restricted access Writers for the Nation: American Literary Modernism (review)
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Reviewed by
C. Barry Chabot. Writers for the Nation: American Literary Modernism. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997. 290 pp.

Writers for the Nation is underwritten by a fairly simple argument. American modernists, according to Chabot, were not as unconcerned with all things social and political as most lost-generation chroniclers would have it. American modernists were of one mind on one thing—their “felt” dissatisfaction with the national culture as it took shape after World War I. Following the lead of Van Wyck Brooks, American modernists articulated a strong critique of U.S. culture and called for wholesale social change. Differences among modernists surface in the remedies proffered and the ideological resources to which the writers turned. Some, like Willa Cather, turned to an idealized cultural matrix that couldn’t possibly be retrieved. Others, like T. S. Eliot and Allan Tate, turned to a vague notion of “tradition” rooted in social institutions. Still others, like Jessie Fauset and Langston Hughes (and Harlem Renaissance writers generally), imagined that Harlem was the remedy while writers of the thirties imagined (also wrongly) that communism was the remedy. Chabot finds evidence of this legacy of “failure” in all “serious” literature written within the U.S. context. Despair of anything replacing the belief systems that had been discredited by the First World War persists to this day in the literature written after American modernism. The writer who emblematizes this more thoroughgoing disillusionment is Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man takes the reader through every remedy offered in the century without any remedy standing out as adequate to the humanist yearnings of the narrator. Variants of this literature of cynicism include just about everyone writing [End Page 983] “after the lost generation,” in John Aldridge’s phrase. This crude but ultimately fair synopsis covers just about all the major figures who fit Chabot’s extremely flexible, blandly inclusive classification of modernism and its inheritors.

The narrative likely owes its shape to Wallace Stevens (to whom Chabot devotes a late chapter), whose lifelong search for a “supreme fiction” explicitly articulates the search Chabot ascribes to modernism as a social movement. Given this debt, Chabot’s rougher treatment of him (he is quite generous in his discussions of everyone, even those who embraced reactionary programs like Cather and Eliot) is curious. It is as if Chabot’s debt is so great that Stevens must be acknowledged, but then dismissed. The terms of this dismissal, however, throw into relief this work’s theoretical limitations. Chabot takes Stevens to task for what he considers a logical impossibility—believing in something that is recognized as a fiction. For Chabot, belief only makes sense if the system in which one believes is understood to be true. Chabot adheres, in other words, to the “false consciousness” model of ideology that understands ideology as a fiction that dupes subjects into believing that it is factual. As Althusser and Foucault have shown, however, ideology is most effective in structuring what we do, by social practices that don’t require the cognitive apparatus that operates according to the true/false couplet. Chabot’s uncritical acceptance of this distinction is quite explicit in his criticism of Stevens, as he includes the reader in a test of belief in which he offers what is obviously “not true” (his words) to demonstrate that one can only believe in something that is accurate for the external world—a world that for Chabot is observed through ideologically uncontaminated eyes.

Chabot’s critique of Stevens is also vulnerable from a theoretical position closer to home. American pragmatism offers a convincing rejoinder to Chabot’s commentary: one can believe in a fiction because of its material consequences, because it is useful as (what Nancy Fraser calls) a “normative ethics” and not because it is true. Chabot’s untheorized notion of belief is evident throughout Writers for the Nation. It finally disables his accounts of the projects of all the writers since it generally presents narratives to which the figures themselves would happily subscribe. The fact that their individual projects are deemed failures does not undercut this claim since they are always “failures” according to their own announced projects. [End Page 984...