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Modernism and Masculinity. Natalya Lusty and Julian Murphet, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xi + 260. $90.00 (cloth).

Back in the fall of 1990, this reviewer taught his first course in his first postdoctoral position, a course that just happened to bear the title of the collection here being reviewed. Given that this personal/professional event occurred a good quarter-century ago, we might agree with Natalya Lusty that the publication of a volume called Modernism and Masculinity is “long overdue” (9). What Lusty calls overdue, however, is not simply a collection with this by now unremarkable title, not yet another consideration of the baleful gender politics of the modernist period, but a “more expansive analysis of modernist masculinity” than “conventional accounts” (9) have heretofore managed to achieve.

But what are these conventional accounts? Well, after aptly characterizing masculinity as “an exceedingly elastic category that might be mobilized in ways that are reactionary or innovative, rigid or adaptable—and sometimes both at the same time” (9), Lusty writes that the collection she and Julian Murphet have put together

builds on existing work in the field of modernist studies but also subtly contests the prevailing gendered portrait that conventional accounts of modernism presume. While masculinity studies has produced a formidable body of historical work on masculinity and important theoretical tools that have shaped and continue to shape our understanding of the power relations and cultural formations that inform the protean forms of masculine [End Page 259] expression and representation, a more expansive analysis of modernist masculinity is long overdue.


The analyses gathered in Modernism and Masculinity want to be “more expansive” than those “conventional accounts of modernism” that presume “the prevailing gendered portrait”—a portrait of the artist as a young (or old) misogynist: reductive accounts that perceive in the complex elasticity of innovatively adaptive modernist/masculine expression only the attempted restabilization of male dominance, only the anxiously reactionary rigidity of a sexually, politically, and aesthetically threatened heteronormative patriarchy. In other words, for some of the contributors to this volume, “conventional” and “reductive” are synonymous with “feminist.”

On the whole, however, we can say that—without disparaging strong feminist contributions to modernist studies, without downplaying the most toxically defensive elements of some expressions of modernist masculinity (misogyny, racism, homophobia, full-metal-fascist fear of engulfment in the abjected other, etc.), without denying what contributor Jessica Burstein calls “the diminishing and at times outright loopy dynamics of modernists who conceive of art as a male or masculine endeavor, and females or femininity as a factor in an artistic economy that necessitates sanitizing, naturalizing, excision, inseminating, educating, reification, ignoring or silencing” (227)—the essays collected in Modernism and Masculinity do ably contest reductive accounts, feminist or not, providing nuanced, comprehensive portraits and analyses that complicate and enrich our understanding of the male-produced art of the period.

The volume thus represents an invaluable contribution to literary modernist studies, though if it contributes just slightly less to theoretical gender studies, that’s because it draws less from the field. Lusty admits as much, beginning her introduction with a brief review of “masculinity studies” in which she addresses some key theoreticians of gender—Connell, Sedgwick, Butler, Halberstam, and Silverman—before allowing that the collected essays, while indebted to these figures, “do not always directly address” their work (4). And indeed only one of these names is ever mentioned in the volume again: In his essay, “D. H. Lawrence and the Politics of Masquerade,” Thomas Strychacz provocatively posits the lesbian-hating author of “The Fox”—a story that naturally or naturalizingly kills off its pesky lesbian character—as a sort of Butlerian avant la lettre.

As for the names of major masculinist/modernist practitioners that are mentioned and discussed, the collection runs the gamut from hieratic dickhead Ezra Pound—who compared the poet’s brain to a clot of semen and celebrated “the phallus or spermatozoide charging, head-on, the female chaos … driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London” (cited on 226)—all the way to hieratic dickhead Ezra Pound: Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s lead essay, called “‘Virile Thought’: Modernist Maleness, Poetic Forms and Practices,” contends with Pound among many others, while the volume’s penultimate essay, by Jessica Burstein on Gaudier-Brzeska, necessarily addresses the vorticist sculptor’s Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, and the concluding essay by Peter Nichols deals exclusively with Pound’s Cantos.

In-between all this Pounding is a set of essays quartered into four parts. The first part, called “Fields of Production,” features the admirable Blau DuPlessis piece, Melissa Jane Hardie’s examination of T. S. Eliot’s “hygenic” editing of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and Julian Murphet’s incisive analysis of the way high modernism’s tactically phallic attempt to maintain aesthetic purity and autonomy in the face of a “feminized” mechanical mass culture was “doomed in advance as any kind of breakwater or protective membrane against the industrial deluge of mechanical media” (64), mainly because the modernist “recourse to seminal metaphorics in the defence of ‘art’ against the predations of an engulfing mechanical media exposes itself … to the very thing it most wants to resist: an indiscriminate sexual mediation. Paradoxically, to masculinize is simultaneously to render oneself deliriously effeminate” (58).1

The second and third parts of the collection provide some national, ethnic, or racial diversity. Part 2, called “Masculinity in Crisis,” divides the crises of masculinity among three nations: Ireland, Italy, and France. Rónán McDonald’s piece posits “modes of male inaction in Irish [End Page 260] modernism” (71) as strategic “resistance to an ideology of productive, active masculinity” (72) asserted mainly by the Victorian British. Cinzia Sartini Blum counters “the dominant, reductive image” (87) of Futurist F. T. Marinetti as a fascist misogynist with a complex and highly nuanced analysis of Marinetti in which he still pretty much fits that description, while Natalya Lusty’s essay on French surrealist masculinity is particularly strong in its treatment of Georges Bataille. In part 3, the titular “New Men” are Jewish (in Maren Linett’s piece on Henry Roth), African American (in James Donald’s essay on Paul Robeson), Caribbean (in the poet David Marriot’s exquisitely written piece on Derek Walcott), and (curtailing the diversity) British (in Strychacz’s piece on Lawrence). Part 4, “Masculine Form,” ends, as mentioned above, with Burstein on Gaudier-Brzeska and Nichols on Pound, but not before Tyrus Miller’s very strong contribution on the anti-masculinist, negatively dialectical music criticism of Theodor Adorno.

But speaking of “masculine form”: masculinity is of course a form of gender identity, while modernism involves forms of art. The problem is that if the former form all too often “neutralizes alterity in the interests of identity” (163) as Marriot puts it, the latter form pulverizes identity in the pursuit of defamiliarization. There are often moments in Modernism and Masculinity when this tension between identity and art, between “personological” coherence and destabilizing aesthetic experience, is foregrounded, and it is argued that reactionary modernist male identity is saved or released from itself by virtue of self-subversive modernist aesthetic practices (for example, for Nichols, Pound’s pro-fascist “bravado” is ultimately undermined by his brilliantly poetic “bravura”). These arguments, while not always entirely convincing, are anything but “reductive,” and perhaps “entire conviction” is only ever the sign of neutralized alterity anyway.

But if that’s the case, then perhaps it’s meet and fitting to end this review by citing one of the volume’s least convinced, least reductive sentences. After noting that a second version of Gaudier-Brzeska’s “knuckle-duster” sculpture is “identical in proportion to the first [but] lacks a central hole,” Jessica Burstein writes: “This may explain a lot, but of what?” (231).

Calvin Thomas
Georgia State University


1. I’ll note that Murphet nicely gathers Ezra Pound into this paradox, but also that the paradox itself was first significantly noted by Jacques Lacan, a major figure in theoretical masculinity studies (at least in my book) who gets no mention whatsoever in this collection.