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Reading Modernism’s Cultural Field: Rebecca West’s The Strange Necessity and the Aesthetic “System of Relations”
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Rebecca West’s career began as an editor, author, and reviewer within the nascent avant-garde scene in London just before World War I. It lasted well beyond the subsequent canonization of something called “modernism” in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s in British and American institutions of culture. West’s work of the 1910s and 20s—work that included reportage, critical study, and experimental fiction—was often left out of this initial canon of modernist texts and mostly male authors. Accordingly, she is a figure who might help us in our ongoing quest to, as Raymond Williams puts it, mark the “radical contrast” between the “struggling (and quarreling and competitive) groups, who between them made what is now generally referred to as ‘modern art,’ and the funded and trading institutions, academic and commercial, which were eventually to generalize and deal in them.”1 Indeed, West herself closely marked this gradual consecration of modernism. In a 1958 letter to Richard Ellmann (an academic critic then at work on his James Joyce, published in 1959), she attributes the devaluation of her own work, her volume of critical essays The Strange Necessity (1928) in particular, to the rise of T. S. Eliot’s critical precepts and literary tastes: “I wrote an essay on Joyce in a book called The Strange Necessity in which I copied the form, killed stone dead since by T. S. Eliot, of criticism in a personal and almost fictional framework, such as Remy de Gourmont and several other French writers had used.”2

Here, West alludes to Eliot’s championing of “impersonality” in literature— a concept around which an initial modernist canon of formally complex, “objective” (not first person), and typically male-authored literary works was built. Here, West tells a story that is by now familiar to feminist critics of modernism— the story of how Eliot’s (and here we might add T. E. Hulme’s or Ezra Pound’s) literary formalism remasculinized cultural value in the midtwentieth century and effectively eclipsed the work of modernist-era woman writers like West.3 As feminist critics, we have long been sympathetic to West’s complaint that canonical modernism largely excluded the work of female authors in particular, yet I want to suggest that we might reconsider this now-familiar story by returning to West’s account. Interestingly, West’s letter notes that the rise of an Eliotic modernism effectively erased her contributions to this movement not as an author, but as a critic—in this instance, a critic of Joyce. What would it mean to position West as a forgotten critic of modernism? How might we think about the institutional formation of modernism as eclipsing not just literary styles, but alternative modes of interpretation and critical practice?

West’s letter to Ellmann suggests that we must be cautious about the terms by which we pursue any such recovery project. West emphasizes what a return to The Strange Necessity would not entail: namely, the recovery of a more authentically personal or feminine criticism. Indeed, West decouples the “personal” from femininity and subjectivity: she notes that “personal” criticism was practiced also by men like Remy de Gourmont (a French critic whom Eliot was known to admire). She further implies that the personal style of The Strange Necessity was not expressive of her subjectivity, but rather a reflection of the “framework” she had “copied.” West’s insistence on the masculine and formal pedigree of personal criticism works here to denaturalize Eliot’s distinction between highly formal, “impersonal,” and implicitly masculine artworks and formless, “personal,” feminized writing. As early as 1932, West had noted that Eliot’s authority derived from his claim to give formal, aesthetic order to unruly and unexamined expression: “Mr. Eliot styles himself fastidious by crying out against violence, confusion, and the presentation of unanalyzed emotion.”4 By 1958, Eliot’s valuation of form-for-form’s sake had become deeply ingrained and, we might add, institutionalized in America by New Critical formalist reading practices that both verified and enacted the connection between a text’s value and the sophistication of its internal structure. From her letter to Ellmann, I extrapolate West’s challenge to this ideology of aesthetic formalism...

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