How Many Modernisms?

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Alan Filreis

Modernism, Inc:
Body, Memory, Capital
by Jani Scandura and Michael Thurston
(New York: New York University Press, 2001)
304 pages, $19 (paper).

MODERNISM HAS BEEN defined in a myriad ways — aptly, given its great social and aesthetic range and multinational origins. One useful definition holds that modernism, as a movement, cohered out of unorganized expressions of rebellious responses to psycho-social ills in the first years of the twentieth century.

In this view modernism is a radicalism of forms. Fragments supplanted wholes as the means of greatest explanatory power. Straightforward narrative — the “they did this and so then they did that” of traditional telling — was dismantled in favor of the strange but revealing causalities of subjectivity.

Orthographical anarchy was an attraction to people who sought to convey the senselessness of modern social experience. Poets called this “the revolution of the word” and really deemed it a revolution.

More or less as natural allies, modernists and political radicals associated and at times collaborated in various ways, most famously in the teens and twenties. After the 1930s — when that era was viewed with suspicion as the “red decade” in which writing had been “taken over” by communists — modernism became institutionalized and its radical qualities forgotten and, especially in the 1950s, depoliticized.


In recent years many literary historians have sought to recover some of the modernisms that were actively misremembered during the anti-radical years at midcentury.

The idea that supposedly unites these essays by various academic critics is that the modern is a ghostly presence in the contemporary. The two editors, Jani Scandura and Michael Thurston, go so far as to call this a “hauntology.” (4)

American life is “encrypted,” they write, “within the High Modernist aesthetic dream of wholeness in fragmentation.” Modernism has become a specter, a vague and ubiquitous negative – “not so much . . . an erasure of the past . . . as an encryptment of certain uncomfortable narratives.” (5)

But did not modernism’s experiment liberate us from oppressive organicism (the idea that artworks are natural wholes), and were we not relieved in modernist writing from the dull insistence on usefulness (functionalist support of the social status quo)? Was modernism not in this sense progressive?

Rather, the editors contend, the movement tended to bury bad news by projecting a future in the act of obsessing about pasts. Whether intentionally or not, the editors ironize progress. They claim that modernists’ “progressive” claims to looking dramatically forward — to embodying the ideal future in which form and content, beauty and message, both urgently mattered — was “itself a denial” of the tendency in modern cultures to look back and long for older modes.

The preface implies — and the essays do not contradict the implication — that the writers these editors have gathered are to liberate us from the modernism that looks the wrong way, from the modernist nostalgia marked not so much “by a longing for a past, as by a desire for not having had one.” (5)

Back to New Criticism?

The book’s title Modernism, Inc. has been taken from John Crowe Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.,” a polemical essay of 1937. To say that Ransom’s formulation is out of favor is an understatement.

For Ransom, leader of the reactionary formalist school of “New Criticism,” criticism should organize — in corporate fashion, the metaphor strongly suggests (9-10) — and, in a sense, critically and aesthetically outspend the opponent. Among the opponents were humane historical and philological scholars and 1930s Marxists.

By turning Ransom on his head, the editors of Modernism, Inc. imply, I think, that modernism has been of late behaving all too much like Ransom’s dominion-minded New Criticism. If that is so, are the opponents of the “new” modernism featured in this book different from Ransom’s, or the same?

If “Criticism Inc.” was incorporated to ward off liberal Old Historicism (the mildly progressive notion that literature reflects history) to its left, and “vulgar” Marxism, also to its left, where does Modernism Inc. stand? I have read the book closely, admiring many of its parts and participants, feeling doubt about others, but in any case I do not know how to answer that question.

Kathleen Stewart’s “Machine Dreams” is a mostly irrelevant although compellingly written critical prose-poem about the modern as an alternative between anesthesia and shock. From Julia Walker’s informative essay on the role of wired and wireless voices in modern drama, I learned something about the modern speech education movement.

Likewise, Scandura for her own essay has done some wonderful research into the Reno divorce factory, wedding this (as it were) to several properly qualified generalizations about American cultural anxieties.

Maria Damon, in a lively essay on Gertrude Stein’s Jewishness, overapologizes for seeming to apologize for Stein’s politics. Stein’s “fun but slightly triumphalist lyricism” (148) is what continues to make Stein available to write about with just such a bright spirit as Damon brings to her work.

Damon and Cary Nelson are among those in the book who have already published their contributions elsewhere, Damon in a scholarly journal and Nelson in his most recent book, Revolutionary Memory (2001).

