Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Mapping American Modernism

Dr. Mark Whalan

George Bellows, 'New York,' 1911, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

Image credit: “George Bellows, ‘New York,’ 1911, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.”

Editing the Cambridge History of American Modernism was a daunting task. There were some imperious predecessors: Walter Kalaidjian’s Cambridge Companion to American Modernism from 2005; and Vince Sherry’s Cambridge History of Modernism (2016). Both were field-defining, hard acts to follow. The collection also faced an additional challenge– it needed to navigate the considerable scholarly contestation involved in both the title’s orienting concepts, i.e. the name and nature of modernism, and the use of national terrain as an organizing frame.

To take the national issue first: an American frame can look anachronistic after the so-called “transnational turn” in both modernist and American studies. Indeed, as Joseph Rezek has noted, “the burden of proof now lies with those scholars who still wish to treat literary history in strictly national terms.” That burden carries particular force when considering the US, where exceptionalist and nationalist cultural rhetoric has long carried water for the soft power of the American empire. Additionally, and somewhat paradoxically, emergent American superpower in the early to mid-twentieth century makes a compelling case for highlighting the limitations of national horizons for cultural analysis. As US imperial reach expanded in the Caribbean and Pacific; as US corporations and culture industries extended US economic and ideological power around the globe; and as indigenous communities within the US had their sovereignties eroded, the territories, modes, and nodes of US power extended and dispersed with often bewildering speed in the era. Cultural traffic to, across, through, beyond, and against US territory exponentially increased. Moreover, the field of modernist studies now sees border-crossing, itinerancy, translation, and globalized circuits of politics and culture as central methods for mapping modernism. What do we include and exclude in a US-bounded modernism? What modernisms in the US exceed or resist such a parameter? How do national frames of cultural analysis relate to historical and contemporary politics of nationalism and imperialism, and are they defensible any longer? These are running questions for the collection and received a generative range of responses from its contributors.

Many essays, my introduction included, strove to meet Rezek’s burden of proof. The national mattered as a cultural and political concept to many of the writers covered by the collection. It mattered as an economic entity, especially in many of the print and broadcast networks constituted through the period that hosted modernism’s rise. It mattered because of the colossal empowerment of the nation-state throughout the early century–through World War One, the New Deal, and then the Military Industrial Complex of the Cold War era. And perhaps most importantly, it mattered as a legal entity. The national framework of censorship law conditioned US queer modernism, as Benjamin Kahan explains in his essay in the volume. The timeframe of American modernism overlaps remarkably precisely with the timeframe of Jim Crow law, arguably delivering a Jim Crow modernism where the increasingly segregated nature of social space decisively shaped the formal and psychological models typically employed by Black and white US modernists alike. Native American modernist writers and the vibrant cultural and political institutions and communities they forged throughout the early twentieth century often fought for both enhanced federal citizenship rights and fuller tribal sovereignty. The collection attends to these things whilst also considering the many trans- or international flows, media, and exchanges that U.S. modernism was also constituted through. This includes new approaches to such analysis—not just the somewhat familiar story of US modernism’s connections to Western Europe, but how hemispheric, transpacific, and geomodernist contexts were also formative. It also considers how, as a national lens has been deprioritized, there has been a resurgence of interest in US modernisms that operate at the level of region or community–regional and community modernisms that often delivered sophisticated critiques of the growing power and cultural consolidation of the US nation-state. Those regions were also often where the environmental repercussions of the rampant extractivism of US modernity were most apparent, as Joshua Schuster examines in his essay.

The collection also incorporates another crucial turn in the field of modernist studies, namely the bigger range of formal and media artefacts it now covers. What is ‘modernist’ is often no longer solely indexed to the evidence of formal pyrotechnics. Instead, modernist studies uses an expanded optic for assessing aesthetic engagements with modernity–operative across high and low culture, and across a broad swath of media and print cultures. Predictably, the collection looks at the magazines that were the most important early venues for US modernism, especially modernist poetry—magazines including the Little Review, Poetry, The Crisis, Others, and The Dial. But it also devotes attention to the way modernism was often playfully introduced to a broader public through the middlebrow sphere, especially in ‘smart’ magazines such as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the Smart Set, and Harper’s Bazaar. It considers how radio has emerged as a crucial medium for understanding modernist engagements with sonic technology. It considers how anthologies were an important medium for forming modernist canons and communities, and how a surge of new publishers (and cannily adaptive old ones) built readerships for modernist work whilst also turning a profit. The collection also considers cross- and inter-media relationships that have long been seen as central to the experimental literature of the period, including the influence of architecture, cinema, jazz, photography, and painting on modernist writing. And the collection covers the genres long associated with the considerable achievements of American writers in the era, such as the long poem, the lyric, the novel, the short story, and drama.

The contributors of the 37 essays comprising the volume cover and debate these issues and histories (as well as many, many others). Whilst the big questions I mention here remain far from settled, few readers will leave the volume without exciting new approaches to them, or without a sense of the richness of this era of cultural production in the US and beyond.

About The Author

Dr. Mark Whalan

Mark Whalan is Robert and Eve Horn Professor of English and Head of English at the University of Oregon. He has written several books on US modernism, including World War One, Amer...

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