“New Modernisms,” edited by Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers

Modernism: Evolution of an Idea. Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Pp. vi + 266. $94.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $26.95 (eBook).

Modernism in a Global Context. Peter Kalliney. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Pp. vi + 190. $94.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $26.95 (eBook).

Modernism’s Print Cultures. Faye Hammill and Mark Hussey. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016. Pp. viii + 220. $94.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $26.95 (eBook).

Modernism, Science, and Technology. Mark S. Morrisson. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. viii + 180. $94.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $26.95 (eBook).

Modernism, War, and Violence. Marina MacKay. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Pp. 172. $88.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $26.95 (eBook).

 

There are a number of books yet to be written that modernist studies desperately needs. Many of us no doubt keep mental lists of the titles we hope to write ourselves, as well as longer lists of those we hope others will complete, preferably sooner than later. These hypothetical books exist for various reasons—to fill gaps in the critical record, to reassess or depose a well-established approach, to illuminate one of the remaining dark corners of modernism’s history— but my list is largely populated with books I want to place in my students’ hands even more than my own. A case in point: in spring 2017, I developed a graduate seminar on “Teaching Difficult Literature” as part of my department’s PhD program in English and the Teaching of English, which requires students to take multiple courses with pedagogical emphases. This seminar explored difficulty as a formal problem, and asked students to design assignments, lesson plans, and syllabi that might make avant-garde and experimental literature more accessible to undergraduates without minimizing its complexity. Because I wanted our focus to be on pedagogy rather than the analysis of primary texts but knew that the course needed at least some of the latter in order to ground class discussions, I assigned four short, central works: T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, and Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island.

The first two texts I presented, predictably, as exemplary instances of modernism, well-known for the hurdles they present to beginning and advanced students alike, and extremely likely to appear in undergraduate survey courses as well as upper-level classes in twentieth-century literature. The other two works, meanwhile, served a comparative purpose as relatively recent texts that defy common assumptions of genre, form, and periodization. Since neither author fits tidily into categories like “modernist” or “postmodernist” —and, indeed, both force us to rethink those categories altogether—I assigned Hejinian and McCarthy with the hope of unsettling expectations of aesthetic difficulty and experimentation formed during students’ encounters with Eliot and Woolf, and, in so doing, of initiating a more pointed conversation about the challenges that emerge when we teach literary works chronologically. These texts were to function as counterpoints to their modernist predecessors, posing not firm contrasts but rather opportunities for questioning how we often settle upon our notions of formal difficulty in relation to our received definitions of modernism and its aesthetic imperatives, a process that becomes most obviously fraught when we turn to contemporary texts that refuse to adhere to the same criteria. Our class would explore the issue first as a problem of literary criticism and then as a problem of pedagogy, and devote its second half to testing out approaches for prompting undergraduates to think more carefully about their assumptions regarding contemporary experimental literature, as those ideas arise through conceptions of literary value and form far subtler than students might imagine.

As soon as the semester began, however, I realized that I had premised the course on a faulty  assumption; I had expected that a term like “modernism”—as opposed to, say, “contemporary”—would immediately signify in a particular way to my students. Though nearly everyone enrolled in the course worked in a field other than modernism, I still supposed that they would begin the semester familiar with, if not necessarily committed to, a view of modernism I often hear espoused by students in my undergraduate courses—as an elitist or reactionary formation against mass culture, as a bad faith obscurantism, or as advocating for a masculinist ethos of hardness and formal rigidity responsible for barring multiple authors from the canon. Even as the most obvious lesson of the New Modernist Studies has been that one should maintain a healthy skepticism of any monolithic definition of the period, I had assumed that graduate students would need that lesson presented to them as news, rather than as something they already suspected or even knew outright.

While I had planned the second half of the course as a way of demonstrating how master narratives regarding literary periods can easily crumble when faced with the idiosyncrasies of texts not traditionally included within them—a move that might allow us to turn our attention back to modernism with fresh eyes—I had not anticipated that members of the class would make the same point in our opening weeks. To them, the modernism of Mrs. Dalloway was certainly about stream-of-consciousness narration and the aftermath of the Great War, but it was equally about the mundane, the domestic, and the commercial. Eliot’s modernism was similarly multifaceted, as evidenced by his allusions to mythology and ragtime, which, for my students, were both clear indications of a modernist investment in a poetics that is just as at home in Tin Pan Alley as it is in the Old Testament.

