transition, no. 15, featuring 'A Point for American Criticism' by William Carlos Williams


This is issue 15 of transition, one of the most influential avant garde magazines published in Paris in the 1920s. The lower-case ‘t’ of the magazine’s title is intentional, and provoked outrage when first published. Eugène Jolas later admitted that they decided on this innovation primarily to antagonise the critics.[1]

Promoting artistic experimentation and ‘the metamorphosis of reality’,[2] transition was founded by three Americans – Eugène Jolas, Maria Jolas and Elliott Paul – who had moved to Paris, the creative, bohemian capital of Europe. In the early 20th century, dozens of ‘exile’ artists and writers, like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, came from America, Britain and across Europe in pursuit of artistic freedom and a more liberated society. transition strove to embody this international spirit of modernism. It was, in Eugène Jolas’s words, ‘the vision of a linguistic and creative bridge between the countries of the Western world’.[3] It was unapologetic in its principles, fighting against mediocre art and calling for artistic revolution and intellectual anarchy.

In 1927, after being introduced to Joyce through their mutual friend, Sylvia Beach, transition famously serialised Work in Progress, later known as Finnegans Wake. The magazine became a platform for defending and promoting Joyce’s notoriously difficult last work.

What is ‘A Point for American Criticism’ about?

‘A Point for American Criticism’ is both a defence of James Joyce and a critique of British literary criticism. It was written by American poet William Carlos Williams in response to an article on Joyce by British novelist Rebecca West, from which Williams quotes. Applauding Joyce’s linguistic innovation, Williams frames Joyce as ‘the leap of a new force’: ‘It is to break the limitations, not to conform to the taste that his spirit runs’. Critics, who ‘want to stay safe’, are fearful of critiquing his work with honesty. Williams writes, ‘Rebecca West cannot take Joyce, as a whole, into the body of English literature for fear of the destructive force of such an act’.

‘Joyce maims words’, Williams admits, but he does so because their meaning has been ‘dulled, then lost’ as time and circumstance change. This destructive act is, therefore, also positive. ‘He is looking ahead to find if there be a way … to save the static, worn out language’. In conclusion, Williams suggests that America has an opportunity to develop a new mode of criticism.

Man Ray’s cover art

The cover for issue 15 of transition features a ‘rayograph’ (or photogram) by Man Ray, the Paris-based American artist. Made without a camera, Man Ray developed these experimental images by placing objects onto a sheet of photosensitized paper and exposing it to light. Each image was unique, depending on the artist’s use of light. Man Ray created ambiguous, abstract compositions out of everyday objects such as coils of wire, scissors and combs, defying traditional notions of representation and reality.

[1] Eugene Jolas, ‘Transition: An Occidental Workshop, 1927–1938’ (1949), in Eugene Jolas: Critical Writings, 1924–1951, ed. by Klaus H Kiefer and Rainer Rumold (Northwestern University Press, 2009), p. 122.

[2] Ibid., p. 123.

[3] Ibid., p. 121.

Full title:
Feburary 1929, Paris
Periodical / Photograph / Image
William Carlos Williams, Eugène Jolas
Usage terms

Cover design by Man Ray: © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

'Super-Occident' by Eugene Jolas: © Betsy Jolas, sole copyright holder for the works of her father Eugene Jolas. Published under a Creative Commons Non-Commercial Licence.

'A Point for American Criticism' by William Carlos Williams: © Reprinted by permission of Pollinger Limited on behalf of the Estate of William Carlos Williams. Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

Related articles

Writers in Paris

Article by:
Stephen Cleary
Art, music and popular culture, European influence, Capturing and creating the modern

In the years after the First World War, a number of American writers took up residence in Paris. Steve Cleary assesses some of the work that came out of their time abroad.

Among friends: little magazines, friendship and networks

Article by:
Richard Price
Art, music and popular culture

Looking at examples such as The Germ and Blast, Richard Price examines the defining characteristics of little magazines and their legacy within literature, art, and culture.

Related collection items

Related works


Created by: James Joyce

Ulysses, a novel by the Irish writer James Joyce, is a key text of literary modernism. Divided into 18 chapters, it ...