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Double Dealing in the Magazines: The Case of the Coucou Hoax

5 August 2022
Siân Round, University of Cambridge

The Double Dealer (1921-26) was a literary magazine founded in 1921 in New Orleans in response to H. L. Mencken’s now famous proclamation that the South was a ‘Sahara of the Bozart’, a Southern pronunciation of ‘Beaux-Arts’.[1] Describing itself as ‘A National Magazine from the South’, the magazine actively emulated transatlantic little magazines like The Little Review and Blast and published many authors who would come to be associated with modernism, including Djuna Barnes, H.D., and Hart Crane. Its design included an art-nouveau style typeface and drawings which resembled those of English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.

Yet, for all its cosmopolitanism, the magazine was in continual conflict with its desire to prove the validity of Southern culture, and with it find a new Southern bard who would speak to the nation (an ambition which, despite publishing some of Faulkner’s earliest work, they never quite achieved). The magazine actively rejected the appeal of modernism in its pages. A 1922 editorial proclaimed: ‘The modern Isms of today become the antiquations of tomorrow. Several decades hence such writers as James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and our Waldo Frank will have been either entirely forgotten or recalled only as eccentric clowns’.[2]

In the following issue, the editors took their mockery even further, by creating their own Ism, Coucou. Their movement was ‘founded’ by a Peruvian Palaeontologist, who discovered it by howling to the moon, and its followers include William Carlos Williams and F. Scott Fitzgerald, alongside many invented authors. ‘Coucou’ is a direct parody of Dadaism and the myths around its founding. Quoting the fictitious Sumett Gawn, they write:

I have been asked repeatedly by a number of my disciples how I came upon the slogan, Coucou, which to my fancy so aptly fits the tenor of our mouvement. […] One fine moony night I was interrupted in the rendering of my usual soliloquy to Selene (she was, I remember, quite full that night) by a soft mocking voice calling from the recesses of the trees flanking my left: ‘Coo-coo! Coocoo!’ I wheeled about suddenly and stood amazed. ‘Coo-cool!’ How sweet, how beautiful, how weird, I thought. Coucou! Why, that is exactly what I have been seeking all these years. Coucou, my coucou! Just then an American lad of about eleven summers skipped out from the trees ahead. “Coo-coo! Coo-coo!’ he lisped. It was an amazing moment. I went home rapt, afire with inspiration. Lifting my diary from its altar beneath a likeness of Nietzsche in his last hours, I penned feverishly on the page as of April the first, ‘Coucou! Eureka! At last! Coucou! My bird! My dove! Coucou.[3]

On the surface, the piece mocks the flowery, and often nonsensical, language of avant-garde European authors, with logical jumps and unnecessary tangents. Coucou is a quasi-religion, with its own disciples, soliloquies to Selene, and an altar at a shrine of Nietzsche. The parody is not one-sided though: the piece also bears the hallmarks of Southern romance, particularly the ‘fine moony night’, and the name Sumett Gawn is likely a pun on a Southern pronunciation of ‘somewhat gone’, meaning crazy, or even ‘something gone’, referencing a longing for the Lost Cause of the antebellum South, the pseudo-historical belief that the Civil War was not fought over slavery but over states’ rights and that the product of the Confederates losing the war was therefore a diminishment of Southern values of honour and chivalry.  This yearning for ‘something gone’ was a common trope in Southern culture at the time, not least in Thomas Dixon’s romanticisation of white supremacy in novels like The Clansman. Coucou is simultaneously a parody of modernism and of Southern culture.

Their mischievousness was far from unique in modernist periodicals, ‘Coucou’ bears similarity to the Spectra Hoax, a parody of Imagism authored by Witter Bynner and Arthur Davison Ficke, which appeared in Others magazine in 1916. While Bynner and Ficke were attempting to mock modem Isms, they participated in little magazine networks to do so. As Suzanne W. Churchill notes ‘little magazines thus served as both a vehicle of dissemination and a target of attack’ for modernist movements. The magazine ‘enabled the hoaxers to play out fantasies of being someone “Other”’, and to imbue themselves in cosmopolitan networks.[4] The Double Dealer, while playing out a fantasy of cosmopolitanism, also fantasises about the romanticised writing of the Lost Cause, the ‘Sumett Gawn’ of Southern identity.

The story of how Coucou got its name maps onto Hugo Ball’s account of settling on the name ‘Dada’: “Tzara keeps on worrying about the periodical. My proposal to call it “Dada” is accepted, […] Dada is “yes, yes” in Rumanian, “rocking horse” and “hobbyhorse” in French, For Germans it is a sign of foolish naiveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carnage.”[5] Dada, like Coucou, is a nonsense word (although ‘Coucou’ is a pun on ‘Cuckoo’ as a synonym for crazy), but Ball supplies it with several meanings across different languages, thereby implicating it within international networks by its name alone. Furthermore, Dada is a childlike term, replicating the earliest noises an infant makes. The eleven-year-old boy running past lisping ‘Coucou’ is meant as a mockery of this supposed return to primitivism, as is the Peruvian setting. The editorial ends:

inwardly I suspect that Dada’s debt to Dodo is not inconsiderable, despite Mr. Tristan Tsara’s protestation that Dada is French for hobbyhorse. Horse, bird, man — little matter. The mouvement is the trick! And with Coucou here and Dada there and the cohorts of Coucou everywhere we may well be reminded that birds of a feather, though it’s true they flock, are not all necessarily caught and caged. Coucou, cock-bird of Selene, what droll victories are yours![6]

With Coucou, the editors create a menagerie with Dada’s horse in a playful attempt to expose the silliness of these literary movements. The comment that not all birds are ‘necessarily caught and caged’ suggests the magazine’s opposition to the avant-garde in all forms. But, by fashioning this falsity, the editors reveal their closeness to, and interest in, such movements. Like in the Spectra Hoax, the editors of the Double Dealer created an alternative identity in which they belonged to the cosmopolitan networks from which their status as a Southern magazine seemed to distance them. The Double Dealer participated in movements it deliberately distanced itself from, enacting a kind of detached cosmopolitanism. Just like the many faces implied within the concept of double dealing, a title borrowed from a William Congreve play centred on duplicity, the Double Dealer adopted different faces to deal itself to the region, the nation, and the world.[7] While the Coucou hoax lasted only two issues, it represented the multifaceted frustrations of belonging embedded within the Southern magazine.

Image credit: The Double Dealer, May 1922 cover, Olive Leonhardt (artist), University of Delaware Library


[1] H. L. Mencken, ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Prejudices: First, Second and Third Series (New York, NY: Library of America, 2010), 229-240.

[2] ‘Editorials’, The Double Dealer, 3.17 (May 1922), 226.

[3] ‘Cuckoo’, The Double Dealer, 3.18 (June 1922), 285.

[4] Suzanne W. Churchill, ‘The Lying Game: Others and the Great Spectra Hoax of 1917’, American Periodicals, 15.1 (2005), 35.

[5] Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time: A Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, ed. John Elderfield, trans. Ann Raimes (Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1996), 63.

[6] ‘Cuckoo’, 286.

[7] William Congreve, The Double Dealer (1693).


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