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Walter Kalaidjian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism

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Walter KALAIDJIAN, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Cambridge University Press, 2005, 333 pp., €21.71, ISBN 0-521-53680-4

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1Walter Kalaidjian’s Cambridge Companion to American Modernism reads like a most valuable contribution to the knowledge and understanding of a notion that can apply to a style, a movement, a project, or a whole field of production.

2This very dense volume of 12 critical essays tries to pinpoint the major features of a period that expands roughly from 1890 to 1939. Its major asset is that it does not restrict analysis to art forms and cultural nationalism; instead, it claims that the contributors’ task has been to explore the many aspects of the issue and try to map out “the expansive paradigm shift emerging at the fin de siècle.” (4)

3The Introduction to this new Companion (1-11) emphasizes the rapid change from Walt Whitman’s enthusiastic vision of American modernism marked by motion, power and change (“the pulse of the continent”), to Harvard Professor Henry Adams’s darker vision condensed in this formula: “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos.” Indeed, the emergence of the American sphere seems to rest on a dialectic between the poet’s celebration of the tremendous potentialities brought about by new technologies in the last decades of the 19th century and the contradictory facets of political, aesthetic and social life in the industrial age. Significantly enough, the Chronology (xii-xix) that opens this collection of essays starts at the battle of Wounded Knee (1890) and ends with the German invasion of Poland (1939), providing the reader with the historical framework of American modernism marked by wars, social riots, economic upheavals, racial events, etc…

4The volume also contains 13 illustrations, a selection of works for Further Reading (308-319) and an Index (320-333).

5The reflection upon “Nationalism and the modern American canon” by Mark Morrisson (12-35) constitutes a good preamble to Part I (“Genre”) devoted to literary forms, to their audiences and criticism. Morrisson’s assumption that “modernism has often been conceptualized as a stridently international phenomenon across art and literature.” (12) serves as a good starting point for his own exploration of the “American-ness” of literary productions. Morrisson tackles the notion of national identity and highlights the complexities of American culture that is both Anglo-Saxon and different. His analysis of the interplay between the different processes of canonization of literary works is particularly convincing as he examines how both the aesthetic and the institutional processes combine and influence each other: on the side of aesthetics, Morrisson’s reference is to Whitman, or rather to Whitman’s legacy for American literary nationalism, namely a poetics of presence, a new voice. As for the institutional model, it is represented by the little magazines, The Little Review, anthologies of poetry and fiction largely founded on racial or regional identity, prizes, and the New Criticism born in the American university class-room.

6The three essays on “Genre” map out the rich and diverse literary landscapes of that period, and give a good account of the relation between modern life and narrative forms. The mood behind R. Barnard’s “Modern American Fiction” (39-67) is questioning. His main interest is in the importance granted to the socio-economic factors that cast different light on more conventional modes of representation like realism. Barnard’s focus is on spatiality and subjectivity, on the textual nature of geographical landscapes, on the “dynamic of blindness and insight” (52), on the links between cultural authority and normativity. He examines the new parameters of fiction-writing and selects the elements that elaborate the modern equation where place, time, value AND word intersect and interact. The most attractive section of this essay concerns value and more particularly “the ethos of expenditure and abundance” (63) present in the novels written by Stein, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Cather, Faulkner, to name but a few.

7Cary Nelson’s essay, “Modern American Poetry” (68-101) claims that it is the Imagist revolution marked by extreme concision and neutrality of description that gave birth to Modern American poetry. His examples taken from H. D., Amy Lowell, and W. Stevens praise inventiveness, rhetorical devices, innovative rhythmic patterns, etc. His main focus, though, is on the fundamental issue of race. He refers to the time when slavery, racism, political repression were at the core of international relations with the result that writing poetry was synonymous with political commitment: it was “a credible form of revolutionary action.” (89), a place to stand ideologically. He also argues that the dark years of the Depression and the threat of fascism in Europe created a very specific cultural climate marked by the obsession with American identity and its “ongoing engagement with American History” (99). Nelson shows how modern poets became involved in a dialectic between “desperate hardship and utopian exhilaration.” (91) He mentions T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Four Quartets whose technique, largely inspired by collage and Cubism, was considered as an alternative to emptiness. Mina Loy, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Melville Tolson, Allan Ginsberg, Robert Lowell: all of them constitute the community of American poets who believed that poetry was the very locus where political and social life, collective myths and fantasies, formal strategies and aesthetic issues could mingle and create a new vision of national identity.

