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Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics by Peter Kalliney

Cover of Commonwealth of Letters
Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics. Peter Kalliney. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 336 pp. $73.00 (cloth), $33.95 (paper).

If “expansion” has been the watchword of the past two decades of modernist studies, as Rebecca Walkowitz and Douglas Mao have it, we could be excused for identifying Peter Kalliney’s Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (2013) as a signal instance of this trend.[1] The operating principle of Kalliney’s monograph is one of extension: of the geographic edges of modernist cultural production; of the chronological boundaries of the movement; of the range of cultural forms that might be brought under scholarly scrutiny; and of the forms of attention that might be applied to systems of literary influence, promotion, distribution, and debate. Post-Bourdieusian, institutionally-focused, closely-read, globally-minded, belatedly-modernist: the approach signaled by Commonwealth of Letters appears at once invigorating and emblematic of recent shifts in the field. Not yet seven years old, this volume already seems ripe for a forum on “Re/discoveries” not only because it captures the energies of its expansive scholarly moment, but because it has already had a considerable impact on multiple branches of the literary-critical tree. Count my own sub-field of radio studies among those branches that felt the shake: Kalliney’s 2007 article in PMLA, “Metropolitan Modernism and its West Indian Interlocutors: 1950s London and the Emergence of Postcolonial Literature” (which laid out some of the key arguments of Commonwealth of Letters and forms the core of its fourth chapter) has quickly become a touchstone for scholars working at the intersections of media and global anglophone literature, as evidenced by a surge of recent work in the field by Julie Cyzewski, Daniel Ryan Morse, James Procter, Leonie Thomas, myself, and many others.

While “post–Bourdieusian,” above, is a bit tongue-in-cheek, it makes an efficient shorthand for Kalliney’s combined sociological and formalist approach to literary interactions around the anglophone Atlantic world between roughly 1930 and 1970. Kalliney adapts Pierre Bourdieu’s socioeconomically inflected analysis of the field of literary production from its French context, and applies it to the fields of influence and interaction between writers in mid-century Britain and those hailing from the territories of its now-former Empire. It’s an adaptation with some significant adjustments, however. Rather than grasping after forms of cultural capital for their own sakes, or as analogues of and means to economic capital, the writers Kalliney studies engaged in cross-cultural collaborations and competition for a variety of aesthetic, personal, and political ends. Emerging writers from the decolonizing world—including Amos Tutuola, Sam Selvon, Kamau Brathwaite, C. L. R. James, Claude McKay, Jean Rhys, Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo, and others—saw in the established leaders and organizations at the forefront of modernist literary culture a means of asserting the value of their own, often experimental, works. For metropolitan writers and institutions—T. S. Eliot, Louis MacNeice, the BBC, and Faber and Faber among them—engaging with late colonial authors presented a means of perpetuating modernist techniques and values in the face of the movement’s waning influence in Britain. The result, Kalliney argues, was a complex network of reciprocal influence and mutual benefit that, while perhaps asymmetrical, was not entirely one-sided. Indeed, in Kalliney’s account, entire infrastructures of cultural production—publishing houses, academic organizations, broadcast networks—became implicated in political and cultural projects that often ran counter to their original design, as “late colonial intellectuals partial to modernist aesthetics but also resentful of metropolitan political dominance” directed those infrastructures towards anti-imperial ends (5).

At the heart of Kalliney’s argument is the notion of aesthetic autonomy, an idea whose lineage he traces with reference to critics from familiar narratives of modernism (including Matthew Arnold, Eliot, and F. R. Leavis) along with those more often tied to other literary-historical arcs (James, W. E. B. DuBois). In bringing metropolitan figures into dialogue with writers from marginalized communities, Kalliney reveals how the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy offered late-colonial and early-postcolonial writers a vision of art freed from the hard bind of race and racial politics (however illusory that vision might be); it allowed them to claim a space for themselves in the literary-critical firmament, a space that did not judge their works purely in terms of the authors’ skin color or country of origin, but rather in terms of their artistic merit. Leavisite close reading, for example, offered Brathwaite and others a model of criticism from the margins of mass culture that validated their outsider status while also stressing the importance of language to national identity. Autonomy also helped to carve out space for colonial writers within the publishing houses of London: Tutuola’s stunning debut with The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952) was made possible by, and further fueled, Faber and Faber’s investment in a modernist ethos that treated authorial idiosyncrasy as a barometer of intellectual independence. Even decolonization couldn’t sever the burgeoning connections between the metropolis and its former colonies: the African Writers Series established by Heinemann Educational Books in the 1960s brought profits to a metropolitan press even as it offered African writers not only an income, but intellectual independence (via the institutional imprimatur of a respectable publisher) at a time of political transformation and upheaval on the continent.

