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MODERNISM: A CULTURAL HISTORY, by Tim Armstrong. Themes in Twentieth Century Literature and Culture. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2005. 216 pp. $64.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

The appearance of this concise and wide-ranging book by Tim Armstrong prompts reflection on the trajectory of “modernism.” With the creation some ten years ago of the Modernist Studies Association and its journal Modernism/modernity, modernist studies received a new lease of life and also a new appearance and character. Modernism was, of course, around before this. The use of the term “modern” in a related sense is found in the 1910s, in the habit of Ezra Pound and his contemporaries to refer to themselves as “moderns.”1 Although there may be one or two earlier uses of the term in this context, it was A Survey of Modernist Poetry by Laura Riding and Robert Graves that seemed decisively to attach this term to poetry, although its use did not immediately proliferate.2 The term modernism has had currency for some decades in English-language commentary on literature but, by contrast, has been rare in other European countries where the notion of the avant-garde or the names of individual art movements have been preferred. Use of the term in English-language scholarship only occasionally led to its use in book titles until the last decade or so. This may, in part, be because scholars of modernism have slowly evolved from being scholars of this or that modernist author; a focus on modernism as an entity or period has tended, in the past, to take second place to the process of mastering the primary and secondary literature of such seemingly intractable individuals as Joyce or Pound. I think it is also the case that the idea of modernism [End Page 844] is ambivalent, signaling, on the one hand, the ideas of individuality, aesthetic and social rupture, and the deliberate attempt by the “artist” to differentiate him- or herself from the environment in an attempt at least to live more freely and, at best, to anticipate and enable a new social future.

At the same time, modernism serves as a periodizing term, with the limits of that period defined by the European avant-gardism of the time before the World War I, consolidated by the Anglo-American and Irish high modernism of the 1920s and ended by the politics and commitment of the 1930s, with Finnegans Wake as its last outpost. Of course, this model never quite worked. Modernism inconveniently begins, in most ways of reckoning, with Charles Baudelaire, making it Victorian by period if not by cultural essence. Nor does modernism clearly end as long as, say, Pound and T. S. Eliot are writing; it is certainly not ended by The Movement and is clearly continued by poets such as Allen Fisher and J. H. Prynne. Sensing this, some commentators leaped on the idea that a postmodern aesthetic had emerged to replace modernism, and the term postmodern, for a time, came loosely to supply the idea that modernism had been succeeded not by the perceived reaction of the provincials Philip Larkin and Donald Davie but by the western shift abroad to a new aesthetic based on parody and pastiche and the conflation of high and low culture. This was a new entity that compressed the Beatles, Andy Warhol, and recently built hotels into an accessible but still radical-seeming ensemble of works across the arts, which conveniently attached a supposedly new notion of aesthetic rupture to a loosely perceived period of “late capitalism” defined, in essence, by the shift to a United States capitalism and the particular pattern of consumerism that accompanied it. The model, of course, is that of Fredric Jameson, whose famous essay was a key element in the rush of publications surrounding postmodernism in the 1980s.3

Postmodernism as a publishing phenomenon has certain parallels with the upsurge in books on modernism in the last decade. The desire to periodize is not a disinterested one. When this topic was raised at the London modernism seminar in May 2006, Lawrence Rainey made the point that the journal Modernism/modernity had bestowed a new identity on modernist...


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