[Access article in PDF]
Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars
Theory and Cultural Studies
Tyrus Miller. Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars. Berkeley: U of California Press, 1999. 263 pp.
I have sometimes wondered why I find the fictions of Wyndham Lewis and Djuna Barnes unsatisfying. Now I know. Tyrus Miller's ambitious book Late Modernism examines literature from the late 1920s and 1930s to show how writers like Barnes and Lewis struggled to inhabit the uncertain cultural arena left behind by what Miller claims is the collapse of modernism. Late Modernism casts its net beyond Lewis and Barnes with chapters on Mina Loy and Samuel Beckett, and aims beyond single authors toward a defining analysis of what the subtitle calls "Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars." Miller shifts our attention beyond the high-modernists of our bookstores and syllabi, primarily by focusing on literary texts, and secondarily by connecting these texts to artists as diverse as Duchamp, Giacometti, Al Jolson, and the Bolshevik clowns Bim and Bom. This breadth of field and its author's bold claims for late modernism make Late Modernism a daring piece of scholarship that merits attention from scholars of early-twentieth-century culture. [End Page 1063]
We all know that much work has been done on modernism's genealogy, rise, and (depending on your perspective) tragic fall or irritating persistence. Miller's work aims "to focus on modernism from the perspective of its end." Indeed, his opening section is titled "Theorizing Late Modernism," and in "elaborating a revisionary model for understanding modernist writing in this transitional period" it delivers a lively and tendentious reading of late modernism's high modernist antecedents. Miller's goals are threefold: first, to offer a recuperative overview of writers he feels need our attention but don't get it--Wyndham Lewis, Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy--and to include the bright star of Samuel Beckett in this constellation; second, to show that though these writers never formed a movement in the sense of Vorticism or Surrealism, they did break with Anglo-American modernism in ways that present linking "family resemblances," and that enable Miller's schema and hermeneutic; third, to define an interpretive field--late modernism--that positions Miller (and his readers) to re-think the aesthetics of modernism while appreciating late modernism for its own charms.
Does he succeed? One's answer, I think, depends largely on one's expectations. Dislike Lewis' sneering balloon-bursting; uncertain about Barnes' lapidary gloom? Miller's analyses offer an explanation and some fascinating contextual information about these artists, but fall short of effecting a wholesale change in how we view them. The central section called "Reading Late Modernism" is this book's pièce de résistance. Its close readings of Beckett, Barnes, and Lewis support Miller's claims for late modernism's importance as a transition and as a unique period, and call on surprising examples from the fine arts and popular advertising of the day. Here, Miller's readings enrich one's understanding of these writers and illuminate one's sense of the moment he calls late modernism, but do not resuscitate the troubled fortunes of works like Lewis's Childermass or Barnes's Ladies Almanack, largely because his readings depend on a simplified version of earlier modernism. For example, Miller's "Epilogue" on Mina Loy's novel Insel is a fitting conclusion to this study (and to Miller's conception of modernism) because Insel enacts the changed position of the artist in late modernism--"this new context that shook the twin pillars of modernist faith, the autonomy and the privilege of art as such." For Miller, the collapse of this autonomous modernism is the collapse of modernism itself. So, Loy's novel is exemplary [End Page 1064] because it depicts artists who fail to understand their situations as artists or as social beings. If we agree with Miller's sense of modernism, we can conclude that...