- Reviewed by
Henry James was no fan of mass culture, if we are to believe many of his own pronouncements and those, especially, of his earliest academic champions, the New Critics. In the past two decades, however, many scholars, with Michael Anesko in the vanguard, have sought to reposition America’s first novel-artist within the marketplace that he so dynamically wrangled with, demonstrating the extent to which the art of James, father of literary modernism, owed a debt to mass culture forms. Nancy Bentley’s new book does not engage exclusively in James’s friction with the market, however. This rich and valuable study expands the field of inquiry regarding the dynamic interplay of highbrow and commercial culture to include not only the heavy literary hitters of the time—James, Howells, Twain, and Wharton—but also a chorus of little-heeded voices ringing from the margins of American society who exploited the sheer volume of mass culture to make their stories heard. Figures such as Native American writer Gertrude Bonnin, famed Apache chief Geronimo, and black intellectuals and authors such as Alexander Crummel and James Weldon Johnson analyzed, interrogated, and struggled to define their role in an increasingly malleable public sphere. In the process they fashioned competing “counterpublic[s]” in which “the distinction between high and low culture gives way [End Page 420] to new possibilities for reimagining the facts of race” (190). In Bentley’s able hands, the “great divide” once thought to separate high modernism and mass culture collapses into a multiplicity of divisions among and within many publics, each not only exploiting the “phantasmagoria” (89) of forms characterizing mass culture in its own way, but also collectively pointing up the “internal entanglements” that tie each to the others (72).
Frantic Panoramas can thus be understood as an illuminating prequel to recent studies—by Mark McGurl, Mark Morrison, Tim Armstrong, and others—because it concentrates on modernism’s fraught and overdetermined interdependence on the mass cultural marketplace. In Bentley’s study, however, literary modernism operates as a more or less absent presence, implicitly guiding her story of competing models of public reason struggling for legitimacy at the turn of the nineteenth century. Mass amusements and spectacles like Barnum’s Traveling Museum, staged locomotive collisions, and the early cinema transformed the “order of the real” to such an extent that public consensus was increasingly grounded, many feared, in sensual, kinetic experience rather than in the rational exchange of ideas among middle-class readers and writers (81). Bentley thus situates her analysis in Jürgen Habermas’s notion of the debasement of the bourgeois public sphere in mass culture, but she cleverly qualifies this influential formulation, following Arjun Appadurai, by demonstrating how mass culture enabled a new kind of civil society—a “postliterary era” (9)—in which literary culture relinquished its authoritative role as the “central arena for negotiating norms of public reason,” allowing competing publics to emerge (5). Artists and intellectuals of the period approached the question of public reason from many often contradictory angles—a competition that exploited the heterogeneity of popular forms both to give voice to formerly silenced communities and to redefine literature itself.
Bentley’s knack for negotiating and incorporating the impressive abundance of material that she takes as her object of study contributes to the rhetorical authority of Frantic Panoramas. Beginning and ending the study are respective readings of two novels by the self-designated spokesmen of high realism, William Dean Howells—A Modern Instance (1882) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890)—whose alarm in the face of mass culture’s phantasmagoria energized his (unsuccessful) efforts to entrench the intellectual authority of what Bentley calls the “museum idea,” the “transportable belief that the world is most legible whenever the right kind of observer confronts and understands selected objects” (23). By the later novel, Howells has capitulated to the “strange” and “incongruous” [End Page 421] world of mass culture, which, he confesses, has begun “to speak a new language of the real,” one whose legibility resists the typolological model...