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Reviewed by:
Carey J. Snyder. British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters: Ethnographic Modernism from Wells to Woolf. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. x + 253 pp.

Carey J. Snyder’s thought-provoking first book starts from the observation that the engagement with cultural difference found in British modernist fiction occurred at the same time as anthropology was emerging as an academic discipline. The writing strategies found in novels were often ahead of the theory of the time in that they found ways of expressing issues of authority that only came to the fore later with the so-called crisis in anthropology. Snyder modifies James Clifford’s term “ethnographic modernity” in The Predicament of Culture to become “ethnographic modernism,” a way of writing a self-conscious awareness of being betwixt and between cultures (2).

The chapters address how novelists drew on what Snyder calls “ethnographic methods,” which serve to “generate many of the central tropes and aesthetic devices we have come to associate with modernist literature” (8). Chapter 1 on Rider Haggard’s She, sees the text as responding to the scramble for knowledge and ethnographic data about Africa. She is seen as imposing order and a narrative of imperial progress on the observed cultural material, though we are always teetering on the brink of that order giving way and other forms of response coming to the fore. These include the possibility that these other cultures had something the West had lost, and that there is no shaping, controlling narrative that could bring order to the material. Chapter 2 sees the Western subject’s engagement with otherness producing a sense of “bewilderment” as Snyder places Mary Kingsley’s writing alongside Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (59). Snyder relates Kingsley’s response to what she saw in Africa to Conrad’s development of an impressionistic writing style for his short novel. The comparison works particularly well, and this is perhaps the strongest chapter in the book.

Point of view in modernist writing is related to the ethnographic gaze in chapter 3. Here the main focus is Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, and specifically the trip taken by a group of British tourists to an Amazonian village as seen through the eyes of a female villager. This scene is related to twentieth-century debates in anthropological writing on the right to represent the other. The Voyage Out is said to be not only an attack on notions of a return to “primitive” culture, which Snyder finds in the work of Jane Harrison, but also a text that recycles discourses of racial “contamination” (111). In chapter 4, on A Passage to India, Forster’s writing style, with it unsettling shifts, is seen as a prime example of how the confident ethnographic gaze was being probed and explored in the British fiction of the first [End Page 434] half of the twentieth century. The final chapter, on the “vogue” for the Native American in 1920s writing, explores how the writings of D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley drew on their engagement with the Southwest. The chapter as a whole does not fully convince, however, as more material starts to demand attention than can be mastered and digested in the space available. The proliferation of Lawrence texts, where his views and responses were constantly changing and developing, is indeed a real challenge, and Snyder relies on editions and secondary material that are out-of-date. Reference to Neil Roberts’s D. H. Lawrence, Travel and Cultural Difference (2004), for example, would have helped greatly here, perhaps in developing a reading of Lawrence that extended the mixed qualities noted in the reading of The Voyage Out. Instead Snyder sees Lawrence as a “romantic primitivist,” and a Kate Millett-influenced view of Lawrence is asserted but not demonstrated by sustained engagement with the texts (189). I wonder if this last chapter was not actually part of a further project.

British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters is at its considerable best when it is placing ethnographic and creative texts alongside each other and connecting confidence and authority in the engagement with otherness to the style, form, and language of British modernist writing. I am not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 434-435
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-25
Open Access
No
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