- Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism
"Make it new!" cried Ezra Pound and, in our apocryphal account of literary modernism, innovations from James Joyce's stream of consciousness to William Faulkner's fragmentation were born. To make it new is also the aim of the new modernist studies and, whether under its auspices or by its zeitgeist, current scholarship has expanded its materials and methods in international and interdisciplinary directions. Gender, Race, and Mourning in American Modernism demonstrates the fruitful possibilities of such interdisciplinary innovation. Greg Forter brings together historians' analyses of US manhood, theories of mourning and trauma, and a methodology grounded in close reading and formal analysis in his compelling account of the gender struggles that shaped canonical US modernist literature.
Forter reads American literary modernism as an attempt to grieve the loss of a nineteenth-century mode of white manhood that fused masculinity and femininity. He describes four writers' personal and textual efforts to mourn the passing of not only an aggressive assertiveness coded as masculine but also a lyrical responsiveness understood as feminine. In each of the novels he discusses, the work of mourning founders because of its author's conflicted response to this feminine responsiveness—a force that at once feeds creativity and menaces manliness. Forter argues that the texts attempt to resolve this gendered ambivalence through a substitutive racial fantasy, locating "in the racial other the gender identity from which these authors felt themselves severed," but this move proves unsuccessful (6). The texts become "literary crypts" that "memorialize blocked mourning" (5).
The first of the book's four chapters shows how the modernist "will-to-textual-disembodiment" serves to assert both manliness and whiteness in The Great Gatsby (7). Gatsby's style of manhood represents "an ideal too fragile to be incarnated yet too beautiful to relinquish" (15). Fitzgerald responds to this fraught ideal with a strategy of containment, enclosing lyrical passages with an impersonal prose calculated to combat Gatsby's feminized "sentimental vulgarity" (33) and radicalized "ethnic markings" (47). Hemingway's taciturn style serves a similar entombing function in The Sun Also Rises, although here the unattainable yet unrelinquishable object is the phallus. While such a claim might look at first blush like the heavy-handed Freudianism of an earlier critical era, Forter's second chapter persuasively connects this phallic fixation to the novel's themes and form—the sense of "stalled motion" produced by "its essential plotlessness" (66). [End Page 395]
Chapter 3 offers a fresh take on what might be the most discussed issue in Faulkner scholarship: Faulkner's engagement with history. Forter approaches history by way of the Freudian primal scene, which he reads as "an allegory for how the forces of signification and sexuality—and therefore, of history—come to inhabit the child before s/he has the equipment for making sense of them" (105). Freighted with this embryonic trauma, characters in Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! come to understand historical trauma ahistorically: as an inescapable part of human experience rather than as the product of a specific social history. Forter's final chapter, on Cather's fiction, offers a different spin on authors' investments in manhood. The Professor's House presents first the mother and then the racial other as "a world of primitive yet highly refined responsiveness" (164) that fails to offer a safe haven from the alienation of bourgeois modernity because "the things of ultimate value for Cather cannot but be lost" (143).
Forter's study enriches a growing body of scholarship on modernism as a literature of loss. This book builds on works by Seth Moglen, Patricia Rae, and Jahan Ramazani that consider the formal and political stakes of modernist mourning. Forter's work goes beyond these predecessors, though, by showing how changes in US gender and racial systems induced this mourning. The text also contributes to the field of trauma studies. Some of Forter's most trenchant arguments explore the relationship between trauma and form, demonstrating how the novel can be both wound and weapon. In his analysis of Absalom, Absalom!, for...