What wasn’t so clear to my students was how this state of affairs had come to be, and why their initial conception of modernism as an antic interplay of styles, forms, and themes was so remarkable given scholars’ continuing struggle, at least in many of the classrooms of which I’ve been a part, to defend modernism against its infamous reputation. These students recognized the stereotypes of modernism as outdated—and, moreover, as stereotypes—but they did not have a sense of how and why the field had evolved to catch up to that impression (or, depending on one’s perspective, to instill that impression in them without their taking note of it). To them, a formerly controversial position seemed relatively uncontroversial, a matter of obvious agreement rather than the product of an unfolding and frequently contentious debate. Faced with this situation, my mind shifted to a related pedagogical problem: how might we teach the history of a field alongside the history of a period? And in what ways does the modernist classroom benefit from a shift from textual objects to fields of study, as a method for alerting students to the processes by which an area like “modernist studies” appears to us in a certain form?

Because they worked in fields as disparate as comics studies, rhetoric and composition, and early American literature, my graduate students needed just as full a history of modernist studies as they did of modernism in order to grasp how my decision to select these particular texts and situate them within the framework of “difficult literature” was informed by specific debates and critical practices within the field. But of course a student specializing in modernism would need the very same thing. I certainly did. As a first-year graduate student I felt reasonably comfortable in my knowledge of the period but deeply cognizant of the fact that I was entering a critical conversation that, as I had learned from Kenneth Burke, had been going on for an imposingly long time. If I was to write an effective seminar paper, or, for that matter, to teach a course in early twentieth-century literature, then I would need to know something of the field’s flashpoints, the ideas that had been embraced, cast off, and refined, in order to frame my discussion of a particular text (and, just as importantly, to avoid embarrassment). These are the sorts of things one learns through years of regular conference attendance, and from the introductory chapters of monographs and the opening pages of journal articles, and at that nascent point in my student career I had little experience with either. Now, over fifteen years later, I could see how the students in “Teaching Difficult Literature” harbored many of the same questions about modernist studies that I did when in their position. The need for an immersive introduction to the field remains just as urgent as ever.

The History of How We Got Here

I begin with this extended anecdote in order to illustrate one of the many needs filled by Bloomsbury’s “New Modernisms” series, edited by Sean Latham and Gayle Rogers, and the one that, to my mind, suggests the most immediate purpose for which the series stands to make an essential contribution to modernist studies. While the field already boasts an impressive array of monograph series—the recently concluded “Modernist Literature and Culture” series at Oxford University Press, “Modernist Latitudes” at Columbia University Press, “Refiguring Modernism” at Penn State University Press, the “Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernist Culture” series at Edinburgh University Press, “Hopkins Studies in Modernism” at Johns Hopkins University Press, and “Historicizing Modernism,” also at Bloomsbury—Latham and Rogers have created an entirely new and indispensible resource by assembling concise introductions not just to topics of widespread interest for modernist scholars, but to the methodologies and critical histories that have animated discussions of those topics since they first appeared.

It is important to note upfront that the series is not an introduction to modernism, of which several good examples already exist, but a set of casebooks meant to guide readers through the permutations of a field that can seem equally abstruse to novices and authorities. As Latham and Rogers acknowledge at the outset of their volume, Modernism: Evolution of an Idea, which opened the series in 2015, “scholars, readers, and students alike find themselves increasingly disoriented by the polymorphous term ‘modernism,’” a descriptor that, “in coming to mean so very much . . . also comes to mean so very little” (3). Their aim, of course, is not to suggest that this multiform descriptor lacks meaning, but to demonstrate that there exists “no right way to define modernism, just as there is finally no right way to carve up the rich multiplicity of human expression,” even as we possess a wealth of possibilities for doing so (207-08). This proud admission serves as the mantra of the series as a whole, lending it a raison d’être based in principles of inquisitiveness, uncertainty, and a willingness to follow forking paths of critical history rather than attempting to shoehorn modernism and its manifestations into a single, consistent narrative. Modernism, in this case, is broadly conceived and therefore fundamentally protean, its convolutions becoming the center of attention rather than an eccentricity to be tidied up. Thus, by presenting modernism as a continually evolving idea, “New Modernisms” delivers a disciplinary history quite unlike anything else on the market, a uniqueness that should pay real dividends for students, the early-career and experienced scholars who teach, supervise, and mentor those students, and even historians of literary criticism curious about how a field like modernist studies has been variously defined over successive generations.

