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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899–1939
  • Shannon McRae
Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses, editors. Modernism and Colonialism: British and Irish Literature, 1899–1939. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. viii + 326 pp.

The unprecedented expansion of the British Empire between 1870 and 1910 coincided with the nascence of the literary experiment that [End Page 859] became modernism. During the interwar period between 1918 and 1935, at precisely the same time that modernism had established itself as the predominant aesthetic mode, the British Empire achieved its greatest geographical expansion. The field of postcolonial studies was arguably founded on the study of modernism. Gayatri Spivak wrote her dissertation on Yeats's life and work within the context of colonialism in 1974. In the foundational 1988 mini-anthology Nationalism, Colonialism and Literature, Edward Said identified Yeats as one of the first poets to forge a revolutionary aesthetic and national vision out of the colonial experience. In that same volume, Fredric Jameson published his essay "Modernism and Imperialism," firmly associating the artistic movement with the ideology of empire, thus setting the critical course of the new and rapidly growing discipline of postcolonial studies in response to modernist texts.

"Yet despite this scholarly activity" in the two decades since Said and Jameson published these essays, "few studies have provided a sustained and comprehensive account of the relation of modernism to colonialism" write Richard Begam and Michael Valdez Moses in their introduction to Modernism and Colonialism (1). Instead, most recent studies of colonialism and literature either privilege nineteenth over twentieth-century texts as products discernibly of the "Age of Empire," or else, following Jameson, reductively condemn the whole of modernism as an imperialist project.

Indeed, for all its current vibrancy, postcolonial theory in general seems surprisingly to have all but disregarded the revolution in modernist studies of the past three decades, in which feminists, queer theorists, and psychoanalytic critics, among others, have decisively reclaimed the more radical and oppositional tendencies of modernism from the previous generation of scholarship that had constructed it as a monolithic bastion of aesthetic conservatism. For scholars frustrated with the apparent failure of these two closely related fields to address each other, Modernism and Colonialism offers a much needed and exciting beginning toward a potentially rich conversation.

The essays in this recent collection are uniformly strong and offer a range of substantial challenges to received critical discourse. Its contributors not only revisit canonical authors—Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Forster, Conrad, and Woolf—but also include inexplicably neglected figures such as Elizabeth Bowen, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Evelyn Waugh—all of whom complicate received definitions of what aesthetic innovations and which artistic communities shaped the modernist movement. As a rationale for revisiting mainstream British and Irish authors rather than non-European writers more typically studied under the postcolonialist rubric, such as Coetzee, Desani, Naipaul, Rhys, or Walcott, Begam and Moses point out that "it is the traditional [End Page 860] modernists who have most often been censured for being receptive to, or complicitous with, the project of empire." It is precisely this received critique that they wish "to interrogate, and in some instances to contest" (7). Thus Moses, in his essay "Disorientalism: Conrad and the Imperial Origin of Modernist Aesthetics," revisits Conrad and challenges the foundational interpretive models of postcolonial studies that Said, Jameson, and others have established. Conrad's fictionalized accounts of the imperial encounter neither reinscribe the successful imposition of the western episteme on the colonized, nor do they aesthetically occlude from their audience the brutality of the empirical regim, Moses argues. Rather, "the paradigmatic scene of the imperial encounter is one of disorientation,one in which the Western mind, far from subjugating the pliable environment" to European ends, fails to cope with or even comprehend it: "This Conradian scene typically culminates not in an act of Western epistemological mastery and political domination but one of uncertainty and alienation, radical skepticism, and intense critical self-examination" (45). Furthermore, Conrad, a disenfranchised Polish national and career seaman, dislocates the scene of modernism away from the urban centers ordinarily associated with it to the fringes of Empire.

In a similarly adventurous challenge of received interpretations, Andrzej Gąsiorek revisits the much...


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