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Strangers at Home

American Ethnic Modernism between the World Wars

Rita Keresztesi

Publication Year: 2005

Strangers at Home reframes the way we conceive of the modernist literature that appeared in the period between the two world wars. This provocative work shows that a body of texts written by ethnic writers during this period poses a challenge to conventional notions of America and American modernism. By engaging with modernist literary studies from the perspectives of minority discourse, postcolonial studies, and postmodern theory, Rita Keresztesi questions the validity of modernism's claim to the neutrality of culture. She argues that literary modernism grew out of a prejudiced, racially biased, and often xenophobic historical context that necessitated a politically conservative and narrow definition of modernism in America. With the changing racial, ethnic, and cultural makeup of the nation during the interwar era, literary modernism also changed its form and content.
Contesting traditional notions of literary modernism, Keresztesi examines American modernism from an ethnic perspective in the works of Harlem Renaissance, immigrant, and Native American writers. She discusses such authors as Countee Cullen, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, Josephina Niggli, Mourning Dove, D’Arcy McNickle, and John Joseph Mathews, among others. Strangers at Home makes a persuasive argument for expanding our understanding of the writers themselves as well as the concept of modernism as it is currently defined.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This book bears some resemblance to my 1999 dissertation of a similar title from the University of California, Santa Cruz. I would like to thank all who have helped making this book happen. The initial planning of the dissertation took place in Santa Cruz, but I wrote the bulk of it in New Mexico, and I made the crucial changes and revisions of turning the dissertation into a book at the University of Oklahoma. In the early stages of the planning and writing I received indispensable...

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pp. ix-xxii

Ethnic moderns have been the strangers in the house of American high modernism. Tom Buchanan’s view of the nation’s changing racial makeup in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby expresses the anxiety many felt during the early 1920s over the white race being overrun by the “colored” and immigrant masses. Similarly, advocates of literary high modernism have been unable and sometimes unwilling to account for ethnic and minority texts as modern. Du Bois’s...

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1. A Prologue to Ethnic Modernism: Melville’s Confidence Man

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pp. 1-13

After the initial, and at best, puzzled reviews, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) did not receive a favorable critique until the modernist Melville revival in the 1920s and 1930s when a renewed interest was sparked in Herman Melville by both readers and academics in search of an “authentic” American literature.1 As a result, Melville’s works became the center of literary interest and the symbol of a new confident voice...

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2. Harlem Renaissance Masquerades

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pp. 14-61

After the initial appearance of the confidence man as a deaf mute on the Fidèle in Melville’s The Confidence-Man, the next person to beg for charity is Black Guinea, a “grotesque negro cripple.” His identity is immediately questioned and taken for a masquerade by the wooden-legged man: “He’s some white operator, betwisted and painted up for a decoy. He and his friends are all humbugs” (14). Black Guinea plays on the stereotype...

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3. Modernism with an Accent

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pp. 62-111

In Hugh Kenner’s definition, internationalism is mandatory for modernism. For him the prototypical American modernist is Ezra Pound, the expatriate artist who claims “world citizenship” for himself. On the other end of the spectrum then are those deemed provincial and mere regionalists, such as William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner (see Kenner, The Pound Era; Hallberg, Canons). Against the cosmopolitan...

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4. Romantic Modernism, Modernist Realism

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pp. 112-161

My focus in this chapter is what Louis Owens calls “contextual identity” of Native Americans. The early-twentieth-century Native American authors, Mourning Dove, D’Arcy McNickle, and John Joseph Mathews were keenly aware that Indian identity has been extensively and historically appropriated, narrativized, and colonized. Native Americans experienced a particular kind of alienation within the urbanizing...

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An Epilogue: Ellison’s Invisible Man

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pp. 162-168

It seems fitting to end this book with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), a late ethnic modernist novel. Ellison self-consciously draws on the literary traditions of Melville and T. S. Eliot, both of whom he quotes in his epigraph. While the quote from Eliot’s play, written after his return to the United States after an extended absence, draws on the theme of inherited guilt and the main character’s subsequent spiritual self-discovery, the quote...


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pp. 169-192


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pp. 193-218


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pp. 219-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780803250062
E-ISBN-10: 0803250061

Publication Year: 2005