- Melting Pot Modernism by Sarah Wilson
Sarah Wilson’s Melting Pot Modernism offers sophisticated, often surprising readings of canonical modernist figures and their literature in order to illustrate their debt to the immigration debates of the Progressive Era. Wilson’s professed aim is to show how “a version of assimilation imagined as cultural fusion fired the imaginations of a select group of writers and intellectuals at the turn of the century” (2). Indeed, Wilson’s goal is far bolder and more interesting than simply arguing that modernist fictions were fundamentally nativist or [End Page 413] ideologically conservative. Instead, she highlights the often contradictory mixture of pluralist and assimilationist ideologies and rhetoric of the Progressive Era. Melting Pot Modernism offers a thoroughly original approach to a familiar subject by redefining the melting pot as a process, “a modern episteme, one that in its moment provided a signal location for theorizing novelty, change, and difference” (3). Just as there was no unified vision of Americanization, Wilson goes on to argue that the incredible literary innovations of modernism are a rhetorical manifestation of the ideological plenitude of the melting pot. In attending to the links between the Progressive Era and modernism, Wilson usefully complicates reductive narratives of modernism that overwhelmingly focus on the rupture caused by the first World War at the expense of a longer, more complicated literary history.
Wilson connects the literary forms, rhetorical modes, and particular logics of Progressive-Era concerns about immigration, integration, and urban transformation with Modernist formal experimentation. In her own words, she treats literary tropes as “representative of a fundamental will to extend, to encompass, and to include in ways only imaginable through literary means” (23). To this end, she insightfully links specific tropes (metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, analogy) to larger narrative structures (free indirect discourse, subjective and objective perspectives, autobiographical personae, metadiscourse) in order to illustrate generational patterns of thought. Wilson urges readers that modernist innovations ought to be understood not merely as depicting difference, but rather as “embody[ing] difference” in their very forms (10). The book also recursively shows how various writers trouble, in a multitude of ways, the relationship between self and other, past and present, fiction and life writing, literary text and the social world. If this sounds wide-ranging, it is. Wilson is quite ambitious in her efforts to show the many ideological and formal debts the modernists owe to their Progressive-Era forebears.
The bulk of the book is devoted to analyzing the works of the elder statesmen of modernism—Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Willa Cather, and Gertrude Stein—to show how their formal innovations were profoundly shaped by Progressive-Era concerns such as assimilation, pluralism, cosmopolitanism, fusion, and adaptation. Wilson puts these modernist authors back into conversation with Progressive-Era luminaries including Jane Addams, Mary Antin, Franz Boas, Edward Bok, Charles Chesnutt, John Dewey, Robert Park, Israel Zangwill, and Zitkala-Ša. The result is a historically grounded, deeply textured narrative of modernist aesthetics and its ideological underpinnings.
At the level of organization, the book primarily deals with each of the modernist novelists in separate chapters, while ethnic and reformist [End Page 414] writers are discussed within chapter 1 and scattered throughout. In effect, the book can be read as reinforcing the ghettoization of Progressive-Era thinkers that Wilson otherwise seeks to challenge. The book might have been strengthened by more sustained attention to the formal innovations of melting pot writers (such as Werner Sollors illustrated in Ethnic Modernism), particularly as a counterpoint to her readings of James, Johnson, Cather, and Stein. However, that is not her purpose, and Wilson ably achieves her goal of providing a new genealogy of modernism. Melting Pot Modernism convincingly shows the influence of Progressive-Era debates on Modernist writers and their forms.
Chapter 2, on Henry James’s late work, focuses on melting pot modernism’s changing ideas of selfhood. Wilson studies James’s use of analogy and the idea of likeness in his fiction, memoirs, and prefaces in order to show that the modernist text occupies a position like that of the immigrant: it...