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Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 366-370 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0036

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In Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity, Aaron Jaffe examines the economic and social determinants of modernist literature, deriving some of its methodological assumptions from Pierre Bourdieu's theories of distinction and cultural capital. Masterpieces, as Jaffe points out, emerge from cultural forces that confer cachet, including the editing, promoting, anthologizing, and reviewing of books. Discussing Henry James's short stories about authors and readers, Jaffe claims that public renown is achieved "with indifference to the merit of the author's work" (31). A modernist "masterpiece" that issues from the hand of a "master" may have more to do with the perception of value and promotion of a book in the marketplace than with features of the work itself. Specifically, the production of books by modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Henry James, Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce involved the canny fashioning of careers through the careful manipulation of "imprimatur," as Jaffe calls the personality of the author stamped permanently into the literary object.

Treating economics and publicity as intrinsic to modernism, this book resembles John Whittier-Ferguson's Framing Pieces, Lawrence S. Rainey's Institutions of Modernism, and Mark Osteen's The Economy of "Ulysses." With a keen eye for irony, Jaffe recalls that modernists often relied on "the unpaid work of others," and he does not shy away from asking how modernist writers earned money (96). Aesthetic self-sufficiency is all fine and dandy, but it is achieved through instances of material dependency, as when Joyce enlisted Robert McAlmon to type out the "Penelope" episode of Ulysses for free or hit up Harriet Shaw Weaver for cash. In an illuminating discussion of the economic implications of collaboration, Jaffe demonstrates that editorial labors prop up Joyce's stature and presume "mannered inequities" for those who perform such labors (98, 99). Jaffe insists that modernist literature in general utilizes an economy of "scarcity" (4, 165, 203, and in passing), since scarce words are "commensurate with the modernist sense of the scarcity of the reading public capable of understanding" (133-34). Moreover, authors such as Eliot imply by their limited output that scarcity defines "genuine" poetry (119). Embedded within this assumption is a modernist definition of culture that modernists themselves resisted: culture is edification for which you do not pay.

Vivid intelligence gleams from every chapter of Modernism and the Culture of Celebrity. For example, Jaffe offers an insightful analysis of the series of Georgian Poetry anthologies that appeared between 1912 and 1922. The term "Georgian" was capacious enough to admit poets with diverse aesthetic aims, such as D. H. Lawrence and Robert Ross; whatever a poet's convictions, the inclusion of his poems in anthologies provided wide exposure. Aesthetic convictions, therefore, hardly matter; instead, the logic of sales prevails. The bestselling Georgian anthologies generated spin-offs and imitations, including Eliot's Catholic Anthology, Pound's Des Imagistes, Louis Untermeyer's Modern British Verse, W. B. Yeats's Oxford Book of Modern Verse, and Michael Roberts's Faber Book of Modern Verse. As the publication of anthologies accelerated between 1912 and 1939, the term "Georgian" faded out in favor of the term "modern." Jaffe argues that anthologies manifest the advantages of "configuring literary networks" and "constructing an economy of publicity" (145, 146). He treats this concerted effort as the "branding" of modernism, in the contemporary sense of the term, meaning the consolidation and promotion of a corporate identity.

Observations about modern anthologies emerge naturally from an inquiry into the writing of introductions for other writers' works. Eliot, an indefatigable introducer, abandons his principle of scarcity when it comes to the promotion of Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Marianne Moore's Selected Poems, Stanislaus Joyce's My Brother's Keeper, and the numerous other books for which he wrote introductions. Eliot's name—his imprimatur—confers status on the book being introduced, while upholding Eliot's own stature and authority. After all, Eliot needs no introduction. Such is the logic of the introduction: the introducer assumes the position of declaring value because his own authority remains beyond question. Joyce, unlike Eliot, notably did not introduce others' books. He devoted his energies in the 1920s and 1930s to...



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