By Jeremy Braddock. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
By Eric B. White. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.
In Parts of a World, Peter Brazeau’s oral biography of Wallace Stevens, an underwriter at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company called Charles O’Dowd recalls his wife’s hesitation on learning that Stevens had been invited to their house for martinis:
She was a little flustered because [of] Stevens and what have you. She’d heard some weird stories. Stevens had some real fine paintings; he had an agent over in Paris. I knew he had a lot of them, because he’d mention it. So Carmy was all worried. This picture she’d picked up at an auction—I guess it’s a good antique painting—it [End Page 123] was hanging over the mantel. She said, “What’ll he say when he sees that?” “Well, he’ll look at it probably and say, ‘Chawlie, why don’t you hang the goddamn thing in the cellar!’”—which didn’t make her anymore at [ease].(42)
Stevens, that is to say, was a collector, and one with a decidedly transatlantic bent. It might seem strange, then, that he is referred to only infrequently in these two monographs. But Chawlie and Carmy’s conversation (even as it puts one in mind of an exchange between Don and Betty Draper) invokes in miniature the formidable cultural authority that modernism already wielded by the time of Stevens’ poetic maturity. How it attained that authority through the establishment of a series of institutions—ephemeral at first, like the little magazines, but ultimately monumental, like the Museum of Modern Art—is the focus of these two books.
“[K]nowledge of local conditions,” wrote Ezra Pound in his Guide to Kulchur, “is good antidote for theorists” (272). It would surprise Pound to find that, in recent years, the “local” has been grist to the mill of critics and theorists alike. Walter Benn Michaels, David Harvey, Daniel Katz, Jahan Ramazani, Edward Soja, and Susan Stanford Friedman all contribute to the theoretical edifice underlying Eric White’s Transatlantic Avant-Gardes: Little Magazines and Localist Modernism, helping him to articulate a distinction between “locational” and “localist” iterations of modernism. The former signifies the familiar “relational metaphors of place, time and geopolitics in the ‘global design’ of literary modernism” (4). The latter, by contrast, designates an aesthetic that developed in reaction to locational modernism, emphasizing a “creative engagement with the site-specific contingencies of a given locality rather than with creating affirmations of static national or regional identities” (12). White assures us that “Transatlantic exchanges were a fundamental aspect of the localist aesthetic” (9), in that the tools of the European avant-garde movements, including the little magazine itself, allowed the localist modernists to engage with “regionally specific socio-cultural markers, such as landscape, language and visual culture” (5) while resisting the narrowness and reactionary politics of contemporary nativist and regionalist literary movements.
Jeremy Braddock, too, is interested in modernism’s entry into the turbulent cultural field of America in the 1910s, and the ways in which it sought to navigate, and indeed to profit from, a “Crisis in Cultural Valuation” (29). Central to Collecting as Modernist Practice is the concept of a “provisional institution” (3), a material collection of art or literature “advanced as means not simply (or even primarily) of institutional consecration but of cultural and social intervention” (2). This last point is crucial. While not attempting to displace earlier accounts that had made private collecting stand for those agents within modernism who recoiled from a putatively degraded public sphere, Braddock is concerned to emphasize the social efficacy of private collections. His inclusion of both art and literature highlights the book’s other innovation: the homology it establishes between the private art collection and poetry anthologies, ranging from The Lyric Year to Some Imagist Poets to the Others anthology to The New Negro. One of the book’s most novel claims is that “the midcentury institutionalization of the works of modernist art and literature in, respectively, [End Page 124] the museum and...