8Stephen Watt’s “American Modern Drama” (102-126) first examines the material conditions that surrounded the emergence and expansion of American drama in the early 19th century: matters of geography and economy must be taken into account, Watt claims, for they throw light on the poor quality of the stage productions of that time. The critic underlines the influence of Broadway with its commercial, “Deadly” or “Perishable” theatre, along with the necessity to find the right expression to convey “something new or ‘just now’ as the Latin root of modo denotes.” (112). His detailed account revisits the many aspects of the genre (Black minstrel shows based on visual stimulation, musicals, lavish productions, melodrama with its excesses and defects, etc.) It also shows how the decisive changes introduced by psychoanalytic themes like desire, genre and class paved the way for modern drama confronted with the dramatic social and cultural issues of the Great Depression.

9Four essays are about Culture:

10In his “American Modernism and the New Negro Renaissance” (129-156), Mark A. Sanders considers that this movement was in fact the result of a new order, of a new pragmatism that stressed the many oppositions between civilized and savage, intellect and experience, human and animal, etc., and that, in the meantime, it promoted plurality and egalitarianism through the arts and cultural criticism. His main references are to three Afro-modernists: Zora Neale Hurston, with her very special approach to folk culture; Sterling A. Browne, convinced that black subjectivity was naturally inscribed within vernacular culture; and Jean Toomer whose Cane (1923) successfully pointed up the New Negro Renaissance’s major concern: ethnic diversity in relation to national identity. For the Harlem Renaissance became particularly active when social and political conditions in the country changed drastically. The critic lists the many factors that contributed to the emergence of a new racial politics: immigration from the South to the North and to the North-East, secularization and acculturation, tensions between the sacred and the profane, urbanization and economic mobility, etc. What he calls “this nativist vein of modernism” was central to the first African-American cultural expression of modernity; his evocation of the blues, a “lamento” that testified to the boom in the performing arts and literature finds echoes in Jed Rasula’s essay, “Jazz and American Modernism” (157-176). This contribution explores the most famous form of cultural expression of modernity, first seen as a potential threat to social order and morality since it assimilated sex with music and dancing. The critic considers that jazz was basically part of an “avant-garde continuum” (161) that had its roots in a more international phenomenon that included Dvorak, Debussy, Gershwin and a great many composers and musicians of that time. Perhaps his most convincing argument is the connection he makes with European literature (both fiction and poetry), which helped to revitalize music. In his mind, jazz owes much to both T. S. Eliot and J. Joyce whose poetic diction was largely based on leitmotivs and rhythmic and repetitive patterns of all sorts.

11Vision, Michael North argues, stands at the core of aesthetic theory, philosophy, history and literary studies. His paper entitled “Visual Culture” (177-194) examines how photography, film, television, the web gave birth to new ways of producing and disseminating images throughout the last decades of the 19th century and the early 20th century. The critic posits the great influence of the European avant-garde and models; he quotes M. Foucault’s theory that equates visual control with political power. North’s analysis draws relevant parallels with the Baroque with its surplus of images, before it dwells on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that links visual culture and literature.

