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  • Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s
  • Martha Patterson
Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s. Edited by Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 301 pp. $50.00/$22.50 paper.

Fitzgerald called the "Jazz Age" the "greatest, gaudiest spree in history," and it has long epitomized the hedonism of a youth culture wary of Victorian strictures and morality. Yet for Joan Shelley Rubin, who wrote the foreword to Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920s, a woman such as "Anne Elizabeth" represents literary history's forgotten female middlebrow moderns; in 1921 Anne Elizabeth wrote, "Now, why won't you believe that a person can be 20 and live in Chicago and yet have old-fashioned ideas? Please believe that I do hate studio parties and the 'new' literature and blasé youths, and that I can like organ music and lolly-pops and Thackeray and still be modern." The popular women writers of the 1920s discussed in this book did not claim the kind of edgy ennui of the highbrow modernists, but they nonetheless saw themselves as modern. It is this largely neglected but tremendously influential segment of women writers that Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith recover and reframe in their anthology.

The essays they have chosen for their collection focus on a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse group of popular women writers who were deemed both semi-serious, because they wrote for primarily female reading audiences, and (to many in highbrow circles) "pernicious," because their commercial success ostensibly eroded audience appreciation for high art (4). Indeed all of these writers successfully capitalized on a range of new distribution technologies aimed at middle-class readers and their success earned them derision by their more established peers and virtual obscurity in literary history (xiii). In an effort to show readers the centrality of these writers' work to current theoretical discussions, Botshon and Goldsmith illustrate that these authors "participated in and advanced the cultural debate over domesticity and women's work, marriage and reproduction, assimilation, consumer culture and capitalism, and the rise of new technologies" (6).

Botshon and Goldsmith divide their book into four sections that emphasize the distinctive political and mass-market dynamics these writers engaged. The first, "Placemaking: Gender, Genre, and Geography," offers essays by Donna Campbell, Deborah Lindsay Williams, and Dominika Ferens on Rose Wilder Lane, Edna Ferber, Zona Gale, and Winnifred Eaton's contestation of dominant racial, gender, and class paradigms in their writing. In the second section, "The Middlebrow and Magazine Culture," Maureen Honey, Jaime Harker, and Sara Churchwell look at how the editorial stance and advertising content of popular women's magazines shaped the feminist material of new woman fiction in general, or the work of Dorothy Canfield and Anita Loos specifically. In "Women behind the Screens," Heidi Kenaga and Lisa Botshon look at Edna Ferber and Anzia Yezierska's navigation of the necessarily ambivalent appeal of Hollywood. Even as Hollywood offered enough money to help these writers sustain their careers and increased the audience for their works, it generally undermined the radical elements in their fiction. In the final section of the collection, "Women and Consumption," Susan Tomlinson, Stephanie Bower, and Meredith Goldsmith look at consumption as a means of navigating racist typologies in the work of Jessie Fauset, Fannie Hurst, and Nella Larsen, respectively.

Middlebrow Moderns reshapes our understanding of what Botshon, Goldsmith, and Rubin see as the myopia of previous studies of this period such as Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty, with its overemphasized alienation that [End Page 104] does not account for unalienated Midwesterners such as Zona Gale, or Walter Benn Michaels's Our America, which overemphasizes nativism yet fails to account for Edna Ferber's promotion of racial miscegenation as intrinsic to modern American identity (xv, 8, 13). Botshon and Goldsmith, by contrast, demonstrate that these middlebrow writers "bridged gaps in an audience increasingly fragmented by economic, racial, ethnic, and regional differences" (6).

And yet even as this anthology offers an important corrective to American literary history, I found myself wondering if the cultural work of this fiction was more ambivalent than these writers suggest, given the larger political climate...


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