A Journal Called Mandrake (1945-1956)
Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta



A Journal Called Mandrake (1945-1956)

In spring of 1945, the War’s last gasp, a modest literary journal called Mandrake made its debut, with John Wain as editor. Wain, still an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Oxford, later gave over the editorship to Arthur Boyars of Wadham and Audrey M. Arnold. Intended as a quarterly but produced when funds and publishable content allowed, this little journal continued for 11 issues, folding in 1956 when it was no longer possible to continue. Highlights of its brief run include the first appearance in print of critic Frank Kermode, best known for The Sense of an Ending, and the first UK publication for James Merrill; an extensively researched Italian arts number, and contributions from the likes of Paul Éluard, C.S. Lewis, Luigi Pirandello among them. As for its distribution, even a cursory library catalog search reveals that Mandrake resides in the stacks of the major American universities, most of which house the periodical in special collections.
In his first editorial, John Wain lays out, with youthful optimism, Mandrake’s context, content, and aspirations. Printed in “the sixth year of destruction,” the anthology has “the freshness of variety” as an asset and mainly features the work of undergraduates or recent graduates. In his brief comments, Wain paves the way for a set of as- yet unknown writers, who were engaged in “working, thinking, living, recording” but whose reputations had yet to be made. In some ways, Mandrake volume 1, number 1 is little more than an Oxford in-group poetry “zine.” By the end of its run, however, Mandrake will have included recognizable names, substantive criticism, and poetry in translation.
Although he eventually became co-editor—and ultimately the force that kept the journal afloat for so long—Arthur Boyars was not involved with Mandrake’s debut. Mr. Boyars arrived at Oxford in 1945 with a published volume of poetry already to his credit. Fortune Press had published his Poems earlier in the year—and on good paper, too, Mr. Boyars is fond of pointing out. For a young man of 19 to have been picked up by a press of Fortune’s caliber was a great accomplishment. The evening of Arthur’s going up to Oxford, he met future poet and critic John Wain at the Socratic Society. Wain recognized Boyars’ name, exclaiming, “You’re one of the Fortune Poets!” and eventually asked him to join Mandrake. Two of Arthur Boyars’ poems,“The Years” and “Pièce,” round out the second issue, which appeared in February 1946. Mandrake ‘s second installment also begins to realize Wain’s hopes for critical features: it includes an appreciation of R.L. Stevenson by Roger Lancelyn Green, fantasy writer and member of the Inklings (the C.S. Lewis/Charles Williams/J.R.R. Tolkien group). Also accompanying the many poems was a piece by Gordon Millington on John Ford (the Jacobean dramatist, not the Irish-American film director). By the third issue, the roster and contents alike gather momentum; this table of contents is studded with more recognizable names: for one, Philip Larkin (another of the “Fortune poets” published by Reginald Caton). Another featured author, Kenneth Tynan, then a student at Magdalen, would later become the Observer’s renowned theatre critic.
From the beginning, the editors’ Oxford network and affiliations helped them bring marquis names to the Table of Contents: J.B. Leishman, who contributed to issue number 2, was the “top don” at St. John’s in Mr. Boyars’ estimation. C.S. Lewis may be best known as the creator of Narnia, but he was also an Oxford don. For Boyars and Wain, access to established men of letters was not especially difficult. And speaking of institutions, one must also look at Mandrake in relation to another long-running production: Oxford Poetry, the undergraduate literary annual. A glance at its roster of editors might give the impression that helming the magazine was the Golden Ticket to writerly fame: Sayers, Sassoon, Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Graves, Day Lewis—all edited the magazine in their times. In 1948, the editors were Arthur Boyars and Barry Harmer. The following year, Kingsley Amis shared the editor’s chair with James Michie. Comparing the tables of contents of Oxford Poetry and Mandrake during the 1940s and ‘50s reveals more than a few crossovers.
Meanwhile, the 1950s saw the rise of The Movement, a loosely affiliated group of poets rejecting modernist experimentation in favor of more traditional form. At the heart of the group were Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and John Wain, all of whom contributed to Mandrake. Poets of the 1950s, one of two Movement anthologies, was edited by D. J. Enright and published in Japan by Kenkyusha Press in 1955, while Mandrake was still in production. Although Arthur Boyars was not himself associated with The Movement, Mandrake undeniably gave the young poets an early place to showcase their work, though their aims were not necessarily shared by the magazine.
A key aspect when considering Mandrake is its self-identification, as detectable in the editorials. The longest of these, written by Arthur Boyars for the October 1947 issue, begins, “Writing magazine editorials in a country without paper is no easy task” (returning to the material conditions of printing that he often cites). He goes on to critique a recent study called The Little Magazine: A History and a Bibliography, published by Princeton University Press in 1946 (with a second edition issued in 1947). This extensively researched book includes chapters about particular periodicals and an exhaustive bibliography of little magazines in English established since 1891 (although Mandrake managed to fly under the editors’ radar). Boyars’ editorial pushes back against “the sickroom atmosphere of the book which I find hard to shake off”—that is, the dire prediction that every little magazine is doomed to a short life, no matter how innovative or full of quality. For Boyars, the effort and hard-won continuance of Mandrake is posited as a heroic struggle; indeed it is the only choice in a climate with “very little hope that the situation will ever change. . . . In the best literary monthlies very little is heard of the young writer, and his work is often subjected to critical standards which betray a state of mind unsympathetic to the problems of his generation. He therefore has no alternative but to set up a Little Magazine of his own” (1.5:1947, p.5). Issued in the middle of Mandrake’s run (issue 5 of the eventual 11), this statement reveals an attentiveness to the little magazine climate and to Mandrake ’s place in it.
Surely it would have been quite easy, given the richness and stellar talent already cited, for Mandrake to have remained focused only on poets in the greater Oxford orbit. It might have become limited and hidebound, but it didn’t. Many contributions to Mandrake originated far from Oxbridge. One example is the piece in no. 3, ‘Prima Notte’ or “First Night,” a short story by the late (d.1936) Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello, translated by David Moore (who also assisted with the Italian number). When I noticed work by Paul Éluard in issue 9 (1953) and asked about it, Mr. Boyars related a story of hearing a concert by Francis Poulenc, whom he knew had written musical settings of Éluard’s poetry. He asked the composer to put him in touch with the poet, and thus did Mr. Boyars get a bona-fide Surrealist in Mandrake ’s pages.
The journal’s wider vision finds its most coherent expression, perhaps, in the Italian number. In conversation, Mr. Boyars registers a particular pride at having completed so extensive a project. The double-length Italian issue of 1950-1951 was an achievement, the result of several months’ sojourn in a country that had until relatively recently been at war with England. “I went to Italy with 350 letters of introduction,” recalled Mr. Boyars, “and returned with the contents of the Italian issue.” The editorial to this double issue continues some familiar themes, leading off with yet another scrappy declaration of purpose: “That Mandrake intends to continue, should, by now, be evident to all,” he writes (1). He cites the death of Horizon, Polemic, and other similar publications, implicitly celebrating the fact that his journal has so far survived—even as he laments the lack of good writing in his home country. “As we do not seriously believe that in England 140,000 original and stimulating words are being put on paper in the course of a year, we must be content, and more than content, to welcome their arrival from every possible source,” he writes. Hence, this labor of love that brought a number of writers to English readers for the first time.
After the Italian issue had garnered a new level of respect for the magazine, in the early 1950s, Mandrake was poised for greatness. But it was not to be, and thereby hangs a tale (which is, delightfully, often the case with Arthur Boyars). When Cyril Connolly’s Horizon folded in 1949 after financial failure, there was talk of Mandrake rushing in to fill the vacuum. One of the publishers of Horizon, a Mr. MacDougall, approached Boyars with the suggestion, “Mandrake will be the new Horizon.” Unfortunately, Mr. Boyars said, “A firm called Bowater saw their moment to double the price of paper. Bowater killed Mandrake.” (Paper again!) Although Mr. Boyars continued to produce issues until 1956 (with issue 12 all outlaid but never published), Mandrake proved unsustainable. “Everything depended on my earnings. I was financing it and I had no finances!” he said. The sad demise of Mandrake gestures toward the very real material difficulties of producing a little magazine. Despite Mr. Boyars’ brave protestations in the editorial of 1947 (after which no Mandrake appeared until 1949), the magazine succumbed to the fate all but prescribed by Hoffman, Allen, and Ulrich. And yet, in its brief life (a life nonetheless longer than many little magazines, including Ezra Pound’s much-touted BLAST), Mandrake just may have accomplished what Mr. Boyars articulated in that midway editorial to the Italian issue, “to print or reprint the best prose, poetry, and criticism written in English, and in every other language, European and Asiatic, and we are prepared to translate the texts ourselves, if necessary” (2.7:1950-51, p. 2).


