- The Question of T. E. Hulme’s Modernism
It is becoming increasingly difficult to envision a modernism without T. E. Hulme somewhere near its center. Whether because of his limited oeuvre, his often coarse and bombastic prose, or his self-styled amateurism in philosophy, he has long been a fringe figure in conventional narratives of high modernism. When scholars of previous generations mentioned Hulme, it was typically his formative influence on Pound, Eliot, or Lewis that dominated the discussion. We know much of his invigorating presence in the Poet's Club of 1908 and afterward at the Tour Eiffel restaurant in Soho; the famous Tuesday night salon that he held at 67 Frith Street; and his eminently quotable forecast for the weather of modern poetry—dry, hard, and classical. Despite a steady interest in Hulme, however, it was not until two decades ago in Michael Levenson's still popular A Genealogy of Modernism (1984) that he began to move from the margins of modernism to its ideological center. Levenson straightened out the chronology of Hulme's posthumously published Speculations in order to place his multiple intellectual shifts and conversions at the crux of the modernist tensions between Bergson's intuitive Romanticism and the emergent classicist movement. In her dissertation on Hulme and afterwards Karen Csengeri argued for an underlying unity to Hulme's thought and assembled an annotated critical bibliography published in 29.4 (1986) of ELT. In 1994 she edited the authoritative Collected Writings. Robert Ferguson's widely reviewed 2002 biography, The Short, Sharp Life of T. E. Hulme, reintroduced the iconoclastic poet and critic's name to the pages of the Times (10 November 2002) and the New York Review of Books (15 May 2003). And Jahan Ramazani's inclusion of a generous selection from Hulme's most wide-reaching essay, "Romanticism and Classicism," in the prose "Poetics" section of the latest Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry now virtually guarantees him a place, however minor, on that ever-capricious instrument of canonization, the course syllabus.
In a Criterion commentary, T. S. Eliot famously predicted that Hulme's "new attitude of mind" would become "the twentieth-century [End Page 205] mind" (April 1924). And although justly suspicious of such overstatement, Levenson implicitly agreed with him. In Levenson's eyes, Hulme was not merely one thinker among others; he was rather "an intellectual site, a place where intellectual currents converged," and thus became a remarkably prophetic microcosm of conflicting attitudes in later modernist theories of art, literature, and politics (Genealogy of Modernism, 38). Focusing its attention on Hulme himself instead of his lasting influence, T. E. Hulme and the Question of Modernism intervenes at this point of convergence, and each of the book's eleven essays demonstrates, with varying degrees of elegance and rigor, that he merits and sustains our closer attention.
The volume's most clear-sighted, cogent, and persuasive essay is Helen Carr's "T. E. Hulme and the 'Spiritual Dread of Space,'" not least because it offers a highly readable, compelling account of Hulme's short-lived career in terms that neither arrogantly condemn nor liberally remodel his intellectual achievements according to contemporary standards. The spiritual urgency and emotional pressure of Hulme's early work, Carr shows, arose in part from his experience of the bleak, immense spaces of the Canadian prairies that he toured in 1906. Though Hulme's "prairie experience" is well-trodden critical territory by now, Carr sensitively discerns its formative role in the spiritual anguish that underlies his musings in the early group of Pascal-like fragments, "Cinders," claiming that they "may be read as a dark night of the soul." She traces the repercussions of this harrowing dark night through Hulme's discovery of Bergson (characterized, as he himself later recalled, by "an almost physical sense of exhilaration" and "a kind of mental explosion" [Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme, 126]), his resistance to certain implications of Bergson's thought under the guidance of Pierre Lasserre, a leader of the right-wing French movement known as...