To encounter black modernity via W. E. B. Du Bois is to tangle with questions of exemplarity and exceptionality. For my students in a large lecture class on the “American Experience,” many of whom are the first in their family to receive a college degree, many of whom are first- or second-generation immigrants, Booker T. Washington’s message of casting one’s bucket down can resonate more strongly than what they sometimes read as the elitism of Du Bois’s talented tenth. As a member of that tenth, Du Bois does not always speak to them—yeah, well, that guy went to Harvard, but that’s not most people; that’s not me.
The literary object is in flux. No longer are scholars so tightly bound to the poem, story, book, oeuvre, canon, or national literature. Yet from the undergraduate survey to the graduate seminar, most teaching stubbornly clings to these traditional objects.
The narrator of Joyce’s “Ithaca” renders Molly Bloom’s experience of “direct instruction” (Ulysses, 562). From the perspective of her teacher, who is interested in outcomes, this experience is not a success. Molly’s insouciance and inconsistency, as recorded in the sentence above, lead the self-appointed pedagogue Leopold Bloom to adopt a “more effective” and modern approach: “[i]ndirect suggestion implicating selfinterest” (563). Joyce’s language suggests here, however, that the “direct” method proves surprisingly enabling—more so, in fact, than the updated, “implicating” alternative. The latter leads, in “Ithaca,” to an ultimately straightforward if initially perplexing consumer equation: “She disliked umbrella with rain, he liked woman with umbrella, she disliked new hat with rain, he liked woman with new hat, he bought new hat with rain, she carried umbrella with new hat” (563). Note the relative predictability of the sentence, its directness, even, “indirect suggestion” notwithstanding. It’s as if “indirect suggestion implicating self-interest” could yield only this parade of pros, cons, and commodities, this regular succession of dislikes and likes.
Modernism has an image problem.
For the most part, the modernists themselves are to blame. Privately, they grumbled about “the inconceivable stupidity of the common reader.” Publicly, they promised to make “no compromise with the public taste.” Many prominent modernists, at points in their lives, were loudly elitist, racist, classist, sexist, imperialistic, and militaristic (let’s call it ERCSIM, pronounced “irksome”).
But modernist scholars are to blame as well.
We modernist scholars are all digital modernists now, and for a variety of reasons. Listening to recent debates in both modernist studies and the digital humanities, one would not think this was the case. Digital scholarship is often presented as the preserve of a special inter- or infra-disciplinary conversation distinct from the professional fields that contribute to it, thus presenting digital scholarship as a set of methods distinct and particular to digital humanists.
If I were Edna St. Vincent Millay, I might begin this letter by describing some bit of local foliage I’d enclosed, its leaves pressed among scrawled endearments. But by the time broadband has advanced enough to transmit an actual crape myrtle blossom, it would be very faded, I’m afraid. So a photograph from my front yard will have to suffice.
Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical, she said, I mean altruistically bugbearish
—Lyn Hejinian, My Life
In teaching Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) to undergraduates in a course on modern poetry, I have asked them to think about these prose poems through the act of making a poem in response. While this is a literature and not a creative-writing course, the strategy of assigning a creative-writing exercise is effective in Stein’s case because through making a poem the students prove to themselves that what might at first appear nonsensical can be, if one reads—and then writes—word by word, startlingly lucid.