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Virtual Modernism

Writing and Technology in the Progressive Era

Katherine Biers

Publication Year: 2013

In Virtual Modernism, Katherine Biers offers a fresh view of the emergence of American literary modernism from the eruption of popular culture in the early twentieth century. Employing dynamic readings of the works of Stephen Crane, Henry James, James Weldon Johnson, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein, she argues that American modernist writers developed a “poetics of the virtual” in response to the rise of mass communications technologies before World War I. These authors’ modernist formal experimentation was provoked by the immediate, individualistic pleasures and thrills of mass culture. But they also retained a faith in the representational power of language—and the worth of common experience—more characteristic of realism and naturalism. In competition with new media experiences such as movies and recorded music, they simultaneously rejected and embraced modernity.

Biers establishes the virtual poetics of these five writers as part of a larger “virtual turn” in the United States, when a fascination with the writings of Henri Bergson, William James, and vitalist philosophy—and the idea of virtual experience—swept the nation. Virtual Modernism contends that a turn to the virtual experience of language was a way for each of these authors to carve out a value for the literary, both with and against the growth of mass entertainments. This technologically inspired reengagement with experience was formative for American modernism.

Situated at the crossing points of literary criticism, philosophy, media studies, and history, Virtual Modernism provides an examination of Progressive Era preoccupations with the cognitive and corporeal effects of new media technologies that traces an important genealogy of present-day concerns with virtuality.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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pp. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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Introduction: The Promise of the Virtual

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pp. 1-34

Henry James’s 1898 novella “In the Cage” follows the travails of an impoverished young female telegraph operator working at a busy post office in a fashionable district of London. She gets through her day by indulging alternately in romantic fantasies and world-weary cynicism...

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1. Stephen Crane’s Abilities

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pp. 35-70

Stephen Crane has long been hard to place within a specific literary tradition or period. His commitment to portraying social types and typical events in his fiction, his interest in embodied cognition, his preoccupation with problems of faith and skepticism, and his drive to experience...

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2. Realizing Trilby: Henry James, George du Maurier, and the Intermedial Scene

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pp. 71-108

In his novel Author, Author!, a fictionalized treatment of Henry James’s life during the difficult, transitional phase of his career in the mid-1890s, David Lodge tells the story of James’s struggle with declining sales and a faltering playwriting career by focusing on his friendship with...

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3. Syncope Fever: James Weldon Johnson and the Black Phonographic Voice

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pp. 109-138

James Weldon Johnson’s 1912 The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is commonly read as a modernist novel of black alienation.1 It chronicles the life of a black ragtime piano player and composer during the so-called nadir of race relations in America who tries and fails...

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4. Wonder and Decay: Djuna Barnes’s New York

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pp. 139-172

Although there were many former journalists among the crowd of expatriate American women writers living in Paris during the storied 1920s and 1930s, by the time she arrived in 1921, Djuna Barnes, the author of the much-acclaimed modernist novel Nightwood (1936), had...

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5. Gertrude Stein Talking

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pp. 173-198

During the fall of 1934, Gertrude Stein returned to America from Paris for the first time in thirty-one years in order to undertake a publicity tour promoting her work. Stein had long been notorious, particularly in the American press, for her obscure writing, but the popularity...

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pp. 199-200

This book might have remained virtual forever were it not for the support and encouragement of many people. For their insightful suggestions for revision and their enthusiasm for the project at various stages along the way, I thank in particular Ann Ardis, Jonathan Culler,...


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pp. 201-256


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pp. 257-273

E-ISBN-13: 9780816687589
E-ISBN-10: 0816687587
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816667550

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 866444853
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Virtual Modernism

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Modernism (Literature) -- United States.
  • Literature and technology -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
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