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Modernism, the Market and the Institution of the New (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 619-621 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0039

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Rod Rosenquist's Modernism, the Market and the Institution of the New proposes that a second generation of modernists, or "modernist latecomers," came to literary self-awareness via a conflicted relationship with the "high modernists" who preceded them, principally James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot (27, 30). According to Rosenquist, the high modernists lived a paradox: they positioned themselves as both literary revolutionaries and conservators of tradition. They accomplished this in a number of ways, by canny selfpromotion in small literary periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, by shrewd maneuverings in a shadowy place Rosenquist locates somewhere "behind the scenes," by self-identifying their work as, in a sense, "classic" and deserving, therefore, a part of some kind of institutionalization, and, above all, by promulgating the "rules under which they and their contemporaries were to be judged" (30, 17). Their campaign also allowed them to penetrate certain educational institutions via academics like I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis (7). In these ways, the so-called high modernists benefited from the "hegemonic modernism" they created (19). It had the effect of giving them enduring visibility and of putting in the shade those outside the magic circle.

There are a number of problems with this account of the development of modernism. For one thing, the whole matter of the existence of rules of composition that were so authoritative they anointed one group of writers with everlasting fame and condemned others to the hell of obscurity seems suspect. The only evidence advanced for this are some speculations along these lines by Michael Levenson (17). But what exactly were these rules? The book vaguely gestures towards Eliot, nowadays an easy target for just about anything one does not like. Pound, of course, wrote famously on how one might produce a successful imagist poem, and if imagist poems made up the whole canon of modernism, then perhaps there would some merit in the book's argument. But Pound's do's and don'ts are not what Rosenquist seems to have in mind. He quotes instead Pound's view of what makes an "olde classicke" work (1). The poet, however, makes it clear that rules and regulations are not part of the formula. "A classic," Pound writes, "is not a classic because it conforms to certain structural rules. … It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness" (2). Irrepressible freshness cannot be legislated.

There are also problems with some of Rosenquist's other formulations. What does "hegemonic modernism" actually mean? What kind of powers are Joyce, Pound, and Eliot being given here? Are they really responsible for trying to make everyone conform to a standard they have set? How could three marginalized semi-bohemians set themselves up as a dominant cultural institution in a wider literary scene, when, early on, they were sometimes dismissed as charlatans (Eliot), buffoons (Pound), and pornographers (Joyce)? That they did eventually achieve fame and even a certain authority can be just as easily attributed to the excellence and uniqueness of their work. Other problems with Rosenquist's grasp of the early modernist scene occur with his use of certain terms. The word "institution," for example, is used in the same loose way circulated by Lawrence Rainey in The Institutions of Modernism. The problems are not just matters of definition. There is also the issue of agency. About Ulysses and The Waste Land, Rosenquist writes, "These were not merely typical works of the movement, but nonpareil monuments—as they still are, in certain contexts—each establishing itself within literary culture as a paragon of the modernist novel and poem respectively" (19). The squishy part of this sentence is the locution "establishing itself." Inanimate objects do not establish themselves. But when, as Richard Lanham said when he taught composition at the University of California, Los Angeles, you are not sure who kicks whom, a certain vagueness about agency can be useful.

Rosenquist's "latecomers" (2), or the second generation of modernists, are Wyndham Lewis, Laura Riding, Henry Miller, and the Objectivists. They share a number of characteristics, of which I will discuss two in particular. First, it seems they were not as nimble entrepreneurially speaking as...

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