- Putting Modernism Together: Literature, Music, and Painting, 1872–1927 by Daniel Albright
As far as titles go, Putting Modernism Together is an excellent diagnosis of what modernism studies needs today. While modernist practice was about finding "value in all sorts of under- or ill-valued [End Page 582] places," Albright warns that "[t]his steady expansion of the field" was not without dangers (1). This could also be said of modernist scholarship today. With a single set of beliefs no longer uniting the field, regarding either modernism's temporal span or its geographic reach, the Humpty Dumpty of high modernism has fallen from its great heights. While no broken egg can be pieced back together, Albright seems to hope against hope that modernism's being shattered into a thousand million pieces does not have to be the final story. But the sense of loss this book induced in me came about not out of concern for modernism studies—for, in the end, what grief can one suffer over the fate of a subdiscipline?—but because I read this book knowing it to have been published only a few months after Albright's death in early 2015. The message of the book and the passing of its author suggest a greater loss, namely the sense that we, the descendants of Albright, have lost an appreciation for the passionate urgency and supreme artistry of "the big mind[s] of Europe" (167) and "[t]he mind of Europe" itself in our venturing out in search for modernisms in other times, other places.
But, just as the title of Albright's book gives a sense of his perhaps excessive ambition, his subtitle indicates just how hard it is to cover the necessary terrain: "Literature, Music, and Painting, 1872-1927." Those commas keep adding up, a spiraling seriality of objects and concerns, ideas and practices, doctrines and transgressions. And so the second part of the book, divided into fourteen chapters and comprising 250 pages of closely argued text, is held together by a single term: "isms." That's a lot of weight to put on the back of a suffix, but in modernism's case this is apt, as the various forms and reconfigurations of modernism were in many cases spearheaded by different schools, more or less consciously organized—an approach that, incidentally, pits Albright against the more fashionable adjectival modernism of Ph.D. dissertations, first books, and Modernist Studies Association panels. In less capable hands, Albright's parade of isms would be a deathly procession, like the entry of Jacob Flanders in the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge, in Jacob's Room (1922). But Albright brings to life the "Darwinian struggles of a host of lesser isms" by pinpointing their competing aesthetic doctrines and relating tales of the battles they fought against each other (49). While some isms are summarily treated (like Dada), Albright provides close readings from modernist staples like Mann's Death in Venice and Joyce's "The Oxen of the Sun" in Ulysses, to say nothing of the many examples culled from music.
But before isms took off, modernism had an earlier ground to prepare. In a tightly argued introduction on "Modernist Transvaluation," Albright shows how modernism could be defined as a "testing [End Page 583] of the limits of aesthetic construction" (5). This is put forward not as a definition proper but as a "possibility" or "perspective." As Albright readily admits, it is "ahistorical" since the limits of aesthetic construction have been tested in almost every age. Albright nonetheless finds it the most useful way of approaching his subject: "the historical Modernists, the technocrats of art who worked from the 1870s to the 1920s" (6). While this is very much old-fashioned, Albright justifies this limitation by elaborating on the extraordinary reach of art in this period, which went well beyond what had appeared before and in many ways remains the apotheosis of "the horizons of the human" (6).
This points to something unique to Albright's book: an emphasis on value. The book's first line...