Nelson’s readers cannot fail to sense that the process of recovering the poetry of the American Left has obviously been for him a great pleasure in itself. His writing (and use of images from the pages of the rare old books of verse he has found) is in part a record of finding and learning to value old things discarded and discounted by others.

Modernist and American Themes

The editors of Modernism, Inc. seem worried that proponents of the academic fields of “American studies” and “modernist studies” haven’t been getting along (I’m not certain I know what is at stake if they do not). And yet they have included Daniel Rosenberg’s wonderful essay on why fans of the Hoover Dam have sublimated the facts of those who died there, which is a powerful example of the value of both fields in one critical undertaking.

So is Paula Rabinowitz’ inventive, learned essay on the recent rise of painters Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, and Emily Carr “beyond celebrity status to iconicity.” (194) Janet Lyon’s essay on the extraordinary African American dancer-performer Josephine Baker is another example.

But Chez Josephine, Baker’s Parisian club, is overinterpreted here as a salon. Lyon, almost always a wonderfully sensible critic and writer, gives a nice reading of Baker’s play on race. Yet what is the benefit of dubbing Baker’s club a salon per se (and taking much space in doing so)?

The many crucial distinctions between the bohemian salon, on one hand, which are specifically set up in private places and eschew profitability (that is part of their resistance), and Chez Josephine and many another club, on the other, in which performances are contracted and where the owners are there to make at least some money, are ignored.

Lyon is not the only over-reader. Marlon Ross chose to write about a fascinating figure, William Pickens — one of the great early modern Black memoirists. An essay on Pickens’ work and career by this competent scholar would have been sufficient to warrant inclusion. But Ross decides to read Pickens as “homoracial,” indicating an aspiration toward a normative homosocial act that is committed through bonded rivalries with white men in socially superior positions.

The evidence supporting even metaphorical homosexuality in Pickens is thin. Is a gay Pickens meant to be another of the book’s specters? Ross is in earnest, but the best he can do is mention someone else’s — Jack Johnson’s — attendance at homosexual drag balls; and this digression, which constitutes the conclusion of the essay, is based on Ross’ interpretation of an indirect reference to Johnson
in a paragraph of Pickens’ writing.

William Maxwell over-reads the communism in Andy Razaf’s “black bolshevism.” But if it weren’t for that generalization, which does not quite follow from the evidence of Razaf’s radical associations as a blues librettist, Maxwell’s essay would be nearly perfect, a rich and illustrative extended footnote to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), one that brings Ellison back to the radical ground from which he grew in the thirties.

What Ross could have done for Pickens, Walter Lew does for Younghill Kang, the first eminent Korean American writer. Lew gives a fascinating account of the way in which Maxwell Perkins eviscerated Kang’s East Goes West through the editorial process at Scribner’s.

The process widely celebrated for the modernism of Thomas Wolfe — Perkins edited Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel into existence — is the means by which ethnic difference gets suppressed in Kang. Lew gives us a close look at the kind of modern story the modernist could distort or suppress.

Recording Genocide

Walter Kaladjian does also. He has contributed a powerful essay on the Armenian genocide. I shall not soon forget the experience of reading it.

Those who purchase this book should go immediately to page 110 and learn that the speaker of Ernest Hemingway’s vignette “On the Quai at Smyrna,” a perennially read and taught piece of In Our Time, gives a bystander testimony to Turkish atrocity and mass murder.

The language of the opening passage, that numbly distant repetition of sentences that feel like fragments, does show “genocide’s uncanny presence in the modern scene” (110), or, to be more specific, at the moment when, at least for Hemingway, the modernist idiom came into being.

But does this support the editors’ huge hauntology? On the contrary, Hemingway’s modernist form bears witness to what had already been lost, and what we have still lost.

Can the modern be understood here “as an encryptment of certain uncomfortable narratives”? (5) “On the Quai at Smyrna” registers modern trauma in a way that seems to affirm Hemingway’s and Stein’s and Virginia Woolf’s linguistic experimentalism.

In the numbness, in the psychic limits marked out by almost automatically repeated short words, one senses ever more a radical immediacy, life in extremis recorded with a great sensitivity toward language’s radical capacity. If there is an encryptment here, it is in overfancy contemporary claims that modernism wasn’t looking straight on at the hard-to-witness.

Paula Rabinowitz is right to complain, in her fine essay, that lately there have been too many modernisms. I agree; perhaps it is time to return back past the “post-” to see the thing a little more directly. The best essays here do just that. Several do not — or perhaps seem not to do so, because the editors raised the specter of coherence.

ATC 100, September-October 2002