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Modernism/Modernity 8.3 (2001) 453-470

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Modernism's Victorian Bric-à-brac

Jessica R. Feldman

Victorian Modernism

Artists and critics alike view high modernism within scenes of rupture and yearning. Even when artists vigorously stage "the new," anxiety and nostalgia shade desire. Wallace Stevens's "poem of the mind in the act of finding / What will suffice" once the past becomes "souvenir" conveys this need for a modernist rescue operation in a present defined by loss. 1 Modernist writers, as we often acknowledge in one way or another, want to separate themselves and their work from the recent past as well as from other modernist writers and to preclude the possibility of rescue from their thrilling and despairing isolation.

To this understanding of literary modernism, we must add the idea that modernists were interested not just in rupture, but also in continuity, and specifically in continuities with the Victorian period, 1837-1901. We must try to hear, within the rallying cry of "make it new," the harmonic of "preserve it through change." It is important to tell critical stories of both destruction and preservation, and one way to do so is to bring the mid-century, high Victorian into relation with high modernism. As we do, a Victorian modernist aesthetic of both rupture and continuity, of stark differences and relations across gaps, develops.

Studying Victorian modernism, we learn to consider works of art as webs of relations and ideas with multiple centers and gaps, a filigree-in-progress. Or, in weightier terms, we should learn to pay attention to collections of things, arranged but subject to rearrangement. In parallel, our critical goal must be to chart coherences that begin and end with critical venturings from divers centers. As we shall see, George Eliot writes of "multiplex" [End Page 453] structures, and William James of "concatenated unions." Both urge us to consider delicate and complicated structures, not solid blocks.

Victorian modernist criticism might speak of seeming solidities, for example, "the modern epic" or "the New Woman novel." But like the structural designs of buildings that John Ruskin often found less interesting than their surface ornamentations, the solidities such studies describe exist for the intermingling patterns they make possible, not the patterns for the solidities. 2 The house of modernism may be aggressively streamlined or built anew; but it also embraces yesterday's house, absorbing the patterned bric-à-brac of the Victorian parlor and carefully rearranging it. It is no accident that, in examining the cozy and ornamented characteristics of Victorian art and literature, we will see that nineteenth-century domestic and sentimental novelists in both Great Britain and the United States were engaged in creating works taken up by twentieth-century modernist writers, high and low. Indeed, distinctions between high and low or serious novels and domestic novels no longer serve us well. Henry James was a domestic novelist just as surely as Elizabeth Stoddard wrote difficult, impressionist, experimental prose. This connection is not meant simply to redraw the lines of recent literary history, but rather to challenge a central truism of literary study: that modernist writers, beginning in the 1890s, made an art that clearly departed from what had come immediately before. 3

But why posit Victorian modernism in the first place? One answer--that some modernist artists themselves did so--may be exemplified by William Butler Yeats's "Introduction" to his anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. In their darker tableaux, modernist artists--and Yeats is no exception--often choose rupture as an alternative to repeating now emptied forms of the recent past. Yet when modernist writers insist upon radical discontinuity, we should not take them at their word. We should examine those words and the resulting works of art carefully, because Victorian practices often vitally inform modernist works. What is dismissed is also summoned. Yeats, for example, in writing the introduction to his anthology, describes the advent of the "modern" as the "wringing [of] the neck of rhetoric." It appears that Victorian poetic practices had to die in order that modernism could be born. Nothing less than revolution would...


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