Even taking into consideration penicillin and the atomic bomb, bureaucracy may be the most consequential and pervasive of twentieth-century humanity’s gifts to ourselves. (Global warming we gave to all species.) Yes, administrative gears ground in ancient Rome and classical China, but in the 1900s bureaucratic organizations and institutions of every type spread like kudzu. Sociologists such as William Whyte and Max Weber documented how, over the first half of the century, bureaucracies proliferated beyond the church, the military, and the government, coming to colonize every aspect of modern life.
Even the rambunctious American literary world got “rationalized” (to use Weber’s term) and, by the postwar period, surrendered to bureaucracy. In his pithy Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture, scholar and Los Angeles Review of Books editor Evan Kindley shows how once-oppositional modernist “poet-critics” joined the bureaucratic machine and then, from inside, used it to enshrine and perpetuate modernist literature.
The book is not just about paper-pushing, though. Instead, Kindley’s larger subject is “justification: the justification of literature, and of the difficult, experimental, elitist, unrepentantly unmarketable literature called ‘modernism’ in particular” (10). How did “modernist poet-critics” explain “what is the point of art” and “why should we pay for it”? To answer this, Kindley turns to writers both familiar (T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden) and surprising (Sterling A. Brown), tracing how these justifications evolved to reflect changing social and political conditions in the United States, as well as the institutional positions held by these poet-critics. (Although Auden and Eliot were as influential in Britain as in the States, Kindley’s lens is focused squarely on America.)
Kindley is not the first to adumbrate these poet-critics’ arguments. Theorists from Raymond Williams to Andreas Huyssen to Peter Bürger have documented modernism’s apologiae, and in particular the central role of the doctrine of aesthetic autonomy in making a case for modernism. In the book’s early chapters, Kindley carefully traces the subtly divergent, and changing, positions of Eliot, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Archibald MacLeish on aesthetic autonomy—familiar ground, but briskly and clearly recounted.
The Depression, though, made recondite squabbles about aesthetic autonomy seem irrelevant. The poet-critics got day jobs, and here Kindley’s book gets truly original. In the 1930s, he writes, “modernist poet-critics went from being slightly less obscurantist bohemians, charged with clarifying byzantine avant-garde practices to bewildered but sympathetic elites, to being civil servants, charged with reinforcing the ideals and institutions of American democracy and enlisting the energies of art in its defense” (73–74). MacLeish, the epitome of the high-minded modernist civil servant, is the key figure here, but Kindley’s discussion of African American poet Sterling A. Brown’s work for the Federal Writers’ Project, and his analysis of Brown’s poem “When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home,” is for me the standout section of this concise book. Considering the position of the black writer joining the federal government in the 1930s, Kindley notes [End Page 430] archly that all poets have to compromise their ideals when going to work for the state, but some writers “had to compromise more than others” (108).
Bureaucracies further proliferated and intertwined in the early Cold War period, and the modernists came to use them to their advantage. Although he could have chosen any number of representative examples, Kindley ends his book with perhaps the most important of these: R. P. Blackmur’s work to embed modernism in the university while protecting the independence and autonomy of both the critic and the modernism. Moving modernism to academe would “protect literature from . . . the market for literary commodities,” but modernism had to insist on its autonomy from other market imperatives—notably, the “market for skilled labor” that increasingly organized the postwar university (112). To accomplish this, Blackmur cannily brought in foundations such as Rockefeller, which funded the critical work (in journals and the Kenyon School of English) that insisted on criticism’s importance to a liberal society, and...