- Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms
Anita Patterson's book is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on transnational, transatlantic modernisms. Along with critics such as Jahan Ramazani, Matthew Hart, and the contributors to Laura Doyle and Laura Winkiel's anthology Geomodernisms,1 Patterson is helping to shift the focal point of modernist studies away from national paradigms, seeking in this book rather to "uncover a dense matrix of hemispheric and transatlantic convergences" (3) among poets as diverse as Derek Walcott, Jacques Roumain, Wilson Harris, Langston Hughes, St.-John Perse, and T. S. Eliot. With rich close readings, meticulous research, and an especially helpful emphasis on connections between Anglophone and Francophone poets, Patterson demonstrates in five strong chapters "how the diasporic consequences of imperialism have configured close, surprising affinities among poets and cultures of the Americas" (179). This new, expanded version of American poetry will be of great use to subsequent scholars; however, as I argue below, there is also a lingering tension in her book between a cross-cultural model of poetic convergences and a more hierarchical model based on an idea of poetic influence that tends to flow from center to periphery.
The version of American poetry that Patterson develops here is capacious: it contains multitudes. It is hemispheric and transatlantic in scope, encompassing the U.S.-born, British-naturalized Eliot, the Guadaloupe-born, Parisian resident Perse, and the Haitian poet Roumain, exiled in New York City, to take just three well-traveled examples prominent in Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms. Most importantly, Patterson's concept of American poetry is fundamentally multilingual, and her astute analyses of the relationships (including mutual translations) between Eliot and Perse, and between Roumain and Hughes, lie at the center of this book, making a much needed break with the monolingualism that still pervades much modernist scholarship. Following Hughes, for example, back and forth between the United States, Paris (where he met and translated the surrealist Louis Aragon), and Haiti (where he met and translated Roumain), Patterson adds to the scholarship of Brent Edwards and others that has been recasting Hughes as a poet of diasporic, multilingual modernism.2 For Patterson, this multifaceted, pan-American tradition has two clear throughlines, one leading back to Edgar Allen Poe and the other to Walt Whitman; and these two poetic streams —representing craft and form, on the one hand, and vernacular idioms and political content, on the other—meet in one preeminent figure, T. S. Eliot, who takes center stage in this reconstructed, plural account of early twentieth-century modernisms.
This is not your grandparents. T. S. Eliot. While acknowledging the figure of the poet as the Anglicized, patrician gatekeeper of the arts with reactionary views on race and religion, Patterson instead highlights the aspects of Eliot's verse that maintained ties, however ambivalently, with American places and the history of the Americas, and with the demotic forms of everyday speech and popular culture, such as jazz and music hall. In an intriguing and surprising reading of "Gerontion," for example, she uncovers allusions to specific American settings and argues that Eliot learned from Poe how to use local elements to bypass the nationalist impulse that both saw as a detrimental part of the U.S. literary scene. In her second chapter, Patterson argues that the locations in an early French lyric of Eliot's, "Lune de miel," produce a complex sense of place: "The setting ... works like a palimpsest, weirdly imposing European geography on American prairie landscapes" (53). She argues that the poem's deictic phrase "les voici à [here they are in] Ravenne" merges the Italian city with Ravinia, Illinois, the "summer opera capital" of the U.S. on the outskirts of Chicago (53). And where Jed Esty reads Four Quartets as evidence of the poet's post-Waste Land "antidiasporic" impulse towards a holistic, recuperated England, "following the trail of his family's colonial migration back to their native English village, East Coker,"3 Patterson, by contrast, draws our attention to moments in Eliot's work that evoke the American frontier, with the...