Available titles in the series represent a smartly curated mix of foundational issues: in addition to Latham and Rogers’s inaugural volume, “New Modernisms” includes Peter Kalliney’s Modernism in a Global Context, Faye Hammill and Mark Hussey’s Modernism’s Print Cultures, Mark S. Morrisson’s Modernism, Science, and Technology, and Marina MacKay’s Modernism, War, and Violence. A new spate of titles out this fall includes Robert Spoo’s Modernism and the Law and Modernism, Sex, and Gender  by Celia Marshik and Allison Pease, and the front matter lists other promising volumes to come. (This column will be updated as new volumes emerge.) It would be a disservice, however, to characterize these books by their topics alone, since the most substantial contribution they offer is their indication of where the most robust conversations about method in modernist studies currently reside, and their careful attention to how those conversations have emerged and adapted in response to critical currents past and present. Each of the five volumes reads as a lively, insightful model of how to “do” modernist studies as a truly interdisciplinary and inexorably contradictory endeavor, arranging a set of alternately competing and complementary critical practices around a particular topic rather than insisting upon a stringent, linear history of modernist ideas.

This is likely why no individual volume focuses on a single method in itself; there is, for instance, no contribution on “modernism and historicism,” “modernism and cultural studies,” or “modernism and critical race theory,” as each volume instead thinks through questions of method via a specific (and pressing) topic. The distinction is important to understanding Latham and Rogers’s canny decision, in Modernism: Evolution of an Idea, not to answer the question of whether modernism is “a single tradition or a fluid pattern—or something in between, like a shifting tradition of antitraditionalism or self-proclaimed novelty,” and instead to pursue “the tension inherent within the ever-changing idea of modernism in order to trace the life of a polymorphous term” (11). The other books in the series follow a similar impulse, and use their respective subjects to think through the processes by which various critical approaches to modernism have produced different versions of the period and its instantiations, and therefore have come to define what one can say about it.

To illustrate how “New Modernisms” achieves this aim, we can turn to Mark S. Morrisson’s excellent Modernism, Science, and Technology, which mounts a powerful case for interdisciplinarity as the primary way by which the connections among the three nouns of its title have become legible, and by which modernist studies has been productively transformed by multiple discourses and fields of study. As Morrisson suggests, one can easily plot the history of modernism alongside a corresponding history of scientific development—in the physical sciences and mathematics, life sciences, and social sciences, each of which Morrisson examines in individual chapters—just as one can locate direct and allusive engagements with emergent technologies and scientific phenomena in a variety of modernist works. More vital to contemporary modernist studies, though, is the act of tracing the rhetorics of science as they permeate and are permeated by the very concerns that infuse modernist literature, art, and culture. In this way, Morrisson’s book avoids tracking contemporaneous developments in modernism and the sciences and focuses instead on how those developments occur as broader patterns within an unfolding set of discourses, practices, and productions. For Morrisson, modernism and early twentieth-century science find their energy in “the fact of flux, the unsettling nature of fundamental change itself,” and his chapters survey an impressively expansive yet focused range of responses—scientific, creative, and critical—to that fact (2). This is a difficult but necessary balance for any critic to strike, since those “standard chronologies of progressive discovery” that one might expect to find in a study of science in twentieth-century culture fail to show “the broad circulation and even interrelationship of scientific ideas within the broader cultures of modernism in which they emerged and which they helped shape” (73).

