend
Wheels: An Anthology of Verse was a literary journal run and edited by Edith Sitwell that appeared annually between 1916 and 1921. It was one of the first literary magazines to be published in England that featured early modernist poetry, making Edith and her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell forerunners of the modernist movement in their country. While the magazine reflected the American modernist movement at the time and functioned as a platform to expose English readership to something other than Georgian poetry, it would be generous to say that the purpose of Wheels was to promote modernism as a movement. Rather than using Wheels as a tool to cultivate Modernist poetry, Edith and her brothers used Wheels as a way to promote their own writing and the writing of their friends.
While it should still be recognized as a modernist literary magazine, it is important to realize that the editor of Wheels did not seek out Modernist writers in an attempt to expand the English modernist scene. The writers that had access to Wheels were few and were mostly connected in some way to the Sitwell family. If a piece in the magazine wasn’t written by one of the Sitwell siblings, then it was most likely written by one of their close friends or associates. To name a few examples, Edward Wyndham Tennant, one of the writers published in the first cycle of Wheels, was described by Osbert Sitwell as “my most intimate friend,” and even the Sitwells’ governess, Helen Rootham, was published in the annual anthology. As to the existence of other modernist poets emerging from the margins of England’s literary community, Edith Sitwell seemed either not to care, or not to desire any sort of divergence from the comfortable nepotism that allowed her to help only her friends and family in their writing careers.
The fact remains, however, that regardless of Edith Sitwell’s motivations, Wheels is still remembered as one of the first examples of modernist poetry in England. In hindsight, it is unfortunate that Wheels secured this kind of fame, because the poetry represented in its six cycles was not always of the highest quality. Due to the narrow range of contributors, not only does the material that was published in the magazine fail to represent a thorough sample of English modernist poetry, it also seems to have valued familial loyalty over quality of work. There is no harm in Edith Sitwell starting a literary magazine to promote the writing of her friends and family, it is only regrettable that the first major platform for modernist poetry in England will forever be remembered as a tool for the careers of its creators and their close associates.
When Wheels ended in 1921, it was not because of any financial or political failure. The magazine was deliberately terminated by the Sitwell family after six years of publication, because they no longer needed it as a platform. They had garnered enough attention and success from their little project that they could move on to more self-sustaining careers. In this regard, Wheels could be viewed as a success. It was employed as a way for the Sitwells to publish their work and the work of their friends in a time when their modernist style would not have been well received in other journals, and it functioned until it was no longer needed. On the other hand, as a modernist literary journal, Wheels failed to prioritize the modernist movement. Although this may not have been their intention, the Sitwells used modernism as a way of promoting their magazine and their writing instead of using their magazine and their writing as a way to promote modernism.