In demonstrating the uses of autonomy, Kalliney short-circuits conventional—if, admittedly, now outworn—arguments that posit modernism as politically aloof, in contrast to the almost exclusively political valences attributed to the writings that emerged outside of Britain during the long wane of the Empire. Not that colonial writers were apolitical—but they could choose the terrain of their political engagement and rest somewhat more comfortably in the assumption that their work would not be discounted on grounds of race—so long as they and their interlocutors agreed on the modernist doctrines of impartiality, disinterestedness, and autonomy. In an acknowledged echo of Andrew Goldstone’s Fictions of Autonomy (2012), “autonomy” functions, in Commonwealth of Letters, as a generative illusion: an ultimately unattainable ideal, but one that is aesthetically and politically useful for those who cleave to it.

But this autonomy also bred competition, as contact and collaboration across cultural lines prompted the emergence of new rivalries between metropolitan modernists and new voices from the former Empire. Kalliney’s crucial intervention in discussions of the institutional and social functions of modernist aesthetics is to insist on the unstable role that race played in negotiations of literary position and prestige. The adoption of autonomy by colonial and postcolonial writers between 1930 and 1970 was “a specific response to the racial geography of literary culture”: it both “resolved” and “amplified” racial tensions by making artistic production free of “obvious color prejudice” but also encouraged writers “to compare themselves to one another along racial lines” (30–31). The fabled autonomy of both artist and artwork, then, does not eliminate race from the picture, but rather enables cross-racial rivalries to emerge in newly liberated fields of competition. Kalliney makes this point elegantly with reference to James’s account of race and sport in his cultural study of cricket in the West Indies, Beyond a Boundary, in which the ability of black and white teams to compete on the same field did not dissolve racial tensions completely: rather, Kalliney argues, “This bubble of autonomy invests these particular forms of activity with special political meanings” (26).

Kalliney is at pains to demonstrate, in his words, “the extent to which highly political writers were invested in the aesthetic ideals of detachment, autonomy, and purity—not as a means of returning modernists to the ivory tower to which they were formerly confined, but as a means of understanding the material conditions underwriting the interactions between metropolitan modernists and colonial intellectuals” (74). These material interactions are in evidence throughout the volume. For instance, Chapter 2, on “Race and Modernist Anthologies,” demonstrates how Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology highlights some of the collaborative opportunities and tensions that obtained in cross-racial publishing endeavors. On the one hand, Cunard (and other anthologists) offered black writers the chance to present their work in an internationally recognized venue, in which it could stand on its own alongside contributions from established white writers. On the other hand, Cunard’s assumption that contributors would be willing to give their work free of charge highlights the different financial and social networks in which white and black writers operated. Claude McKay, for example, asserted his rights as an author by withdrawing his participation once it became clear that he would not be paid for his contributions (68–73). The field of cross-racial competition plays out differently later in the century for Jean Rhys. As the final chapter of the volume details, Rhys re-emerged on the literary scene around 1960, suddenly transformed from Left Bank modernist into postcolonial icon—a transformation that forced her to engage with the altered racial dynamics of the literary landscape a quarter-century after she withdrew from it, and in the wake of political and cultural changes she could neither dismiss nor entirely embrace (235–38).

Returning to this volume some years after first reading it, I was struck by how clearly Kalliney identifies his intellectual and methodological debts. He is not, by his own admission, the first critic to consider the interactions between Anglo-American modernists and late- and postcolonial Caribbean writers; witness Simon Gikandi’s Writing in Limbo (1992), Jahan Ramazani’s A Transnational Poetics (2009), and Matthew Hart’s Nations of Nothing but Poetry (2010), to name only three of the works with which Commonwealth of Letters engages. Kalliney’s contribution is to merge close attention to the works themselves with a rigorous and deep analysis of the institutions and practices that underpinned late-colonial and postcolonial politics and literary culture. Thus the stylized “stammers” created by moments of repetition or hesitation in Brathwaite’s The Arrivants can be read as foregrounding the embodied, racialized poet at the moment of the emergence of nation language, and the characterological shallowness of Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard serves as an analogue for colonial underdevelopment and all of its distortions (110). If literary critics are increasingly aware of the dynamism of relations between individuals and the networks they helped create but do not entirely control, Kalliney offers a valuable model of how to conduct future work in this vein. By tracing the threads that bind writers into larger systems of cultural influence at a crucial moment of political and aesthetic upheaval, Commonwealth of Letters offers an exploded view of how sentence-level experimentation and institutional logics interact in a racialized field of literary collaboration and competition.


[1] Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz, “The New Modernist Studies,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 737–48.