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  • Anthropologists, Indians, and New Critics: Culture and/as Poetic Form in Regional Modernism
  • Eric Aronoff (bio)

Literary regionalism has long been thought—by late twentieth-century critics as well as those in the period—to be peripheral to the central concerns of “modernism.” For many of the artists and critics who embraced the formal experimentation that, in their minds, reflected the rapid changes of the period—the growth of urban centers; the national and global movement of populations, goods, and ideas; the rapid pace of industrial and technological innovation; and the social and political upheavals these shifts brought with them—literary regionalism was a nostalgic, feminized retreat from the challenges of Modernity. Subsequent literary history of modernism has largely followed suit in defining modernism as an urban, cosmopolitan movement. In the last two decades, regional modernism has continued to seem suspect, as critics like Amy Kaplan and Richard Brodhead have argued for literary regionalism’s complicity in the project of imperial nation-building; the recent critical interest in transnational, diasporic, and global movements have made regional modernism’s interest in the local seem even more peripheral.1

In contrast, I will argue in this article that regional modernism is central to American modernism in that regional modernism lies at the intersection of two of American modernism’s central preoccupations: [End Page 92] the rise, on the one hand, of what would come to be seen as the “anthropological” version of culture as relative, whole systems of meaning and, on the other hand, of the modernist fascination with the literary text as spatial form, which in turn finds its most influential expression in the theories of poetry and reading practices of New Criticism. For the rise of regional modernism in the 1920s and 1930s is also the period in which both literary criticism and anthropology attain their modern disciplinary identities, both through a reconceptualization of their objects of analysis (or perhaps more accurately, a reconceptualization of these disciplines as centering on what could be seen as objects requiring analysis)—in literary criticism, the New Critical conception of the poem and in anthropology, the idea of culture(s). Studies of regional modernism have, however, not sufficiently acknowledged regionalism’s position within these two developments. While critics have perceptively analyzed the various ways that literary artists have constructed this or that regional culture, and the aesthetic and/or political implications of those constructions, most have not recognized the ways in which this literature participates in a raging interdisciplinary debate—involving anthropologists, artists, social scientists, and literary critics (to name a few)—over the idea of culture itself, in which culture could newly be conceived of as regional.2

If, as I will argue, modernist anthropology and modernist concerns with literary form intersect in regional modernism, they also intersect on the figure of the Indian, as a key site on which ideas of regional modernism play themselves out. Many critics have detailed American modernists’ fascination with and construction of the Indian as an alternative to nineteenth-century Victorian ideas of civilization and aesthetics; as Walter Benn Michaels has argued, the Indian becomes in this period, in their imagined racial and cultural purity, a model for a new kind of American identity as such (12).3 The pueblo Indians of the Southwest emerged as particularly fascinating for American modernists: in the first decades of the twentieth century, as new routes of transportation and commerce opened the desert Southwest to both tourism and scientific exploration, railroad companies actively promoted tours to see this “exotic” area and its “unspoiled” native inhabitants before they inevitably “vanished” beneath the tide of modern American civilization (Wade 169; McLuhan 18, 43). Among these tourists were both anthropologists and artists, for whom the Southwest—along with Greenwich Village—soon became one of the two main sites where alternative models of culture and art could be found (and produced) (Stocking, “Ethnographic” 218–20).4

Locating regional modernism at the intersection of modernist anthropology, experiments in literary form, and New Criticism, I will [End Page 93] argue, first, that in the modernist period, anthropologists like Edward Sapir counter definitions of culture as universal, diachronic narrative of progressive refinement or technological improvement with conceptions of...


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pp. 92-118
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