- Race, Nationalism and the State in British and American Modernism
The blessing of new literary critical vogues is that scholars and teachers can have old paradigms revised or extended, even completely displaced. Old texts rub shoulders with texts formerly beyond the pale of scholarly consideration. Texts unearthed from the darkening stacks of airless research libraries breathe with new life. We live over again Pound’s old but worthy canard, “Make It New.” Too bad that new vogues become the predictably latest thing, their inspiration smothered under the pile of earnest books produced by assistant professors whose insights, often laudatory, serve the purposes of graduate and tenure committees rather than the needs of readers.
Judging by Patricia Chu’s first book, the so-called new modernism is entering an estimable middle-age, generating the solid but predictable work that characterizes a critical industry. Chu places her work squarely within the line of new modernist studies but hopes to move beyond them:
I find equally unsatisfactory four common approaches: (1) declaring “modernist” any work written within a particular span of years. Modernism was an aesthetic commitment, despite our lack of critical agreement on the nature of that commitment; (2) describing the ways in which an author’s work aesthetically resembles the work of authors whose place in the modernist canon is unchallenged. This seems to me to be a circular argument rather than a reconsideration of the aesthetics of modernism in a historical light. …; (3) establishing “special modernisms (regional modernism, women’s modernism, Harlem Renaissance modernism, and so forth) separate from an implicit “real” modernism. This segregation prevents any challenge to contemporary critical commonplaces of modernism…; and finally, (4) declaring modernist all texts with a particular cultural content, such as eugenics. Again, this begs the question of aesthetic commitment and effect.(16)
All of these are fair and important criticisms of the current state of new modernist studies, now no longer so new. Chu claims to be escaping all these deficiencies, a fairly tall order, so it may not be surprising that this study never quite seems to deliver on that promise. Chu’s basic thesis is that modernism is characterized by an aesthetic reaction against the subordination of the individual to state power and its bureaucratizing logic. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, and Chu does a nice job of specifying how high modernist complaints about the mob or mass culture were articulated at the same time as anxieties about new state power in the modernist period. She also shows that, in different ways, a number of authors not usually considered modernist were creating different kinds of aesthetic and political responses. Still, the authors included here are related not by aesthetic commitment but by a common cultural content or concern, however various these authors may be in their responses to that concern. Chu makes interesting gestures toward traces of sentimentality or shifting ideas about sentimentality in canonical high modernists. I especially found her reading of T. S. Eliot’s shifting attitudes toward Kipling compelling. She also makes a good case that so-called sentimental work is negotiating exactly the same things as the high modernists. Nevertheless, there is no real convincing attempt made to say that the aesthetics of T. S. Eliot in “The Hollow Men” (1925) is in any way connected to the schlock of the film White Zombie. Thus, the justification for calling White Zombie (1932) or Ellen Glasgow or Rebecca West modernist rather than regionalist or sentimentalist or something else seems to be based not on anything specifiable in [End Page 370] their aesthetics. The modernisms looked at here are called “modernist” on the basis of cultural context and content.
It is, however, absolutely fascinating to think that both canonized high modernists and the mavens of pop culture were obsessed with zombies–a new way to claim the interest of students more given to the video game Dead Rising than poetry, perhaps. Chu’s individual readings throughout are good, often superior. Her readings of Ellen Glasgow and Rebecca West in...