ELH 71.3 (2004) 813-838
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Local Modernity, Global Modernism:
Bloomsbury and the Places of the Literary
In a recent history of London as townscape, a popular historian makes the following claims about the phenomenon we know as Bloomsbury:
[T]he term "Bloomsbury," whether used in approbation or derision, had . . . not all that much to do with the place as a place. The brilliant aura of Lytton Strachey, the Bells, [Roger] Fry, [Virginia] Woolf, and the rest might almost as easily have been attached to Marylebone or St John's Wood if two or three of them had happened to live there—though one may doubt if a "Marylebonite" or "John's Wooder" would ever have had quite the ring as "Bloomsb[erry]."1
This assessment exemplifies two familiar assumptions. First, it implies that Bloomsbury is constituted by an "aura," a distinctive mode of self-presentation that makes its projects and politics notoriously difficult to situate. Second, it asserts that these identifying features of cultural performance and reception are virtually ("almost") independent of material location.
Both these longstanding assumptions can be productively challenged via focus on Bloomsbury—and the cultural phenomenon it names and births—"as a place," in the sense defined by scholars working under the rubric of the new cultural geography. The writings of David Harvey, Sassia Sasken, Anthony Giddens, Edward Soja, Doreen Massey, Arjun Appadurai, and others have called for a more nuanced account of what it means for culture and subjects to be located. Both, they argue, come into being not merely in a geographical or material landscape, but in a site of social activity that produces itself and its defining relations through local, personal, and public exchanges.2 Spatial tropes have of late been ubiquitous on the fields of cultural studies and modernist studies—as in the "cognitive mapping" of modernist activity with respect to class and taste [End Page 813] hierarchies, and the quantification of the "ortgebunden, place-bound nature" of particular genres.3 But far less work has been done to map cultural production onto the changing face of lived urban experience. More specifically, the move to nationalize and transnationalize modernist cultural production has tended to obscure its life as a local phenomenon. Yet, as many of modernism's most resonant original narratives suggest (Ezra Pound and H. D. in the teashop of the British Museum; Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in the painter's studio; Charles Baudelaire haunting cafes on the Champs-Elysées), modernism is among other things a determined response to the specific spaces in which it takes shape, advertises its cultural value, and contests for social power. If Bloomsbury has hardened, even ossified, as an object of critical attention—if, as one critic has recently argued, the question of its membership, politics, and meaning has occasioned "[s]ome of the most pained and soporific passages in modern letters"—it offers all the greater challenge with respect to rethinking the dynamics and contours of modernism's literary-social worlds.4
To read Bloomsbury in this way, not as a movement or group or coterie or junta but as a local world, offers certain distinctive payoffs. The familiar line of argument against modernism tout court—that it represents nothing more or less than an evasion of social exigency and of modernity itself—has been endlessly debated if not sufficiently countered; it seems, in the case of Bloomsbury, to have an especially robust life. All the more reason for exploring, in the fullness of their complication, the specific circuits of production and exchange in which its work and works participate, the geocultural landscape in which they unfold. In particular, an insistence on Bloomsbury's cultural location within Bloomsbury allows us to understand quite differently the trajectory and afterlife of the group's politics and cultural practices. It is paradoxically, I argue, the distinctive entanglement of Bloomsbury (the project) with Bloomsbury (the place) that enables the former to become more than a local phenomenon, or even an international one in the uncontested modernist sense. For Bloomsbury...