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Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Disclosures in American Modernism
Theory and Cultural Studies
Chip Rhodes. Structures of the Jazz Age: Mass Culture, Progressive Education, and Racial Disclosures in American Modernism. London: Verso, 1998. 218 pp.
The American 1920s are currently undergoing something of a critical revival. Recent works by Ann Douglas and Walter Benn Michaels, for example, have offered new paradigms for understanding the remarkable cultural ferment of the decade. With Structures of the Jazz Age, Chip Rhodes gives us another interpretive framework for analyzing the era, one that both extends and challenges other recent research. Rhodes's approach is informed by Althusserian Marxism, something not often encountered these days, even within Marxism itself. Althusser's principal contribution to cultural theory was, of course, his investigation of ideology, which posited both the individual subject's insertion into the fabric of social relations through the medium of ideology, as well as the work of the aesthetic as a kind of "untying of the text," as narrative and figuration reveal to us the fictive and contradictory nature of that very ideology. Rhodes deploys these notions in a series of inventive readings of twenties writers, involving much valuable recovery work. Books like Harry Leon Wilson's Merton of the Movies and Ludwig Lewisohn's Up Stream come before us as vital texts fully worthy of renewed critical attention. In addition, a central chapter on the key economic and political developments of the decade--from mass consumption to labor relations--places on the agenda the kinds of wider historical problems with which literary historians have thus far insufficiently come to terms.
The first part of the book mounts a concerted attack on the familiar "lost generation" narrative of twenties culture and its lingering hold on our critical faculties. This tall tale fetishizes the individual artist-hero who escapes the exigencies of social and political experience and romantically fashions an ahistorical "world apart." Here, Rhodes acutely notes the resonance between this narrative and the more encompassing "romance thesis" of American fiction, which sees American novelists as constitutively incapable of addressing social reality. While some of the argument here seems oddly time warped--most of the critical texts Rhodes contends with are 40 or 50 years old--he shows convincingly that writers of the period, while they may have incorporated elements of such an ideological narrative into their work, did so in order to interrogate it and reveal its limitations. The real culprits here are not the writers but rather the modernist intellectuals (like Van Wyck [End Page 561] Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Harold Stearns, all influenced principally by H. L. Mencken), who really did advocate, in Rhodes's view, a retreat from society by the autonomous individual. This seems problematic: I do not see such a sharp split between the intelligentsia and the modernist writers they frequently fraternized with, and Mencken, meanwhile, seems far more conservative than many of the Young America figures whose careers he helped launch.
The vexed term "modernism" is, of course, the chief aesthetic term of the book; Rhodes's treatment of it is illuminating and also productively raises a host of thorny questions. In general he positions American modernism both as a particular approach to language--neither referential nor purely autonomous, which seems a very useful framing of the matter--and as an ideology as such, part of the ideological state apparatuses of the period, but one with the fortuitous capacity to subvert itself, to reveal the materiality of language and the complex imbrications of the subject and history. There thus appears to be something of a pre-established harmony between modernism and Althusser's notion of the aesthetic, which for me led to some uncertainties over the status of modernism as a literary practice over and against its more ideological registers. Thus while John Dos Passos's USA is lauded for its demonstration of the intersections of discourse and the social, by the end of the...