- Common Places and Commonplace Things: Modernism at Home on an Average Day
These two books, in different ways, try to resituate the self-conscious radicalism of literary modernism in terms of its under-acknowledged engagement with the commonplace. Modernism and the Locations of Literary Heritage uses Victorian middlebrow heritage to establish the cultural context that produced and informed modernism while Modernism and the Ordinary demonstrates how the provocative and apparently elevated aesthetics of modernist unconventionality are ultimately grounded in “experiences that are not heightened” (4).
In Modernism and the Locations of Literary Heritage, Andrea Zemgulys demonstrates how the nineteenth-century practice of memorializing the houses and haunts of revered authors (and, to a lesser degree, fictional characters) informs modernist efforts to, in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase, “make it new.” As Zemgulys frames it, [End Page 614] the book is about “reading self-consciously innovative writers in the context of heritage” (3), a context that foregrounds modernism’s engagement with “reassuring continuity rather than stimulating change” (4). Importantly, this vision of heritage is not a mythic one based on a desire to rediscover and reestablish some kind of foundation in antiquity, as many have imagined Yeats, Joyce, and Eliot to have done. Instead, the cultural and literary bedrock of modernist heritage is founded in the much more immediate, apparent, and derided Victorian era, an era that, Zemgulys claims, sought to construct imaginative, creative labor in relation to more conventional types of labor and to see literary eminence as a middlebrow matter of “merited achievement” rather than a matter of spontaneous or idiosyncratic genius (51). In this construction, Shakespeare becomes the exception, not the rule, a figure who has (from a middle class perspective) bafflingly achieved literary greatness despite the fact that he is not “just like us” (24). “The bourgeois appeal of heritage” figures prominently throughout the book (7), as the literary past is invoked in service of stable middle-class values. For Zemgulys, the very ordinariness of the sites and the objects of literary heritage (involving everyday items such as the dresses worn by Charlotte Brontë, the hats worn by Carlyle, and the chair Wordsworth reclined in) work to confirm a Victorian belief in the massive potentialities latent within all unremarkable domestic sites. In the sites of literary heritage, the ordinary is discursively sealed off from the trivial, with the result that a Victorian literary geographer can marry conspicuous achievement with inconspicuous domesticity and arrive at a point of happy self-congratulation in similitude.
The book marks the careful processes by which a venerated “literary geography” is delineated from crass “tourism.” The former is aligned with the English, with culture, and with heritage, the latter with Americans, with superficiality, and with vulgar consumption. The result is that Americans are figured as “only just consumers” of literary heritage, while “Britons [are] certain if neglectful owners” (40). The rhetoric of heritage, the process by which specific spaces are either withdrawn from everyday life as (small-scale) museums or designated as extraordinary sites within everyday life (through commemorative plaques, for example), is one in which an undersiege cultural legacy is figured as something that must be retained and reasserted in opposition to foreign philistinism and domestic complacency. Zemgulys does not endorse this binary, but she does convincingly show how it manifests itself in a variety of contexts, and how a conservative and self-congratulatory bourgeois fear of cultural erasure motivated the desire to preserve certain sites (often, as in Stratford, through a self-conscious, artificial, and contradictory staging [End Page 615] of heritage and tradition) as necessary to an insularly British or even singularly English cultural legacy.
Still, despite these large-scale constructions of literary heritage in terms of nation, class, and cultural sophistication, Zemgulys recognizes a countervailing and extremely interesting undercurrent in the public’s approach to house museums and iconic literary sites. The fundamentally private experience of reading (the fact that we read by ourselves and experience books in terms of a disconnection between the book and our...