MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 380-382
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Jessica Berman. Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Community. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. x + 242 pp.
In 1784, Kant wrote that the "community of the peoples of the earth has developed so far that a violation of rights in one place is felt throughout the world," a statement which makes him an early advocate of cosmopolitanism. Sixty years later, when the intervening emergence of the modern nation state troubled such claims to world citizenship, Emerson went even further, declaring that "an abstract of the codes of nations would be a transcript of the common conscience." These concerns with cosmopolitanism and community, so relevant to us now, are the subject of Jessica Berman's learned new book. She contends that contemporary theorists of community have paid too little attention to literature, especially to the modernists. And so, in her study of Henry James, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein, she calls our attention to modernism's deep and wide-ranging engagement with community and the forces that imperil it.
Berman's book is a happy result of the recent rethinking of the modernists' relation to politics. She demonstrates how intensely these four writers, in their highbrow, aesthetically ambitious works, were exploring the differences, special claims, and competing allegiances of group and individual identities, especially the concerns of women, homosexuals, and Jews. She rejects the notion of community as concentric circles of allegiance, beginning with self and family, moving outward through local groups and nation, to humanity as a whole [End Page 380] (as suggested in Martha Nussbaum's neo-Kantian account). Instead, Berman demonstrates how each of these writers—particularly Woolf and Stein—propose an iterative identity, one that shifts (and gets shifted) according to context. As she shows, not only is community an impossibly complex project, but these modernists recognized and dramatized that complexity in some of their best work, striving to "create [. . .] community without resurrecting a suffocating unity." On the specific questions of civil rights, she is an especially attentive critic, and Modernist Fiction, Cosmopolitanism, and the Politics of Community makes a major contribution in demonstrating not only Proust's intense pride in his public defense of Dreyfus but also the important ways in which Remembrance of Things Past testifies to his continuing interest in the role of Jews and, increasingly, homosexuals, in society.
Careful as she is not to make heroes of her authors, Berman is occasionally too generous. Certainly, for example, Woolf's somewhat cavalier reaction to the 1926 General Strike betrays the extent to which, in spite of her socialism, her real affiliation was with members of her own class, something that Berman's focus on 1929-31 permits her to underplay. But this is a minor quibble, and overall Berman presents a welcome picture of the political Woolf. More intriguing are her suggestions regarding the political Stein. Berman charts Stein's shift from affiliations of genealogy to those of geography in the early novel The Making of Americans (1911) and demonstrates how such a shift gives lesbians a legitimate place both in the specific community of the novel (in the figures of Mary Maxworthing and Mabel Linker) and in general. Building on the work that, in the eighties, connected Stein to French feminism, Berman inaugurates an important new direction in Stein criticism through her simple but powerful determination to take Stein's obsession with place seriously on its own terms, not only as a metaphor. In so doing she shows, in her phrase, "the full implication" of Stein's claim: "America is my country but Paris is my home town."
Berman's book, informed by pragmatism in its American and Habermasian forms yet skeptical of its utopian strain, merits serious reading. The introduction's thorough grounding in the current literature on community is repaid in the subsequent chapters: in her ongoing dialogue with Arendt throughout the Proust chapter; in the relevance of James, Seyla Benhabib, and Nancy Fraser to her discussion of Stein; and in the book's deep engagement with the...