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Volume 10, No. 2 - March 2000
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Lawrence Rainey, chair in Modernist Literature at the University of York and author of Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (Yale, 1998).

"The most important book on literary modernism in the last year was produced not by a literary critic but by an art historian. T.J. Clark's Farewell to an Idea: Episodes From a History of Modernism (Yale, 1999) rewrites all the rules that have governed disquisitions on modernism. Such works have typically been Whiggish histories of formal innovation, in which one novelty replaces another with breathtaking speed, culminating in an effortless transition to the postmodern. Recently, the narratives have been more dour but no less complacent: Modernism emerges as the last redoubt of a misguided commitment to the aesthetic, a project that happily collapses and gives way to postmodernism's benign embrace of popular culture and the mass media. For Clark, modernism is a series of momentary reprieves from capitalism's ongoing and relentless penetration into the very fibers of human dealings. The reprieves are all the more compelling because they bear within themselves a grim acknowledgment of their own factitiousness--which is why, perhaps, the great works of modernism often seem so unbreathably pure, like a last gasp of oxygen just before the plane goes down."

Gail McDonald, assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of Learning to Be Modern: Pound, Eliot, and the American University (Oxford, 1993).

"A real breakthrough book needs to dislodge enough bricks in the critical edifice to make us recognize that the structure needs general repair. Rita Felski's work does that in both its content and its methodology. In The Gender of Modernity (Harvard, 1995), she resists 'the seductive power of grand narratives' by moving the margin--representations of the feminine--to the center of the story of modernity. Many fine works employ a similar tactic, of course. The difference here is that Felski immerses herself in the messy ambiguities, symbioses, and contradictions of the modern to a degree that is rare and bravely ambitious. The book addresses an abundance of topics--fin de si'cle sociological and psychoanalytic theory, consumer behavior, the aesthetics of decadence and sexual perversion, the rhetoric of first-wave feminism. While never ungenerous, Felski dismantles some recent favored assumptions. Reading her book, one feels that we are profligate with the words 'subversive,' 'transgressive,' and 'resisting' as terms of approbation. Felski recognizes that assessing the degree and kind of resistance requires deep knowledge of the context in which it occurs."

Adam Parkes, associate professor of English at the University of Georgia and author of Modernism and the Theater of Censorship (Oxford, 1996).

"We have often studied literary modernism by pairing two eminent practitioners--both of whom are usually male and one of whom tends to be Ezra Pound. Langdon Hammer's Hart Crane and Allen Tate: Janus-Faced Modernism (Princeton, 1993) repeats this familiar tactic but in the end offers a significantly revised portrait not only of Crane and Tate but of the larger movement in American letters of which their relationship is a surprisingly neglected part. Combining formalist analysis with biographical and cultural criticism, Hammer reveals how competing notions of the writer's role (Crane's 'genius,' Tate's 'poet-critic') converged with conflicts of other kinds (notably, between Crane's homosexuality and Tate's reactionary heterosexuality) to help shape the 'impersonal' version of modernism that has been adopted and ratified by the institutions of American literary criticism. Hammer traces these concerns by examining Crane's and Tate's very different readings of T.S. Eliot. Ultimately, Hammer, who also edited O My Land, My Friends: The Selected Letters of Hart Crane (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1997), not only changes our picture of modernism but also points to the need to develop a new understanding of postmodernism."

Stephen Fredman, professor of English at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Grounding of American Poetry: Charles Olson and the Emersonian Tradition (Cambridge, 1993).

"The classic critics of modernism tended to stress the self-enclosed nature of the text and the autonomous, self-generating nature of art in general. More recent critics have sought to return modernist texts to some of the complex, compelling worlds from which they emerged. Two striking examples of this trend can be found in Michael Davidson's Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (California, 1997) and Marjorie Perloff's Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary (Chicago, 1996). Davidson's notion of the 'palimtext' emphasizes the material nature of poetry, how it looks on the pages where it is printed and what historical and ideological forces are responsible for it arriving there. Like Davidson, Perloff might be seen as a 'new' close reader, opening up, in her case, the poetic potential in Ludwig Wittgenstein's investigations of ordinary language and the philosophical consequences of the use of such language in modern poetry. Her account of Wittgenstein makes good on David Antin's provocative claim that the philosopher was the only true modernist novelist. Likewise, by reading through Wittgenstein's eyes a number of modern writers--Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Ingeborg Bachman, and Robert Creeley--Perloff brings to life the crucial linguistic and philosophical dilemmas that pepper their works."

Susan Stanford Friedman, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter (Princeton, 1998).

"Rachel Blau DuPlessis's forthcoming Cultural Narratives and Social Debates in Modern Poetries (Cambridge, 2001) dazzles with its startling readings of poems from a wide array of American modernists, from William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens to Mina Loy and Countee Cullen. The book's originality lies in the concept of 'social philology,' by which DuPlessis means the way that poetic language encrypts cultural narratives of the social order such as racial primitivism, the New Woman, the New Negro, and the New Jew. Blending New Critical and cultural-studies approaches, DuPlessis scrutinizes formal aspects of poems--especially diction and wordplay--for buried etymologies and often contradictory sociopolitical meanings. Rather than separate aesthetics and politics, she unpacks their complicity, showing that linguistic and cultural formations are inseparable."

Michael Levenson, professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of The Cambridge Companion to Modernism (Cambridge, 1999).

"Too many postmodern theorists have been dining out on a caricature of literary modernism circa 1890--1930. They describe a modernism that fled public life, mass culture, fashion, and consumerism. Only it didn't--at least not in any straightforward way. Lawrence Rainey's Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (Yale, 1998) is a check on the polemical simplifications that oppose a reactionary modernism to an emancipatory postmodernity. The book narrates resonant episodes in the careers of James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and H.D., locating major texts within an 'economic circuit of patronage, collecting, speculation, and investment.' Even experimental writing was entangled within the hard conditions of the marketplace. Rainey names prices, counts copies, and identifies readers, editors, and patrons in order to recover the social life of modernism. Elegant and precise, Rainey possesses the conceptual mobility of a theorist and the archival precision of an accountant."

--John Palattella

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