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The Politics of Modernism
Martha J. Cutter. Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1999. xx + 228 pp.
John Lucas. The Radical Twenties: Writing, Politics, and Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999. 263 pp.
The most politically outspoken of the modernists tended to have an authoritarian bent: Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme. Even on the continent, Marinetti's fascism seemed more suited to his futurism than Breton's communism to his surrealism. Despite Lukács's distaste for the literature he associated with the "Grand Hotel Abyss," Western critics have long sought a progressive message in the difficult prose and verse of modernism. Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Theodor Adorno--each in his own way found in the variety and complexity of modern literature a protest against bureaucracy, capitalism, and a dehumanizing mass society. Lukács's heirs still occasionally make their voice heard, as in Raymond Williams's posthumously published attack The Politics of Modernism. Yet, with the influence of poststructuralist thought and cultural studies, recent critics have continued the quest for leftist elements in modernism. They have focused on the way that modern writers dismantle the "liberal subject" or the bourgeois individual and display the constructedness of racial, sexual, and national identities. Apart [End Page 959] from a few aficionados of the cultural history of fascism, most critics prefer to sympathize with the authors they study so intensively. True, there are plenty of attacks on Conrad as a racist, and there has recently been renewed interest in the elitism of the moderns. Still, in general, students of modernism would rather look for an uplifting and leftish message for our times, not only in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, or E. M. Forster, but even in less apparently political authors such as Henry James.
The two books under discussion here share an interest in the political significance of modernism, especially modern fiction, though in very different contexts. Both find a link between modernism and movements for political liberation, and both seek wholesome models for political change in rather unusual places. Martha J. Cutter's Unruly Tongue devotes most of its attention to late nineteenth-century women writers, but it privileges literary modernism in its chosen trajectory, which runs from sentimental domestic novels, through increasingly engaged feminist writing, to the works of Jessie Fauset and Willa Cather, who use "strategies of disruption of patriarchal discourse [. . .] as a subversive way of breaking with patriarchal economies of desire and language." The canvas is broad, and the account of literary history somewhat tendentious: Cutter discerns a movement from the stereotype of the "true woman" to the ideal of the "new woman" and a further twist in the modernists' embracing of "a metalinguistic, ethnic discourse that realizes the theoretical basis of women's linguistic disempowerment within structures of patriarchal discourse but also works on, and in, these structures to undermine them." This means, primarily, that Fauset's Angela Murray (in Plum Bun) gives up her idea of passing for white and learns "to express her racial consciousness and to speak feminine desire," while Cather's Thea Kronborg (in The Song of the Lark), an opera singer, learns about "non-hegemonic" art from the remains of Native American pottery at Panther Canyon and the songs of the living Mexican American wallpaper salesman "Spanish Johnny."
Cutter takes a special interest in figures of the female artist or writer and has a strong preference for those novels in which the heroine speaks back to her oppressors. Thus, according to Cutter, in Harriet E. Wilson's Our Nig, Frado's sharp tongue allows her to "'speak' her intentions and undermine racist systems of signification." By contrast, Jo in Little Women learns from her future husband Professor Bhaer to "repress [End Page 960] any deviant desire for self-expression or independence"; Jo exclaims in a typical scene, "Oh my tongue, my abominable tongue! why can't I learn to keep it quiet?" While Cutter demonstrates respect for Alcott, whose work "foreshadows the...