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The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 840-844 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0003

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John Marx’s The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire will confirm what most students of modernism have known for some time: it is not just about literature any more. Though scholars of modernism have long taken an interest in social and cultural contexts, a significant increase in contextual studies followed upon the inaugural volume of the journal, Modernism/modernity in 1994, and the formation of the Modernist Studies Association in 1998. The result has been a salutary opening up of the discipline to comparative analyses that have removed any doubt as to the reality of plural modernisms and challenged the hegemony, in the United States and Britain at least, of Anglo-American forms. Marx’s book explores new directions in modernist studies at the same time that it draws a good deal of strength from the usual suspects of the modernist canon. It is not clear, in the end, though, whether this is a positive sign of a new syncreticism in the field or a reassertion of the centrality of the canon.

Marx’s argument embraces major writers like Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf within a context that includes writers in the farthest reaches of empire (though nearly all, save one or two theorists, are western). He claims that modernist literature has many affinities with the kinds of professionalism and expertise that characterize imperial administration, economics, anthropology, modern travel, suburban design, and a host of other spheres. Crucial to his thesis is the idea that the breakdown of the center-periphery model is the symptom of a decline in the authority of the British empire and British nationalism. Paradoxically, at the same time that empire went into decline, the English language and English culture shed their provincialism and developed into a wide variety of “local Englishes” (4). Modernism thus “laid the ground for the most utopian accounts of globalization as free intellectual and commercial exchange. It also anticipated globalization’s neocolonial aspects by identifying an English that was a cut above the rest” (4). Marx’s study performs a delicate balancing act between these two propositions. Though major figures still define the main lines of modernist literature, within the works of these figures “‘English’ no longer names a series of monolithic ethno-linguistic entities . . . but rather identifies a way to unify a number of competing English vernaculars through a logic of parallelism” (24). In a refreshing departure from Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism as an “imagined community,” Marx describes an “imagined community of modernism” that links a globalized English culture to “the political economy of professional specialization” (24).1

Marx puts forward the claim that Conrad, in his letters, sought to transform the novel into a high art, one that involved “an editorial sort of work centring on the rewriting of older textual material” (29), including preeminently the tradition of imperial romance. Conrad also attempted, in discussing his work with editors and other writers, to change the very terms of readership, which he understood as international in scope and not unlike “niche marketing” (29). Marx explores this line of thinking through a conjunction of Conrad’s novels and Bronislaw Malinowski’s ethnographies.2 In his analysis of the interrelation of “foreign-seeming sympathy” (for the other) and “dyed-in-the-wool English sentimentality” (62), Marx argues that Marlow’s sympathy for Jim and for his African crew members in Heart of Darkness can best be understood as the “sentimentalization of imperial labour” (68). A similar dynamic is discernible in Malinowski’s “self-reflexive struggle . . . awash in the cosmopolitanism of the [Trobriand] islands” and in the work of colonial administrators like Frederick Lugard in Nigeria, who “helped to turn character into a quality that could be taught, measured, and managed” (75, 85).

These same dynamics take on a gendered valence when seen from the point of view afforded by Forster’s A Passage to India and Amelia Edwards’s A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.3 These texts, according to Marx, displace the “sexual division of labour” and the “sexual division of forms,” in part by drawing attention to the critical interplay between “picturesque imperialism” and imperial survey and cartography...

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