Deep-Rooted Cane

This editor’s note brings with it the belated January 2023 issue to your mailbox, library shelves, and databases. With it, I write my last note to you as co-editor of this journal. The January 2023 issue is an exciting one. Our gorgeous cover offers a hint of the pleasures of Jack Quin’s article inside. Beyond Quin’s piece on Edward McKnight Kaufer’s work illustrating T. S. Eliot—the second recent cover on modernist illustration—this volume is full of poetry. In addition to Eliot, we have Sylvia Townsend Warner’s love poems of the Spanish Civil War, a deep exploration of the philosophical Wallace Stevens, and an account of Eugene Jolas’s amazing multilingual poetry anthology. The teaser article up here open access as well as in your print issue is Devon Zimmerman’s fascinating exploration of a decade in the career of Venezuelan sculptor Elsa Gramcko. Rounding out the issue are important theoretical interventions on Adorno and automatic writing, food studies and race, anthropology and queer desire, and finally a stunning piece from Maren Linett looking at eugenics and transhumanism. Once again: a truly inspiring collection of the best in our field. If you’re concerned about the delays in the print publication, believe me, the challenges behind the scenes during the COVID-19 pandemic have been intense. If you see me in the halls at a conference, collar me and ask me what it was really like to edit a journal during lockdown and the long, grinding aftermath.

As for what we have published exclusively online, it’s been another dynamic cycle on the Print+ platform. I continue to love reading your accounts of reprints of modernist works and this cycle has brought us discussions of a new collection of leftist writer Tess Slesinger’s stories as well as of D. H. Lawrence’s essays. In addition, we have some great blog posts—including a podcast interview with two wonderful authors about their first books from Tavi Gonzalez, a meditation on the lamentable Dobbs decision and being a public intellectual, and a reconsideration of Virginia Woolf’s Freshwater in light of #MeToo. We also published two wonderful articles, exclusive to Print+: Carl Gelderloos’s discussion of Paul Scheerbart and Laura Lomas’s analysis of Julia de Burgos’s poetry in the context of Roosevelt Island and F.D.R.’s speech on the Four Freedoms, freedoms denied to de Burgos herself. Finally, a fitting scholarly response to the ongoing challenges of race in modernism and the whiteness problem in our field overall, we have a cluster on Whiteness edited by Sonita Sarker and Jennifer Nesbitt. There is, as you can hear, a lot to sink your teeth into.

With my term as coeditor and my time editing the Print+ platform ending, my mood has naturally been reflective. I took on the job of editing the journal in large measure because, as much as I esteemed Modernism/modernity, I did not see it as a journal that would be friendly to my work. Could it be possible, I wondered, to use the position as editor to make the journal less racist, less anti-feminist, and more friendly to the kind of work that interests me most while retaining its stature as the top journal in the field?

That work was already well underway when I came aboard four years ago. The editorial advisory board is significantly more diverse, in every sense of that term, than it once was, a change that came into effect just as I arrived. When George Floyd was murdered, as our contribution to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Chris Bush and I opted against a mere statement of solidarity and worked instead with Johns Hopkins University Press to make a selection of backlisted articles by Black scholars and about African American literature available free and open access on this website. Excellent as these pieces are, we were dismayed at how few articles we had to choose from. Chris brought Kevin Bell on board to edit the Black Spring blog, and I added Janine Utell’s Orientations blog, too. And slowly, but undoubtedly, we see in the articles we are getting submitted, shepherding through the peer review process, and publishing, that there is a change: the journal is becoming more open to feminist work, work in gender studies, and work on race.

Single mark on a page
Fig. 1. Jean Toomer, Cane, 1923. Section 1 illustration.

With all of this on my mind, when my friend Rafael Walker asked me if the simple, scythe-like arc embellishments that accompany every article in every issue of the journal were a nod to Jean Toomer’s Cane, I said, “Yes! I think they are.”

Single mark on page above title of journal article Utopian Spontaneity by Justin Kaushall
Fig. 2. Modernism/modernity, 30.1. Embellishment on title page of article.

And then I realized that a hope, even a hope that had also always been my assumption, was not the same as knowledge. I went back to volume one, number one of the journal. The embellishments are there, but no mention of Toomer—and this even though the first issue is a special issue on Modernism and Race. It features a black-and-white photograph on the cover of two tin toys, one in blackface. It is an arresting cover, and it is a fascinating, complex image, one worthy of interrogation; it is also racist.

It’s not an image I would ever select as the cover of a journal, however graphically interesting. Moreover, no Black scholars and no women are featured in that first issue at all, and the projected special issues on F.T. Marinetti and the Futurists, Wyndham Lewis, and Igor Stravinsky seemed unlikely to rectify the initial omission. Of the eight book reviews, one is by a woman, and one is of a book written by a woman. None of these books are centrally about either women or Black people. The journal’s first managing editor recollected only the need for something cheap, graphically interesting, and appropriate, not a connection to Cane. Robert Von Hallberg, the surviving founding co-editor, did not remember any discussion of Cane either. When William Breichner of JHUP checked the archives, he found a note from 1993 (prior to his arrival at the Press) stating that, after rejecting a design from the Yale office, Hopkins hired a freelance designer whose brief was to contain “Cubism and Bauhaus genres.” So maybe it is not Toomer after all, but Sonia Delaunay? Whether the founding editors were borrowing from a woman or a Black man, they made no note of it in that first issue. In short, while there is no doubt in my mind that the original editors, Robert Von Hallberg and Lawrence Rainey, were familiar with Cane, the theft of the embellishment was silent.

It's not a happy legacy.

But we are still learning. We can change and grow. If, in 1994, the embellishment was imagined simply as an arc, in 2023, in honor of a recommitment to an antiracist version of modernist studies and the centenary of Toomer’s masterpiece, we can declare a retroactive significance for the embellishment. Going forward, it is definitively and proudly an homage to Cane. Let us make it so.

Despite these oversights, I continue to share the hopes expressed in that first editorial note:

that every issue of Modernism/Modernity will convey some sense of the grand ambition and scope of artists and intellectuals of the first half of this century. This is to say that this journal will look widely at the art and thought of this period, but also that we want to examine the sense of contestation that was essential to it: between old and new orders, of course, but also among various divisions of the intellectual endeavor. We hope for a journal that not only records and explains some of the crossings between architecture and political thought, say, or between music and economics; we want the essays and reviews we publish to attempt similar crossings.[1]

Not only do I share those hopes, I do so in full confidence that the issue you have before you makes them manifest. It has been one of the great honors of my career to edit this journal and I leave this chapter behind, passing it on to the worthy hands of my wonderful collaborators over the past few years, Stephen Ross of Concordia University and Alys Moody of Bard College. Succeeding me is the excellent, brilliant Anjali Nerlekar of Rutgers University. In short, while it’s farewell for me, you are in for challenging, brilliant reading in Modernism/modernity for years to come.

—Anne E. Fernald


[1] Rainey, Lawrence and Robert Von Hallberg, “Editor’s Note,” Modernism/modernity 1.1 (January 1994) 1-3; 1-2.