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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism, Mass Culture, Professionalism
  • David Suchoff
Thomas Strychacz. Modernism, Mass Culture, Professionalism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. 228 pp. No price given.

Modernism, Mass Culture, Professionalism works to break down the opposition that has separated the difficulty of modernist writing from the simpler productions of “lower” forms of literature. Treating American writers spanning the gap between a high modernism apparently disdainful of mass-culture and a fiction that openly absorbs the techniques of journalism and film—Strychacz writes on Henry James, as well as Dos Passos, Dreiser, and Nathanael West—Strychacz argues that modernist strategies always formed themselves against and absorbed qualities of their mass-cultural Other. The innovative contribution of this book is its refined and insightful account of that absorptive process. Strychacz [End Page 847] works not only to “revive mass culture as a constant and vivid presence in these novels,” but also to describe the process by which mass culture is absorbed as part of the counter-logic of elite literary professionalism. “There is a profound identity,” Strychacz argues, “between the structure of professional discourses”—as practiced by professional critics, invested in the refinement and difficulty of our language—”and the modernist writing strategies emerging out of shared matrix of historical imperatives.” Modernist writing and modern academic criticism, this book suggests, are secret sharers of the mass-cultural imperatives they have long reviled.

Modernism, Mass Culture and Professionalism is thus able to offer a highly original reading of modernism that centers on James’s early work, The Reverberator (1888). Strychacz steers between the reading of James as snobbishly hostile to mass culture, and the new historical “containment” reading that depends on it, but also steers away from the optimistic reading of James as a cultural critic open to otherness, produced by Ross Posnock (The Trial of Curiosity, 1991) and William Boelhower (Through a Glass Darkly, 1987), books arguing for a James open to the semiotic instability and alien otherness of the American masses at the century’s end. Strychacz instead offers an explanation of James’s continuing canonicity as well as his critics: James centrality to the canon persists not because of his universality, nor because of his openness to alien otherness, but because his novels helped to produce “the rhetorical protocols most conducive to professional work” which continue to define our cultural divides. Mass Culture, Modernism and Professionalism intervenes subtly in the canon debate by demonstrating the historically self-serving logic that turns many defenses of “high culture” in narratives of self-pitying decline. James retains his formidable role in debates on the “great tradition” because his novels and prefaces helped produce the esoteric and nascently professional critical vocabulary that elitist critics still (need to) use.

The novels of Dos Passos, Dreiser and West that Strychacz discusses produce professionalism from below rather than above: Dreiser’s An American Tragedy flaunts its use of newspaper accounts, Strychacz argues, in order to raise the question of “originality,” a criterion central to drawing the line between mass and high culture. Dos Passos’ incorporation of mass-cultural material into The USA Trilogy, according to Strychacz, works similarly: by refusing to give authorial instruction on [End Page 848] how to join these newspaper and filmic segments, Dos Passos builds an interpretive difficulty into his work that has helped produce the institutionalized study of his novels. The teleology drawn is one in which what is disruptive and threatening in mass culture, or in high-cultural responses to it, is absorbed by the logic of institutional professionalism. Nathanael West’s incorporation of mass-cultural material raises the question of postmodernism with a practical twist: West authorizes the conflation of the role of the journalist with that of the sophisticated critic, and casts doubt on the radical vocation of such crossover” modes.

Modernism Mass Culture and Professionalism is thus a work that asks us to cast a critical eye on calls for a renewed public criticism, which often idealize modernism as a the period in which critics spoke to a general public, without the professional codes said to limit the postmodern critics of today. In its historical depth, Strychacz’s book calls the nostalgia informing works such as Russell Jacoby’s The Last...

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