The Trudge and the Song

A Tik-Toker I like posts short videos of himself walking and talking. They’re silly and soothing in that strange way of the form. He lives in Minnesota, and recently he posted to say that he does not play any winter sports, but that what he likes to do in winter is just to trudge. That word arrested me. Trudge. That’s what this long, deep winter has been: a trudge. So here we are, welcoming the November issue into the world in February. It’s a terrific issue, but it has been a trudge. I can feel the beginnings of hope creeping in, but, for now, we are still in the trudge. For most of us, this marks over seven hundred days in to a pandemic that has waxed and waned, revealed social fissures, and cost nearly six million lives worldwide so far. It’s a lot, and it takes its toll.

The artists whose work is our focus in Modernism/modernity have a lot to teach us about trudging along when life takes a toll. Lately, I have been re-reading and thinking about D. H. Lawrence’s 1919 lyric essay, “Whistling of Birds.” The essay is steeped in both patient attention to the natural world and an attempt to grasp dual human catastrophes of that moment: World War I and the influenza pandemic. The human losses are unmentioned; they run through the essay, an undercurrent of shock and wonder at what he had been through, what he had survived, and the unfathomability of the world’s losses. He describes hearing birdsong after a frost that has killed many birds:

It was startling and almost frightening after the heavy silence of frost. How could they sing at once, when the ground was thickly strewn with the torn carcasses of birds? Yet out of the evening came the uncertain, silvery sounds that made one’s soul start alert, almost with fear.

Where does it come from, the song? After so long a cruelty, how can they make it up so quickly?[1]

Several times, in this short essay, Lawrence shifts from a contemplation of death to a return to life, and each time he seems to be looking, with amazement, at “the utter incompatibility of death with life” (5). This is no Clarissa Dalloway moment, noticing the interruption of death at the party. This is a different observation: of how hard it is for us, being alive, to fathom the finality of death or to remain in the thrall of grief. However sad we may be, life keeps bursting through. The birds, unable to do otherwise, know this: they sing, even amidst the wreckage. The challenge we face, as humans, is to follow suit: “We are lifted to be cast away into the new beginning” (6).  

A new print issue is here, and with it, a new beginning. It’s the first issue edited by my wonderful co-editing team, Stephen Ross of Concordia University and Alys Moody of Bard College. You will see their care from cover to cover. And this issue is as full as ever of scholars to learn from, books to read, and ideas to wrestle. Or, if wrestling is not your sport, perhaps you might follow our gorgeous cover image straight to Austin Hancock’s “Queering Modernism’s Masculine Arena: In the Boxing Ring with Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.” His is one of two essays touching on sport—an unusual subtopic for us—so you might read on to learn about art competitions at the Olympics in Miles Osgood’s article.

This issue brings a visual feast as well. Emily Hyde asks us to consider the modernist aesthetics of Eliot Elisofon’s photographs of African art—and this will soon be available on the Print Plus platform as well—while Iva Glisic introduces us to the photobooks of Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova. You will find us continuing a line of exciting essays on Harlem Renaissance poetry and the Hebrew avant garde. A double review on “Embodied Modernism,” by Maren Linett kicks off a typically rich selection of book reviews, too.

Here on the site, we continue to (mostly) make good on our aim to give you new content every week. I hope that you have this site bookmarked and that you follow @MModernity (or me, @Fernham) on Twitter: we always share when a new piece is out. Since I last wrote to you, we have shared three additional full-length, peer-reviewed articles here: Georgiana Banita’s essay on Maus, Sam Waterman on Howards End, and Michael Abraham-Fiallos on Elizabeth Bishop. When Debra Rae Cohen spearheaded the creation of this platform, she hoped that it could become a peer-reviewed open access destination for scholarship on modernism. The articles that we publish here are but one part of bringing that vision to fruition. We have also published blog posts, a review of a reprint Julia Strachey’s 1949 novel, Olivia, and more.

All of this is more than enough to reason to sing.

–Anne E. Fernald


[1] D. H. Lawrence, “Whistling of Birds,” in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Edward D. McDonald (New York: Viking, 1936), 3, 4.