Born Laura Reichenthal in New York City in 1901, Laura Riding attended Cornell University, where she met and married the historian Louis Gottschalk. Some years into their marriage, she changed her name from Laura Reichenthal Gottschalk to Laura Riding Gottschalk. The name change obscured her heritage and initiated an almost endless series of puns, starting with Hart Crane’s “Laura Riding Roughshod.” From Cornell, Prof. Gottschalk’s career took them to the University of Louisville. Living in the South, Riding began to publish verse in Fugitive and thus found herself on the forefront of a new and innovative group of American poet-critics. In 1926, the British poet-critic Robert Graves, having read and admired her verse, invited Riding to England. With Graves, she co-wrote A Survey of Modern Poetry (1927): Laura Riding Shotgun. Their groundbreaking book proved to be the first formal study that considered the works of Hart Crane, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and other contemporary poets as a single movement. Riding published additional criticism in 1927, including two articles in transition: “The New Barbarism, and Gertrude Stein,” which facetiously applied a term T. S. Eliot had used to describe Stein’s work; and “Jamais Plus,” an essay about Edgar Allan Poe and the modern critic. That year she also worked on what would become Contemporaries and Snobs.
Graves helped Riding get her book into print. When Jonathan Cape approached him about publishing his biography of T. E. Lawrence, he made it a condition of his contract that the firm also publish Contemporaries and Snobs: Laura Riding Coattails. A three-part work, the book begins with a chapter titled “Poetry and the Literary Universe,” which sets forth her main ideas. To make Contemporaries and Snobs a book-length work, she included revised and expanded versions of her two transition articles, now titled “T. E. Hulme, the New Barbarism, and Gertrude Stein” and “The Facts in the Case of Monsieur Poe.”
When it appeared in February 1928, Contemporaries and Snobs received modest acclaim. One Oxonian appreciated the book’s general argument and chuckled over the Poe chapter, which “has rather the appearance of an amusing tour de force aimed against an annoyance that has rankled from childhood.”1 Doubleday Doran issued a New York edition later that year. The work was largely forgotten until 1971, when Scholarly Press, a Michigan reprint house, reissued Contemporaries and Snobs, but the reprint received little attention. Those critics who read the work at all sometimes misread it. Though Riding had playfully called Stein barbaric, a contributor to the American Poetry Review took her seriously and critiqued Riding’s interpretation of Stein. The article prompted a letter to the editor of American Poetry Review from the eighty-one-year-old Riding, in which she concluded: “Being nasty about me is a refuge for those wanting in competence to deal with my writings, the thought at work in them, and their purport, intelligently, justly, decently”2: Laura Riding the High Horse.
Since Riding’s death in 1991, literary critics have begun dealing with her writings intelligently and justly, and Contemporaries and Snobs is receiving more and more critical appreciation. In light of all the recent attention, the University of Alabama Press has reissued Contemporaries and Snobs. Edited by Laura Heffernan and Jane Malcolm, it appears as part of the publisher’s series, Modern and Contemporary Poetics. The editors preface Riding’s text with a critical introduction providing a balanced view of Riding’s main arguments.
Contemporaries and Snobs presents a paradox: it is a book of literary criticism that denounces literary criticism and deplores its growing influence. From the time Riding and Graves had written A Survey of Modern Poetry to the time she completed Contemporaries and Snobs, [End Page 1032] attitudes toward modernist verse had changed considerably. Formerly daring and innovative, modernist verse now seemed standardized. Whereas modernist poets had previously used verse to express their personalities, modernist criticism emphasized the suppression of the personal. With Contemporaries and Snobs, Riding sought to...