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  • The "Boom" Novel and the Cold War in Latin America
  • Neil Larsen (bio)


One of the collateral if perhaps somewhat fortuitous benefits of the current preoccupation with postmodernism in the humanities is that it has now become much more difficult to sustain what for decades was the dominant mode of apology for modernism itself, and the underlying ideology of its "canonicity": the idea that modernism and modernity were consubstantial categories, that modernism was somehow already precontained in the raw and immediate experience of contemporary life. To defend, say, the Joycean interior monologue or the surrealist principles of montage, it was once necessary only to declare the fidelity of the aesthetic device to "modern" life itself. Modernism had succeeded, for a time at least, in laying ideological claim to being the realism of our (or its) time. Given this fundamental premise, one might or might not concede the existence of a modernist "politics." But even supposing one did, such a "politics" tended to be viewed as likewise consubstantial with "modernity" rather than, say, as the expression of some particular group or even class interest. Above all, one thinks here of the Adornian and generally left-formalist theory of aesthetic negation as constituting a new sphere for emancipatory activity after the decline of "politics" in its traditional modes.

Although one can still find serious efforts to attribute to modernism both a lived immediacy and a kind of teleological necessity (see, for example, Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts into Air), this sort of thinking must now confront the sense among intellectuals and cultural consumers generally that modernism has failed to keep its utopian promises—and that contemporary experience may not after all be of a piece with [End Page 771] modernist aesthetics. For some, no doubt, the same premise of consubstantiality now restates itself, mutatis mutandis, as the relationship of postmodernism to postmodernity. But modernist burn-out has also made it easier to begin to think about the politics of modernism without in turn feeling obliged to erect modernism into a metapolitics with its own unique pertinence to contemporary experience. Perhaps, after all, modernism did serve the interests of some while effectively thwarting those of others. And perhaps there were, or are, other modernities, unexpressed and unsuspected in canonically modernist aesthetic categories and practices. In any event, the relation of modernism to both modern experience and to other aesthetic and cultural practices has come increasingly to be seen as hegemonic and exclusionary rather than transparent and totalizing.

One of the many areas opened up for critical investigation by this line of thinking is the historical connection between modernism and the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War. (In precise fact, this connection was already being drawn by, among other Old Left intellectuals, the Lukács of the early 1950s [see, inter alia, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism and the epilogue to The Destruction of Reason]). But the—as one might put it—one-two punch of Cold War thinking itself, together with the generally promodernist stance of the New Left, had until recently kept this question outside the limits of acceptable discourse.) Serge Guilbaut, in his 1983 How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, argues, for example, that the rise of Abstract Expression in the U.S. after World War II was less the result of some spontaneous shift of aesthetic sensibility on the part of artists and critics than the product of a self-consciously political drive to decanonize the old Popular Front realism of the 1930s and replace it with a depoliticized art compatible with the U.S. imperial elite's new image of itself as the guardian of aesthetic culture. A similarly political connection is uncovered in Lawrence H. Schwartz's Creating Faulkner's Reputation. Here Schwartz analyzes the shift in Faulkner's literary fortunes from relative obscurity in the 1930s and early 1940s to the super stardom of the 1950s and after as a function of the same Cold War cultural campaign to delegitimize the Left-leaning social and proletarian realism that thrived in the pre-Cold War United States through the creation of a new...


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