About Jennnie-Rebecca Falcetta

Jennie-Rebecca Falcetta is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, where she teaches courses in Modernism, Word and Image, and the Great War.  Scholarly interests in 20th century literature, Word and Image, and Modernist print culture have led to publications on art history and Evelyn Waugh; Virginia Woolf's book covers; and Marianne Moore's correspondence with artist Joseph Cornell.   While Mandrake was introduced to her thanks to a serendipitous meeting with Arthur Boyars, study of the magazine brings together her interests in poetry, small publishing ventures, and literary networks.

Slide-Out Panel 2

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ne sea vocent scripta abhorreant, facilisi explicari mel ne, ut quo vide ridens. Mei ex quodsi inciderint, quo ad quas deleniti definitionem, vis no wisi graecis offendit. Ius ut everti detraxit expetenda, meis civibus consectetuer ea usu. Ad qui option facilisis consequuntur, pro omnis aliquip vulputate te. Solum affert expetenda eos te, et vim sale iudico impetus, in appetere postulant ius. Alia nihil utroque ex sit.

Slide-Out Panel 3

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ne sea vocent scripta abhorreant, facilisi explicari mel ne, ut quo vide ridens. Mei ex quodsi inciderint, quo ad quas deleniti definitionem, vis no wisi graecis offendit. Ius ut everti detraxit expetenda, meis civibus consectetuer ea usu. Ad qui option facilisis consequuntur, pro omnis aliquip vulputate te. Solum affert expetenda eos te, et vim sale iudico impetus, in appetere postulant ius. Alia nihil utroque ex sit.