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False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism. David M. Ball. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. Pp. ix + 232. $79.95 (cloth).

Self-admittedly, Ball’s study is neither a full history of the rhetoric of failure nor of American modernism. The book consists of three “case studies” that serve as anchoring points to a narrative that, according to the author, “far exceeds the bounds of a single study—a limitation that is only fitting for an analysis of failure” (12). Ball begins with a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that notorious “authority of failure,” and a brief analysis of The Crack Up before his chapters on Herman Melville and Susan Warner, Henry Adams and Edith Wharton, and William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison, respectively. He ends with an afterward that looks at Chris Ware’s graphic narratives and the “afterlife of modernism” as evinced in postmodernism. Readers may wonder why, for a book ostensibly about modernism, the author would spend so much time on mid-nineteenth-century writers and end with postmodernism. Ball offers several reasons to the reader, not least being that his “study begins with the mid-nineteenth century in response to a profound cultural and linguistic shift in the use of the word ‘failure.’ No longer merely a descriptor of business affairs or economic stats alone, failure became a nominalization that inhered in individuals themselves . . . . Before the 1850s, enterprises could be failures, but people could not” (14). While competing definitions of modernism, and American modernism in particular, are now critical commonplace thanks in large part to the efforts of recent scholarship expanding the parameters of the field, Ball doesn’t explicitly take New Modernist Studies into account, and to this reader that is a missed opportunity. Rather, he claims that the study of failure in and of itself demands this shift away from the conventional periodization of modernism:

[S]tudying the rhetoric of failure thus reorients our understanding of conventional literary historical periodization tout court. If my decision to begin in the 1850s establishes a nineteenth-century provenance for the concerns and techniques of literary modernism, a date that precedes most conventional chronologies of this era, then the continuation of these concerns into the late twentieth century and beyond signals a reading of postmodernism as an extension of the modernist project.


Modernism, when viewed through the lens of the rhetoric of failure, calls for a redefinition of itself in “the terms this renewed inhabitation of failure” (17).

Ball is right to point out that modernism “can be best understood in terms of its failed imperatives, the inexecutable goals it sets out for itself, whose frustration provokes such formal ingenuity and intellectual ferment” (17). Building on Michael North’s analysis in Reading 1922, Ball claims that it is the negotiation and renegotiation of modernism’s two impossible imperatives—the desire to divorce itself from popular culture and the desire to break from what Fitzgerald termed the “dead hand of the past” by establishing a radically new beginning in art and literature (recall here Pound’s famous injunction to “make it new,” a slogan that became a modernist obligation)—that constitutes the driving aesthetic bedrock of modernism. In other words, the failure inherent in these impossible imperatives gives way to the more familiar criteria [End Page 831] of modernism: “formal experimentation, metatextual self-awareness, epistemological difficulty, chronological deracination, inter alia” (17). Viewing modernism through the lens of failure does renew familiar texts from the period, which is why it is disappointing that Ball did not spend more time on those familiar writers who fit under the rubric of conventional modernism. Ball’s twentieth-century chapter is largely about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952, well after high modernism’s heyday. Because both canonical and undervalued modernist works alike are teeming with failure, even the most well-known high-modernist work is given new life when read through the lens of failure and its attendant set of concerns. There is ample room then, even under the strictest definition of modernism, for canonical modernist works to be read through the lens of failure. The analytical and theoretical...


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