- The Dialect of Modernism: Race, Language and Twentieth-Century Literature
In the sixth chapter of this remarkable book, Michael North remarks that instead of growing “into a truly multicultural modernism, the American avant-garde demonstrated . . . a persistent inability to understand how race fit into its conception of modern America, or how the language of African America fit into its conception of ‘plain American.’” This still seems to be an immense problem for critics and artists alike. In a 1952 letter to Robert Creeley, Charles Olson wrote: “Now that the ice has returned, the only place for the species is where Negro White Tan Indian American can dwell.” Despite our avowedly multicultural aesthetics, it would appear, to judge from most poetry panels at the Modern Language Association, that contemporary critics are still unable to see how the languages of race fit our conceptions of the postmodern. Michael North’s The Dialect of Modernism is a provocative opening to a much-needed series of critical debates. The book is built [End Page 397] around an inescapable contradiction, one that North acknowledges, that almost demands an additional book in response.
North argues that “two different modernisms, tightly linked by their different stakes in the same language, emerge between 1922 and 1927,” and that “it is impossible to understand either modernism without reference to the other.” In fact, many earlier historians of modernism felt no qualms about conducting their enterprise without so much as a glance in the direction of the Harlem Renaissance, and even now studies of black and white American poetry are too often conducted as if William Carlos Williams had not read Melvin B. Tolson and as if Claude McKay had not read, and liked, the poetry of e. e. cummings. North’s interpretive histories, as in his chapter on “Race, the American Language, and the Americanist Avant-Garde,” may well prove the most valuable portions of this book for other readers. Reaching far beyond the well-researched modernist fascination with primitivism, Professor North carefully delineates the central role of race in modernist conceptions of an American language (setting a path that would be followed by such diverse later writers as Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka). As early as 1922, Harold Stearns proclaimed that “whatever else American civilization is, it is not Anglo-Saxon” (qtd. in North), and, as North reminds us, Alain Locke, chief theorist of the “New Negro” movement, believed that the particular form of racialism that characterized the Harlem Renaissance bore significant parallels to the white American modernists’ search for the soul of their own language.
North’s central thesis, however, is built around an acknowledged anomaly. In his preface he asserts that artists such as Eliot, Stein, Pound, Williams and cummings were drawn to the representation of black dialect in verse in large part because “[f]or them the artist occupied the role of racial outsider because he or she spoke a language opposed to the standard.” However, North’s book also seems to indicate that modernist poets were never more in step with the standard, never more at one with the very traditions of gentility they rebelled against, than when they adopted their masquerade dialect. In one note, North indicates to what a great extent racial masquerade had become an “accepted part of ordinary white middle-class American life,” and in another he observes that “the magazines of the genteel tradition had consistently printed the most offensive dialect humor.” Discussing [End Page 398] poems of Williams’s, North notes that “There was very little in such works to show that the white emulation of African-American language and culture had advanced beyond the stage of exaggerating a few verbal clichés,” and this is clearly the reason that African-American artists such as Claude McKay, Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston “felt it necessary to struggle just as diligently against the standards of the avant-garde as against the standards of its opponents.”
North is clearly right that race was of extreme importance to the formations of international modernism...