The Yellow Book, by Shubhneet Sandhu

Preservation of Quality, Rejecting the Mainstream and Remaining Modern 


M odernity was a condition which arose from growing urbanization and literacy. Although it can be argued that modernism was a response to the rapid changes occurring, modernism also encapsulates the resistance to these changes. The Yellow Book was originally edited by Henry Harland and Aubrey Beardsley, who was removed in 1895, and published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane. This little magazine can be viewed as negotiating values of modernity through each subsequent issue. In many ways, the economic and capitalist interests of the time were embraced. This could be seen in the use of advertisements, which some little magazines stood firmly against. Modern advertising was also employed through the use of criticism to promote. Yet, many other aspects of the time were openly dismissed. The Yellow Book seems to have taken a stand against the changing nature of publication culture which leads to past issues of little magazines quickly becoming obsolete. The statements were made using both the content and the form, which were paired together to create a total work of art, a translated term coined by Wagner. This includes the social movements the magazine chose to stand behind and publish, as well the rejection of the quick paced and transitory nature of publishing due to the invention of rotary press and the Linotype.

Volume 12 Title Page, by Ethel Reed (1897)
Volume 12 Title Page, by Ethel Reed (1897)

Overall through its marriage of content and form, the Yellow Book attempted to make a statement against the mainstream while maintaining profitability. The intended audience according to Aubrey Beardsley, at the conception of the magazine, was the elite. Generally the best practise to generate revenue selling little magazines was to make the target audience the emerging, literate middle

It is evident, the meticulous effort put in for the magazine to resemble a book with the border of space, numbered pages, as well as catch words.

class who had extra money to spend on entertainment, and pricing the magazines accordingly. To deliberately target the elite of society is to make a statement that the works being published are not for the newly literate to use as easy entertainment. The work will not be diluted or simplified for the masses; the art and literature being published in The Yellow Book required readers to rise to the task of enjoyment and consumption. It was also published as a quarterly which gave the editors more time to be selective and thoughtful in the creation of the magazine. They would not curate and bind a magazine hastily in order to appease an appetite for something new, and while previous volumes become continuously outdated.

The content chosen included short stories, essays, poetry and artwork which features aestheticism symbolism, and decadence. Aestheticism was deeply interested in the beauty of the world. Decadence was the most politically engaged movement as it countered the real life effects of puritanism that aimed to limit the artist or writer. This shows the magazine’s willingness to respond to and engage with modern issues that affected artists. Yet the inclusion of Symbolism and Aestheticism can be viewed as a slight opposition to modernity because it harkened to artistic ideas of the past such as Romanticism.

There was a great desire to emulate the form of literature of the past. This can also be seen in the physical copy being made to resemble a

book. The large margins of space created a border around the literature and images so the art work was validated as literary and of value, similarly to that of quality novel, which would be kept on a bookshelf to be revisited.

The use of catch words was a dead tradition used in ancient practises of binding books but they were deliberately included on each page. The Yellow Book deliberately attempted to fight against the ephemeral nature of little magazines.

This is not to say that The Yellow Book was entrenched in the past. It has vested interests in making money through the inclusion of advertisements. It also made modern decisions to give equal weight to both literature and art. The art was not to accompany the literature but act as its own stand-alone work. As the volumes progressed, other changes were made as well.

The Nursery-Rhyme Heroine, by Ethel Reed (1897)
The Nursery-Rhyme Heroine, by Ethel Reed (1897)

By volume 2, there were more female writers and artists. This not only recognized art created by the opposite sex but also opened The Yellow Book to a female readership. The audience was also expanded to include Americans, starting in volume 1. This shows that there was a desire to move forward with the times but not compromise quality in the process.

The Yellow Book can be viewed as elitist on the surface. It appeared to exist to oppose magazines that were solely interested in entertaining the middle class and making a large profit. The Yellow Book wanted to intentionally distinguish itself from other publications by being viewed as a literary book. Upon closer inspection, one can see that all of these efforts were in a fight to preserve certain dying traditions, while advocating for modern ideologies.