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Rod Rosenquist’s Modernism, the Market and the Institution of the New proposes that the familiar cast of canonical modernists whose monumental works appeared in the early 1920s—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce—disrupted the normal progression of literary generations. He proceeds from a relatively simple observation about modernism, one so obvious that its ramifications sometimes go unrecognized: modernism aspired to be simultaneously new and enduring. Pound’s well-known maxim, “Literature is news that STAYS news,” is the epigraph to Rosenquist’s introduction and captures the paradoxical nature of modernism as a literary movement devoted both to being new and to establishing its particular form of innovation as a permanent cultural institution. This radically limited the strategies available to artists who wanted to make their mark in the Anglo American literary scene during the late 1920s and 1930s.
The uniquely difficult problem of arriving to modernism late is the focus of Rosenquist’s valuable contribution to the study of late modernism. He analyzes a group of writers that he terms “modernist latecomers,” which includes Wyndham Lewis, Laura Riding, Henry Miller, and three Objectivist poets working in the so-called Pound tradition, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and Lorine Niedecker. Rosenquist is interested in these writers’ relationship with the high modernists that preceded them more than their individual bodies of work. He uses literary criticism, correspondence, and memoirs to [End Page 630] explore “questions of late modernist self-perception” (30). Previous scholarship on late modernism, most notably Tyrus Miller’s Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars and Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England, has followed Charles Jencks in defining late modernism as the persistence of a style beyond its time, a willful outdatedness taken on in response to specific historical conditions. Rosenquist provides a rather different version of the story of late modernism. In his view, the qualities typically associated with late modernism do not constitute a deliberate continuation of modernist style, but rather are symptoms of the high modernists’ enduring institutional power—as editors of literary magazines and anthologies, as arbiters of taste, and as authors of their own literary history. The designation “latecomer” emphasizes late modernists’ lack of control over their identity, for Rosenquist argues that modernist style was almost mandatory for new writers during the late 1920s and 1930s. With consistently insightful analyses of seven late modernist writers’ understanding of their position in the cultural field of this period, he shows that they—and, quite probably, many of their contemporaries—viewed the imperative to be modernist ambivalently.
The first modernist latecomer and the first theorist of late modernism, Wyndham Lewis, is a crucial transitional figure in Rosenquist’s book and the subject of its first and longest chapter. Rosenquist aims to demonstrate that the second half of Lewis’s career was a critical response to his experience as an avant-garde provocateur in the first half. When the popularity of Vorticism dwindled after the war, Rosenquist argues, Lewis recognized that the movement’s prewar notoriety had depended on the complicity of the public; modernism’s shocking experiments were, in reality, nothing more than substanceless fashions. For Lewis, the monumental works of high modernism that appeared in the 1920s were advanced in style only, reflecting the Zeitgeist without contributing to it. He feared their popularity would establish a “permanent novelty” and thus impede future progress in art, thought, and politics (qtd. in Rosenquist 67). To make space for future developments, a wholesale reorganization of the literary marketplace was necessary, and this is what Lewis set out to accomplish by attacking modernism in writing and taking a consistently and abrasively oppositional stance in British politics and culture.
Laura Riding and Henry Miller, the subjects of Rosenquist’s second and third chapters, respectively, seem to bear out Lewis’s prediction that modernism spelled the end for art. Riding’s reaction to the ascendancy of high modernism is similar to Lewis’s, a writer with whom she has little in common otherwise. “In...