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Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000) 966-970

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Jean Gallagher

Susan Hegeman. Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. x + 264 pp.

Jonathan Levin. The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism. Chapel Hill: Duke UP, 1999. xviii + 222 pp.

Each of these interdisciplinary studies considers a single term's emergence in a nonliterary discourse of modernity and its subsequent manifestations in modern literature. Susan Hegeman's Patterns for America observes a series of arguments about concepts of "culture" in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century, as seen in the work of Boasian anthropologists, cultural critics, and literary practitioners. Jonathan Levin's The Poetics of Transition traces the metaphor of "transition" in pragmatist philosophy and in the work of three literary modernists. Because of their respective focus on modern anthropology and pragmatism, these two books are also about the development of antifoundationalism in early twentieth-century America and about literary grapplings with the questions raised by this development. If, as Levin concisely explains, the pragmatists were "the first modern philosophers to insist that truth is not found but made," conditioned by "material and cultural experience," [End Page 966] the Boasian anthropologists discussed by Hegeman might be said to be interested in a similar form of truth. Hegeman's work makes clear that for Franz Boas and his immediate intellectual heirs, "culture" was about relative values and actions; there was no one "ideal" culture toward which other, less "sophisticated" (that is, ethnically, economically, or racially marginalized) cultures evolved.

The story that Hegeman tells in Patterns for America is of the parallels and mutual influences between American anthropological and literary-critical conceptions of "culture" in the first half of the twentieth century. For readers who are literary critics and theorists, perhaps this book's most important contributions will be its introduction to some of the major issues and debates in anthropology during the modernist period, and the links Hegeman draws between these debates and the work of cultural critics like Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank, as well as literary practitioners like Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson, and Nathanael West.

A key concept for the figures who appear in Hegeman's study is that of a "spatial" or geographically based model of culture. As Hegeman explains, this model emerged as anthropology shifted away from the nineteenth-century ethnographic, evolutionary-teleological model, espoused primarily by amateur "gentlemen explorers" who sought to define "culture" as a progressive march toward ever increasing levels of technological sophistication whose apotheosis could be found in the industrialized West. In contrast, the "spatial" model of culture, first articulated and theorized by Franz Boas, posited multiple coexisting cultures, "unevenly lurching," as Hegeman puts it, "toward modernity." This spatial model of culture grew out of the development of the participant-observer field work pioneered by Boas, which in turn is associated with two other crucial terms--"self-conscious estrangement" and "alienation"--which link the Boasian anthropologists to other modernist intellectuals who began to think of American culture as "a set of patterns, values, and beliefs roughly comparable to those of other cultures" and hence to consider American cultural patterns in a "newly relational, contextual, and often critical way."

While Hegeman's book relies on her understanding of the influence on literary culture of the Boasian notion of a "spatial" culture and the concomitant estrangement of the familiar, it is culture critics like [End Page 967] Brooks and Frank who emerge as the pivotal figures here, mediating between anthropological discourse and literary practice, and her reading of their work is thorough and convincing. Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, occupy relatively little space in the book. Hegeman's discussion of Toomer's Cane, for example, is very brief: Cane, Hegeman argues, is arranged on a Boasian or Frankian spatial model (feminized, erotic South; alienated, sterile North) which supports and represents Frank's claims in Our America for the difficulties of finding a "whole" or coherent American culture. Hegeman sometimes misses the opportunity to more fully investigate how literary practitioners dealt with the...


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