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Ann Ardis's terrific new book Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880-1922 opens with a reading of the scenes in Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915) in which the aspiring novelist, Hewet, lectures his fiancée on what to read. Ardis contends that Hewet's confidence that "we've exploded all that" prematurely announces the end of an ongoing cultural conflict. Her book asks, "How did modernism come to be perceived as the aesthetic of modernity?" (7). As the opening indicates, this is a feminist's treatment of a general modern topic. Her feminism greatly enriches the analysis: she is acutely aware of the operations of gender—especially the pernicious power of gender bias (especially misogyny and homophobia)—throughout. With detailed discussions of Beatrice (Potter) Webb, Ezra Pound, Oscar Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, new woman novelist Netta Syrett, and A. R. Orage, editor of New Age, Ardis ranges widely across English literature and culture, creating a picture of a dynamic cultural landscape in which modernism struggled to emerge (and dominate).
Ardis states that her biggest debt is to Andreas Huyssen's After the Great Divide (1986). This, I think, somewhat overstates Huyssen's importance. In fact, Rita Felski (whom she cites often), Lawrence Rainey, and others have, in very different ways, paved the way for work like Ardis's that is primarily involved in blurring the cultural boundaries that Huyssen described. More than Huyssen, her main precursors are Michael North's Reading 1922 (1999) and Rita Felski's [End Page 775] The Gender of Modernity (1995);like Felski, Ardis's is a diachronic study; like North and Felski, Ardis is interested in broadening our understanding of the cultural context from which modernism emerged. More generally, Ardis credits the New Modernisms—the annual conference begun at Penn State in 1999 and the scholarship that has come out of it. With all this contextualization, it is somewhat strange that Michael Levenson is all but missing: his account in A Genealogy of Modernism (1984) of "the men of 1914" (the phrase is Wyndham Lewis's, and regained prominence in Bonnie Kime Scott's work on gender and modernism) and how they "won" the cultural conflict is the backstory to Ardis's: where Levenson focused on the centrality of the rhetoric of manifestoes, Ardis reminds us that it was a real conflict, and that, before 1922, the winner was not obvious. But this is the only theoretical oversight in what is otherwise a powerful contribution to scholarship on the literary culture of the turn of the century.
Insights in the individual chapters offer a fresh perspective on the period, while contributing to the overall cultural-historical project of the book. In her chapter on Webb and Pound, Ardis contrasts "the female social scientist who was allegedly 'poetry blind'" with "the male modernist/aesthete/scientist" (17). Comparing both writers' drive to appear professional, Ardis suggests that Webb is "another modernist, not its demonized other" (30), as she has so often been described. Another chapter details how the modernists distanced themselves from aestheticism in the wake of the Oscar Wilde trials of 1895. The chapter on Lawrence and Lewis is the least satisfactory. Nonetheless, her focus on the rape scene in Tarr is astute: for her, the scene itself emblematizes Lewis's "contempt" for the "feminized mass reading public" (106), while subsequent critical neglect of the scene demonstrates modernism's continuing investment in the cultural hierarchies established by Lewis, Eliot, and Pound (99). The chapter on Netta Syrett, on whom Ardis has published elsewhere, is smart and exciting: it inspired me to read this neglected writer. The book concludes with a chapter on New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art (1907-22) disputing the perception of it as an organ of modernism. This important intervention shows that the coexistence of Pound and attacks on Pound in the same journal is not simply evidence of eclecticism, but is a deliberate (albeit failed) cultural intervention, equally committed to providing "'some neutral ground where intelligences may meet on equal terms...