The critical history, in other words, is remarkably untidy, which produces real challenges in any attempt to account for it in a comprehensive fashion. But in an effort to write an introduction to the topic modernism and science, one cannot sacrifice complexity for clarity, or minimize the fact that critics have recognized modernism’s fascination with science through multiple means, each of which has contributed to our larger understanding of both. According to Morrisson, “the nature of claims about the relationship of a scientific concept to modernism has run quite a range: from fairly facile resemblance to provocative and significant resemblance, from simply anachronistic to self-consciously historicized relationships between current and past reading practices and scientific frameworks, from broad ‘zeitgeist’-type claims to careful constructions of networks and processes of dissemination, from simple annotations of allusions to sophisticated engagement with the historiography of science” (73). Crucially, the dichotomies Morrisson posits do not in themselves indicate that historicism is or should be the default lens through which one views modernism and science, even as the tone of the passage might imply otherwise. As Morrisson pointedly argues, “not all scholarship need be as historicist as the new modernist studies has tended to be” (73). What scholarship in this interdisciplinary field must be, however, is attentive to the myriad contexts in which science made its way into the hands of early twentieth-century authors—contexts that Morrisson convincingly shows are far more ubiquitous than some might expect, ranging from general interest magazines and science fiction periodicals to books written by scientists for broader audiences. This is where the concept of “science studies” becomes fruitful, as a descriptor that “tracks the history of disciplines, the dynamics of science as a social institution, and the philosophical basis for scientific knowledge.”[1] As such, it indicates a host of disciplinary formations that mirror and inform modernist studies as a series of sometimes overlapping, sometimes distinctive voices that contributed to a famously chaotic era.

Peter Kalliney’s Modernism in a Global Context is an equally concrete model of what it might mean to “do” modernist studies in the twenty-first century. Engagingly written and keenly aware of the enormity of its topic, Kalliney’s book maintains an enviable blend of scholarly rigor and accessible introduction, making it one of the most ideal teaching tools in a series devoted to that audience. With the caveat that, necessarily, “everything and everywhere are grossly underrepresented” in a volume like his, Kalliney proceeds to move through a provocative range of examples of how one might conceive of modernism as a global phenomenon while remaining attentive to textual specificity (23). Throughout, he is careful not to pit “peripheral” authors against those from widely acknowledged cultural centers, or to adopt an area studies approach that binds texts to a national or regional framework, which could well “entic[e] us with a comfortable sense of cultural specificity at the expense of a more uneasy, a more expansive understanding of what modernism does when it is on the move” (24). Rather, Kalliney tracks the influences of postcolonial studies, theories of cosmopolitanism, cultural institutions like publishers, literary festivals, and prizes, and mass media on the recent disciplinary formations of modernist studies, asking what possibilities have been opened up or foreclosed in current research. He also does an enviable job of demonstrating what these influences have tended to look like in practice; in the chapter on cosmopolitanism, for instance, Kalliney presents short sections on Nancy Cunard, Nella Larsen, Djuna Barnes, and Eileen Chang to demonstrate how their “competing definitions of cosmopolitanism are all partial: partial in the sense that any definition of the term is incomplete, but also partial in the sense that every deployment of the term is driven by a set of motives” (72). Such a claim might appear self-evident to those immersed in these issues, but not, perhaps, to the student approaching cosmopolitanism for the first time, or to readers who would expect a more traditional literary history of the topic. Here is yet another way in which the titles in “New Modernisms” shine: by explicitly showing how shifting critical values motivate specific forms of attention to the cosmopolitanism of Cunard, Larsen, Barnes, and Chang, Kalliney illustrates how criticism always presents its object in the context of field-specific debates, which, as a result, can become even more important to understanding a literary period than the objects themselves.

