restricted access New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State (review)
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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 546-548

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Book Review

New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State

New Deal Modernism: American Literature and the Invention of the Welfare State. Michael Szalay. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. 343. $59.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).

If there is a last word in the contemporary debates about politics and aesthetics, Michael Szalay's study of the insurance era may be it. New Deal Modernism proposes that wondering whether aesthetics is political is a dead end, and that critics might direct their attention more productively to a different kind of conversation altogether. Specifically, we no longer need to figure out how literary form "can be made to seem ideological" because at least "during the thirties and forties, accounts of form did not aspire to be anything but ideological" (7). Szalay contributes a recognition of the aesthetic appeal that the quantification of risk held for writers whose high modernist credentials have typically been understood to exempt them from the [End Page 546] concerns of political legislation and its fiscal technologies. Hence Wallace Stevens's declaration that "[p]oetry and surety claims are not as unlikely a combination as they may seem," or Kenneth Burke's that the problem of literary form was best represented by the "thorough rationality of the actuarial table" (127, 15). Debates about whether art was a process or a product, the act of creation or the artifact created, were "seen to bear directly on literature's relation as a market institution to the dire problem of underconsumption" occasioned by the Depression (5).

At the interdisciplinary junction between literature and statistics, Szalay shows that thinkers as diverse as John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, Franklin Roosevelt, and Burke were imagining democracy, economics, politics, and literature on the actuarial model institutionalized by Social Security. Roosevelt's version of the avant-garde's commitment to the aesthetics of risk was to offer public insurance to those who took chances. The aestheticians of the accidental and those policymakers who tried to insure them against it were both responding to the same problem.

Szalay terms "New Deal modernism" the ideology in relation to which all aestheticians of the Depression era defined their work. His body of evidence ranges from canonical modernists like Stevens and Gertrude Stein, the currently neglected Jack London and John Steinbeck, and more popular figures such as Ayn Rand and Busby Berkeley. He also refines individual readings of James Agee, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Betty Smith, and Richard Wright, and ends with a juxtaposition of Toni Morrison, David Antin, and Charles Olson. New Deal modernism levels specious distinctions between political and aesthetic writers in order to show similarity in their apparently opposed motivations. In Szalay's account, even the New Critics, Southern Agrarians, and New York intellectuals' famous resistance to the political function of aesthetics ultimately is shown to be part of a vastly diverse political debate. He demonstrates how those who insisted that aesthetic and economic forms were qualitatively different modes of response to "the hazards" of modernity still addressed the same problem that drove public insurance, which was how to organize the risks inherent to modern subjectivity (7).

Szalay's treatment of risk as an insurance category is an important response to those who claim that art can differentiate itself from its economy. When Walter Benn Michaels made plain twenty years ago that art that touted its subversive relation to capitalism was driven by it, Leo Bersani's riposte was that even ideology could err and thereby accidentally produce "nonmimetic (and therefore distancing) saturations or productively mistaken replications." 1 For Bersani, art could claim the category of a "mistake," and thereby slip outside of ideology and economy. Szalay's brilliant return is to take on the mistake and its proposed anachronicity as terms designed to provide for the "unimagined, often unimaginable futures" that occur by accident (129).

Literary critics have tended to respond to critiques of aesthetic form in historical and cultural studies by showing just how political aesthetics "really" can be...