The Little Journal of Rejects (1896)

In October 1895, a curious announcement appeared in The Lark, a now-defunct literary magazine based out of San Francisco. It was a call for submissions for the first-ever edition of Le Petit Journal des Refusées (The Little Journal of Rejects), which pitched itself as “the smallest and most extraordinary magazine in existence”. The ad boasted rates of $10 per page of poetry and $5 per page of prose (around $400 and $200 in today’s money), “one hundred free copies of the number in which [the contributor’s] article appears”, and above all bore the tantalising promise that “No manuscripts will be refused”. The one condition for inclusion? The manuscript had to have been rejected from a “leading magazine”, and be accompanied by the rejection slip to prove it. For budding writers, it was an offer too good to be true — as indeed it was.

The advert was initially intended as a joke, a good-humoured jibe at the deluge of little magazines that emerged in the late-nineteenth century, some of which had all the hallmarks of vanity publishing. The announcement was penned by The Lark’s editor-in-chief, Gelett Burgess (1866–1951), who was both a pioneering figure exploring the boundaries of what fin-de-siècle literary magazines could look like, and an irreverent voice in a genre forever at risk of taking itself too seriously.

Sure enough, however, Le Petit Journal des Refusées materialised a year later, and its first, and only, issue was published. Burgess must have been sufficiently drawn by the creative possibilities of parodying the world of literary magazines that he wanted to see the project through to fruition. The result — a sixteen-page chapbook, printed using woodcuts on wallpaper in a trapezoid shape suggestive of butterfly wings — made good on its promises. Or at least some of them.

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The journal opens with an introductory note from the editor, a fictional “James Marrion”, whose silhouetted portrait is framed by a border of rejection slips (“We regret to inform you that the inclosed manusc–”, “The editor presents his compliments and regrets”). What follows is a collection of poetry and prose works that have been “ruthlessly rejected by less large-hearted and appreciative editors”, but which will now, Burgess’ preface notes forebodingly, “witness the light of day . . . for the first and last time.” The collected pieces were likely also penned by Burgess but all bear the names of unknown women writers. Quite why he chose women writers in particular is unclear: was it a comment on the increasing presence of female contributors in little magazines at the time? Or a dig at women’s supposedly inferior writing skills? The latter seems unlikely given, as editor of The Lark, Burgess cultivated longstanding collaborations with women, some of whom went on to have prolific literary careers. In any case, the pieces in Le Petit Journal des Refusées offer a series of pastiches representative of the literary styles in vogue at the time: a Symbolist prose piece, an experimentally typeset poem, a short story written in dialect… All dubious in quality and each introduced with a list of magazines that had previously rejected them: “The Ghost of a Flea refused by The American Journal of Insanity, the Purple Cow, the Chap Book, the Anthropophagian.”

Beyond its evidently ludic dimensions, Le Petit Journal des Refusées identifies, albeit in the form of parody, the contours of a crystallising genre — that of the fin-de-siècle little magazine. As such, it remains to this day a valuable document of a particular moment in literary history, complete with its own actors, notable publications, illustrious editors, and so on. Little magazines flourished in the United States between the mid-1890s and the turn of the century, with nearly 300 being launched between 1894 and 1903. Kirsten MacLeod, in her 2018 study, American Little Magazines of the Fin de Siècle, notes that newspaper circulation in the US grew sevenfold between 1870 and 1900, and the magazine-purchasing public tenfold between 1890 and 1895. The period witnessed the explosion of a literate, middle-class readership, who didn’t just want to read little magazines, they also wanted to be in them.

The small, usually short-lived journals that emerged shared certain properties: they were experimental, design-focused, aesthetically self-conscious, adopting distinctive fonts and idiosyncratic formats. But by the time Le Petit Journal des Refusées was published in 1896, what had begun as innovative and avant-garde was already crystallising into its own set of generic tropes. Consequently, Burgess’s magazine mimics some of the aesthetic tics of his contemporaries: the Art Nouveau inspirations, the trend for African iconography, and the unmistakable influence of a certain Aubrey Beardsley, referred to on page 8 as “the Idol”. The review also pokes fun at the wide-ranging subject matter, a hotchpotch of high pursuits and more trivial matters, as the front cover, emblazoned with the words “Art”, “Literature”, “Dress Reform”, and “Yachting” would suggest.

In the middle of the chapbook is an alphabetical poem written in rhyming couplets that spears, in turns, trendy fonts (“Jenson, the type of the day”), notable publishers (“Thomas B. Mosher” and his “dinkey toy prefaces”), and acclaimed publications (one line takes aim at “the rot of the Yellow Book cult”, The Yellow Book being a leading British literary periodical that counted Beardsley as its art editor). Burgess, editor of the aforementioned iconoclastic magazine, The Lark, doesn’t spare himself either:

L is for Lark, and the fellows who planned it
Say even they cannot but half understand it!

The poem articulates a contemporary anxiety that many editors must have felt, namely that their own literary endeavours would fade into obscurity in an increasingly saturated market of variable quality:

E is for Editor; what does it mean?
Everyone now runs his own magazine. . . .

M is for Magazines recklessly recent;
I know of but one that is anyway decent.

O’s for Oblivion – ultimate fate
Of most of the magazines published of late.

Le Petit Journal des Refusées ends on a final, not-insignificant consideration for this burgeoning industry, that of financial viability. Running a print publication was a costly business, and magazines with aspirations of expansion or longevity were increasingly looking to advertising as a means to supplement copy sales. The larger little magazines at the time had big enough audiences that they had started to attract advertising money; in 1896, the year that Le Petit Journal des Refusées was published, periodicals such as The Chap-Book were carrying adverts for books, typewriters, and dress shirts. Burgess knew a thing or two about the commercial realities of publishing (he would go on to coin the word “blurb” in 1906). His parting comment on the back cover of Le Petit Journal des Refusées concerns precisely this: it is an advert for advertising.

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