Whereas Modernism in a Global Context moves through a wide-ranging set of disciplinary and cultural settings in order to show what a truly global modernism might look like, other contributions to the series offer more deliberately comprehensive accounts of how their topics have arrived at places of prominence within the field. This is the approach of Faye Hammill and Mark Hussey’s Modernism’s Print Cultures, which serves as a detailed introduction to the critical work on modernist histories of the book, publishing, circulation, and reception. As the authors note, the material forms of modernist literary production have come to occupy a central position in modernist studies, thanks largely to “the development of ‘book history’ in the 1980s, and its gradual expansion into a broader notion of ‘book studies’ or, more commonly, ‘print culture studies’ over the following decades” (3). Here again, one sees an immediate turn to the disciplinary conditions that brought a volume like this into being, and an explicit acknowledgement that our current understanding of modernist print culture is wholly indebted to the rise of print culture as a legitimate area of scholarly inquiry; without book history, there exists no “modernist book” for modernist studies.

Hammill and Hussey are more encyclopedic in their approach, thinking through the history of their subfield by surveying the critical landscape in its entirety, rather than, as Kalliney does, eliciting insights from a select combination of modernist figures, contexts, and phenomena. Hammill and Hussey move methodically through the history of book history and periodical studies since modernism’s infancy, arguing that “it is possible to trace an almost continuous attention to the issues and questions addressed by the term ‘print culture’ from the late nineteenth century . . . to now” (24). Their task is to demonstrate how the attention paid to modernist print culture in the twenty-first century has illuminated the fact that the debates and insights of our contemporary critical practice are precisely those than animated writers, editors, publishers, and readers more than a hundred years earlier. At this they succeed with real distinction, devoting substantial chapters to the modernist book (and magazine) as a physical object, the circulation of modernist print, and the social life of politically oriented publications. Throughout, they are commanding and lucid, detailing a robust archive while at the same time attending to how critical engagements with that archive continue to rewrite the story of modernist studies. As they observe, “the study of modernism’s print cultures has contributed significantly to the demise of a Modernism enshrined . . . in the anthologies assigned each year to thousands of undergraduates,” yielding a version of modernism that is more democratic, more varied, and more alive to student interpretation in a wider variety of material forms (171).

The most recent in this first group of “New Modernisms” releases, Marina MacKay’s  Modernism, War, and Violence, treads more familiar ground in terms of subject, yet it too provides an introduction to the topic keenly attuned to the critical reception of war and violence as animating concepts in modernist studies. As one would expect of any good primer, MacKay’s book offers a quick yet authoritative survey of modernism’s involvement in various conflicts, from the Great War and the Irish Revolution to the Spanish Civil War and World War II. What makes the work distinctive, however, and ultimately such a fitting contribution to a series like “New Modernisms,” is MacKay’s further objective of “[r]ecounting the intertwined and competing stories that have been told about literary experiment and political upheaval across the early twentieth century,” and thus venturing plausible answers to the question of “why so many critics have indeed found that, as [Wyndham] Lewis suggested [in Blasting and Bombardiering], modernism and war ‘dovetail into each other’” (2). Like other volumes in the series, Modernism, War, and Violence is finally about the narratives critics have constructed to explain this area of study, which in turn suggest an even more significant point—namely, that “To talk about modernism, war, and violence is to reflect the widening scope of how modernist studies has come to talk about cultural conflict” (5). In this way, some of the most prominent strands of thought that apply to virtually all areas of modernist studies (and here MacKay singles out “questions about authorship and institutional status . . . and about the relationship between formalism and historicism, and about lass, gender, sexuality, race, empire, and region” [5]) inform and enrich more focused conversations about violence during the modernist period. Throughout, the objective is to trace these conversations rather than the topics they describe, to see how critics have made meaning out of calamity, catastrophe, and destruction as they negotiate artists’ responses to a world in perpetual distress.

Teaching Fields over Objects

After reading all five of the “New Modernisms” volumes, I came away convinced of a number of things. Most notably, in an increasingly crowded market for introductory monographs and edited collections, Latham and Rogers’s series is unique in how it serves its most apparent audiences. Whereas several other books have supplied worthwhile introductions to modernism, none has introduced modernist studies, as a field, with quite the same agenda. This is why I can imagine assigning each of the relevant volumes in an upper-level undergraduate course, or suggesting that doctoral students in modernism add at least a few of them to their comprehensive exam lists. Furthermore, I would also recommend them to anyone interested in teaching modernism, from graduate student TAs to literature faculty in other areas called upon to teach modernism as part of a broader survey or introduction-to-the-major course.

