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The Politics of Irony in American Modernism

Matthew Stratton

Publication Year: 2013

This book shows how American literary culture in the first half of the twentieth century saw "irony'" emerge as a term to describe intersections between aesthetic and political practices. Against conventional associations of irony with political withdrawal, Stratton shows how the term circulated widely in literary and popular culture to describe politically engaged forms of writing. It is a critical commonplace to acknowledge the difficulty of defining irony before stipulating a particular definition as a stable point of departure for literary, cultural, and political analysis. This book, by contrast, is the first to derive definitions of "irony" inductively, showing how writers employed it as a keyword both before and in opposition to the institutionalization of New Criticism. It focuses on writers who not only composed ironic texts but talked about irony and satire to situate their work politically: Randolph Bourne, Benjamin De Casseres, Ellen Glasgow, John Dos Passos, Ralph Ellison, and many others.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Irony and How It Got That Way: An Introduction

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pp. 1-22

Here’s a familiar story: in the weeks after September 11, 2001, the editor of Vanity Fair proclaimed “the end of the age of irony.” A week later, a Time columnist suggested, “One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony.” The editor of the New York Observer said that survivors wanted to comprehend the incomprehensible...

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1. The Eye in Irony: New York, Nietzsche, and the 1910s

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pp. 23-52

Paul Fussell has claimed that there “seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”2 In specifically literary terms, Fussell’s influential assertion is agreeably consonant with the emergence of the New Criticism, high...

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2. Gendering Irony and Its History: Ellen Glasgow and the Lost 1920s

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pp. 53-100

The curious fact that irony has periodically “died” over the course of the twentieth century entails an equally curious question: exactly when and how was irony “born”? There have been as many answers to this question as there are definitions of irony, and the ability to conceive of this question in the first place is perhaps uniquely modern: despite the original...

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3. The Focus of Satire: Public Opinions of Propaganda in the U.S.A. of John Dos Passos

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pp. 101-143

Parody, humor, caricature, and satire all have long literary histories, all are theoretically vexed, and all rely upon some version of irony. At the same time, the connotation and function of each of these terms produce a particular understanding of irony, until all of the terms begin to circulate as a mutually constitutive constellation of denotations and connotations...

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4. Visible Decisions: Irony, Law, and the Political Constitution of Ralph Ellison

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pp. 144-188

Invisible Man famously commences and concludes with a Prologue, an Epilogue, and an ironic paradox. The anonymous narrator inhabits a cavernous apartment beneath the streets of Harlem, where he has retreated after a series of disillusioning encounters with leading white citizens of the Jim Crow South, a university for African Americans, the corporate...

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Beyond Hope and Memory: A Conclusion

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pp. 189-194

This book commenced with a familiar story about the putative death of irony after September 11, 2001, and I want to conclude with another familiar story. An army general, seeking to reassure the people of Baghdad about his nation’s honorable intentions, invited the city to cooperate with the occupying force and to rejoice in newfound freedom after...


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pp. 195-244


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pp. 245-268


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pp. 269-276

E-ISBN-13: 9780823255481
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823255450
Print-ISBN-10: 082325545X

Page Count: 304
Illustrations: 2 b/w illustrations
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Cloth

OCLC Number: 859159685
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Politics of Irony in American Modernism

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • Literature and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Politics and culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • García Márquez, Gabriel, ǂd1928- ǂxCriticism and interpretation.
  • Rulfo, Juan -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Satire -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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