12The starting point of Marjorie Perloff’s “The Avant-Garde Phase of American Modernism” (195-217) is a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1913) whose conception, she argues, is Futurist and technique largely inspired by Cubism. Perloff’s main focus is on Duchamp’s contribution to a new conception of art in America that revolves around questions like: what is a work of art? What is the function of art? Of painting? What art for what culture? How can artistic achievements of all sorts emphasize the connections between painting, literature and/or photography? As Perloff recalls, Duchamp’s provocative art, his readymades based on defamiliarization, stood in radical opposition to the bourgeois culture, whereas Alfred Steiglitz’s photographs, for example, showed a more ambivalent attitude towards avant-garde. In her essay, the critic also explores Picabia’s paintings and she praises the technological inventiveness that marked Man Ray’s works, and more particularly “rayograph or cameraless photograph”. Perloff considers that the influence of machine on artistic modes of representation was essential for it generated a new relation of the physical object to space and to its representation. Her essay ends with the evocation of Mina Loy, a female avant-garde figure whose poetic language would successfully integrate foreign words, locutions, sounds and syntax, and with an analysis of William Carlos Williams’s poetry that revisits Duchamp’s controversial technique before the return to “Definition, clarity, outline” (216), namely, the “new ethos” brought about by the 1920s and 1930s.

13Four essays focus on Society:

14In “Gender and Sexuality” (221-241), Janet Lyon takes into account the political background of feminism, and she contends that mass culture, modernism and gender are tightly connected and that sexual differences are institutionally, culturally constructed. She takes Mina Loy, H. D. and Isadora Duncan as examples to stress the economic foundations of women’s oppression. She analyzes the relation between gender identity and sexuality in the light of the feminist theories that prevailed in 1880s and 1890s for, in her mind, there is a link between theories of gender and the distribution of power. Of great interest is her study of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and of Isadora Duncan’s “syntax of movement” which she opposes to the threat of stasis, of reified meaning. Her last point is about “Modern communities” and about the circulation of art in the salons seen as a refuge from modern alienation.

15J. D. Duvall’s “Regionalism in American Modernism” (242-260) is a fine attempt to reconcile realist aesthetic and ethics and to depart from the widespread conception of regionalism as a form of minor culture. Duvall takes his examples from K. Chopin, W. Cather, E. Wharton, E. Glasgow. His intention is to show how those writers would problematize feminist concerns and gender issues within the context of modernization. He evokes C. Sandburg, closely identified with Chicago, E. L. Masters, E. A. Robinson, R. Frost inspired by rural life in the Midwestern Prairie or in New England. He also mentions South sectionalism, the Fugitive Poets and the Agrarians who opposed consumer society, and quite logically, his main focus is on E. Welty and W. Faulkner.

16P. Rabinowitz’s essay, “Social representations within American Modernism” (261-283) deals with the basic ingredients of modernity: the city with its rhythms, its stimuli and movement, human culture marked by the awareness of dispersion, of annihilation, by the density of collective patterns of thought and behaviour. The critic’s main argument is that both film and photography that frame the intensity of modern life, and literature that isolates fragments of human existence in poetic prose participate in “a demotic urge to represent the plebeian, the everyday, the regular Joe” (266). In doing so, they provide new visions of an America entangled in its own contradictions, ready to get rid of its old models and clichés and yet reluctant to embrace all the implications of modern consumption and urbanization. The essay includes photographs that emphasize the iconicity of the new American environment marked by “a new form of transience” (278) and by the interplay between popular culture, politics and aesthetics.

17D. Mao’s contribution devoted to “Modern American Literary criticism” (284-307) starts on the assertion that “The story of modern American literary criticism is indeed the story of what was a last refuge of the total view.” (285) in a society that questioned its own values and the role of art in it. Mao exposes the main features of the New Humanism that constituted itself in opposition to what he calls “ a constellation of enemies” among which “the bourgeois philistine”, “the producer of popular writing for women, “philosophical romanticism” and the “philologist” (286). More globally speaking, the critic insists on the gap between “traditional” critics and progressive critics more receptive to new forms of writing including black artistic production, and shows how Marxist criticism would manage to link sociology with literature and provide fruitful revisions of American literary history. The ascent of the New Criticism under T. S. Eliot’s influence is debated in the last part of the essay where it is argued that it “managed to show how the analysis of literature could actually be interesting, and in this provided criticism with the substantive justification of its own existence that it had long been seeking.” (302)

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Denise GINFRAY, « Walter Kalaidjian, ed. The Cambridge Companion to American Modernism », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 3, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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