In fact, the “New Modernisms” series is for anyone interested in looking beyond the modernist text and toward the field that has produced so many conflicting critical responses to it. Its volumes are all eminently useful examples of how to orient oneself within an evolving area of study whose contradictions and expansions have produced just as many questions as answers. In their assessment of the New Modernist Studies, Latham and Rogers admit that the flurry of critical activity that has played out over the past two decades has led to a curious impasse: “As a result of these interrogations and revisions, ‘modernism’ has now become an almost unintelligible concept unless it is modified by prefixes or qualifiers” (151). This would explain my students’ view that modernism, in its capaciousness, can be suitably applied to so much twentieth-century cultural production, and their corresponding sense that explaining that fact to undergraduates might well lead to a semester’s worth of frustrations. At the same time, though, uncertainty breeds opportunity. As Latham and Rogers explain, in a statement that will undoubtedly resonate with contemporary modernist scholars, “a surprising paradox now exists: modernist studies has been strengthened by the lack of resolution over what exactly modernism is. A perpetual ‘definitional crisis’ has been a boon” (151).

But has it been a boon to our students? In many respects, the answer to that question has been an absolute affirmative. Syllabi now feature a more inclusive range of authors and texts, enlivening courses in modernism as well as those that are modernism-adjacent. Moreover, students are just as likely to encounter modernism in digital scans of periodicals, film and audio clips, fashion plates, and advertisements as they are in the Norton Anthology, which in turn fosters a sense of modernism as twisting through all the arts, including several that students may not readily identify as arts. Yet even with these obvious pluses, a field defined by its indeterminacy can’t help but pose problems to student audiences. My own undergraduates seem increasingly irritated by modernism’s mutability, wanting a firmer answer to the question of what does or doesn’t count as modernist, while my graduate students often grow weary of the question itself, knowing full well that the range of plausible responses far exceeds the amount of time we have in a given seminar meeting (or, for that matter, in a semester). The field is livelier, no doubt, but how do we communicate the fact that liveliness is historically contingent, and that the canon we recognize as modernist is not only a relatively new development, but also determined by a set of critical practices that we, collectively, make possible?

One way to do this, I think, is to adopt Latham and Rogers’s approach in “New Modernisms” and teach the history of modernist studies with the same care and attention we devote to modernism. In practice, this might mean emphasizing for our students the agency embedded in a statement like Kalliney’s, at the conclusion of Modernism in a Global Context, in which he contends that “How we understand the function of modernism in a global context depends, to a large degree, on how we see the debates about the relationship between politics and aesthetics” (163). Such a claim implies, first, that we can develop a sharper sense of modernism and its manifestations by becoming more familiar with the critical debates that have sought to explain them, and second, that modernism only takes shape through the efforts of a plurality, a “we” that includes students just as much as it does their teachers. If we, as educators, make this kind of lesson a fundamental feature of our courses, we might do much to dispel the notion that criticism is something that happens elsewhere, and that a class discussion about a literary work is somehow divorced from broader cultural currents. In their recent article on T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature course at the University of London’s extension school, Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan situate Eliot’s essays in The Sacred Wood (1920) alongside his classroom materials, arguing that both “maintain a varied world in which thousands of small exchanges between writers and readers and among editors and teachers and students climb inside poems and plays; only later do these social exchanges come to seem to emanate from literary works themselves.”[2] Though they focus primarily on critical rather than pedagogical trends, the authors of “New Modernisms” seem motivated by a similar impetus to track the “thousands of small exchanges” that have brought us to our current moment in modernist studies, and to map the routes we might follow, in books and classrooms yet to be imagined, in order to move forward. The motivation is commendable, and one to keep in mind as the new semester beckons.


 

Notes

[1] David J. Hess, Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 1. Quoted in Morrisson, 21–22.

[2] Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “The Classroom in the Canon: T. S. Eliot’s Modern English Literature Extension Course for Working People and The Sacred Wood,” PMLA 133, no. 2 (2018): 264–81, 279.

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