Review Essay: Henry James and Transatlantic Modernism
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Review Essay:
Henry James and Transatlantic Modernism
Burden, Robert. Travel, Modernism, and Modernity. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015. 263 + vii pp., £65.00. (Hardback).
Fernihough, Anne. Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. 304 pp., £57.00. (Hardback).
Quigley, Megan. Modernist Fiction and Vagueness: Philosophy, Form, and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. 219 + xiii pp., £60.00. (Hardback).

The traditional view of Henry James as a pivotal figure in the emergence of literary modernism has recently expanded toward a consideration of his position in the broader cultural context of modernity. Book-length studies have appeared of his responses to the urban sphere (McKee), the culture of consumption (El-Rayess), and the rise of the illustrated magazine (Tucker). The Henry James Society recently convened a conference on “Henry James and the Material World.” The transatlantic experience remains central to such inquiries, and studies such as Peter Brooks’s Henry James Goes to Paris and Susan Winnett’s Narratives of Return have begun to examine [End Page 101] the material dimensions of James’s travels between Europe and the United States. The books under review here share this focus but at the same time reconnect with the literary dimension of James’s writing. Informed by recent scholarship on cultural modernity, they highlight the interplay of narrative perspective, stylistic choices, and broader cultural trends in works ranging from Watch and Ward to The American Scene.

Robert Burden’s Travel, Modernism, and Modernity examines the significance of travel for the writing of James and four of his contemporaries (Conrad, Forster, Lawrence, and Wharton). The selection of case studies indicates Burden’s interest in the transition from realism to modernism. He offers a fresh perspective on this transition by reading the authors not so much as early modernists than as representatives of a “late realism” (2) whose manifestations range from Conrad’s impressionism to James’s and Wharton’s explorations of limited point of view. These writers hold on to the ideal of realist description, Burden argues, but their realism is pervaded by an “epistemological skepticism” that became characteristic of modernist literature. This skepticism sprang from the turbulences of modernity, especially the “emergent crisis of national cultural identity” in the age of imperialism and mass migration. Travel writing in particular became a record of the writers’ ambivalent responses to other cultures but also to their own. This ambivalence, Burden argues, can be traced to the writers’ desire to preserve cultural identity at home and abroad while at the same time adopting an outside perspective that exposes to doubt both the boundaries and the self-definition of national cultures. While their individual responses to this dilemma differ considerably, Burden points out that all writers under discussion are united by their anxiety about “the masses,” whom they fault for diluting cultural identity at home and, as tourists, abroad.

The breadth of its argument makes Travel, Modernism, and Modernity an introduction to early twentieth-century literature more than a critical study. Its interest is not in challenging or adding to our understanding of the transition to modernism but in identifying themes and anxieties shared by the key writers of the period. Burden’s laudable attempt to do justice to the writers’ ambivalence leads him to adumbrate a variety of readings rather than develop a succinct argument. He often perpetuates and criticizes the modernists’ attitudes in the same breath, for example, their distinction between travel and tourism (11). In laying out the “Key Terms” of the study, he cites a wide range of writers, theorists, and disciplines--from Darwin to Spengler, from psychoanalysis to sociology--but does not engage any of them in depth. In the two paragraphs he devotes to modernist expatriation, for example, Burden conflates expatriation with exile, “internal exile,” emigration, and diaspora, all of which he cites without interrogating their meaning, the scholarly debate around them, or their interrelations (12-13). His only reference points for Social Darwinism are Darwin and Thorstein Veblen, a highly selective pairing that neglects the key theorists of the movement. Even the eponymous concept of modernity is only defined by association. Burden first vaguely describes it as having “something to do with emancipation, greater freedom...


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