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Reviewed by:
  • Ethnic Modernism
  • Martha J. Cutter (bio)
Ethnic Modernism. Werner Sollors. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008. 324 pages. $18.95 paper.

Between 1910 and 1950, modernism transformed from being viewed as a ludicrous, unpopular, fringe movement represented by a few European artists to an intrinsic, powerful, homegrown and unique American art form. Moreover, during these decades the US was recast by many writers as a country that favored cultural pluralism and transnationalism rather than ethnic assimilation. What made such enormous change possible? In Ethnic Modernism, Werner Sollors examines key literary texts and artistic movements in order to explicate the political, aesthetic, and historical basis of this vast change—a change in which an artist such as William Faulkner could move from being seen as “needlessly intricate and essentially confus[ing]” (5) to the very center of American literary production, winning the 1950 Nobel Prize for literature. Sollors also shows that ethnicity was central to modernism, and that immigrants and ethnic individuals were at the forefront of the artistic developments that made such a startling transition possible. The book is a thoughtful and perceptive analysis of the tensions surrounding both modernism and ethnicity in this time period; most important, it demonstrates how some authors created a new mode of writing that integrated ethnic content with modernist form.

Sollors’s introduction alone is a valuable primer on the intellectual and aesthetic components that distinguish modernism from earlier artistic movements, as well as modernism’s ethnic components. I found myself wishing for some pictures, however. I am familiar with the cartoon send-up of Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 titled Seeing New York with a Cubist . . . The Rude Descending a Staircase (Rush Hour at the Subway), but not with Norman Rockwell’s critique of modernism, The Connoisseur (1962); Sollors describes this painting well, but I would have enjoyed seeing a reproduction of it. The introduction seamlessly flows into and sets up the concerns of the next chapter, “Gertrude Stein and ‘Negro Sunshine,’” in which Sollors shows how Stein arrived at her experimental mode of writing—in which “losing the general reader was part of the program” (20)—by examining significant developments in modern psychology (the understanding of unconscious processes), modernist painting (cubism and fauvism), modern photography [End Page 224] and film (the work of Stieglitz and Man Ray and the early psychological film theories of Hugo Münsterberg), and modernist music (leitmotif and jazz techniques). Sollors argues convincingly that Stein was influential and admired not only by modernist Anglo-American writers but also by African American authors such as Richard Wright and Nella Larsen. Wright claimed to have read “Melanctha” aloud to a group of “‘semi-literate black stock-yard workers . . . with an instinct for revolution’” with the result that “‘they understood every word . . . slapped their thighs, howled, laughed, stomped, and interrupted me constantly to comment upon the characters’” (29), while Larsen wrote a note to Stein in which she praised this same work for “accurately having caught the spirit of this race of mine” (30). Stein was freeing for ethnic writers, Sollors argues, mainly because of her style, which merged modernism and ethnic subject matter, emptied stereotypes through repetition of them, and made no differentiation between “a standard-English narrator and dialect-speaking characters” (32).

The next five shorter chapters focus on the broad theme of who and what would be considered “American” in this modernist period. In Chapter Three, “Ethnic Lives and Lifelets,” Sollors examines “lifelets”—socially representative immigrant and ethnic autobiographies—and in Chapter Four, “Ethnic Themes, Modern Themes,” he analyzes how a repertoire of ethnic themes (education, food, assimilation, homecoming, language, etc.) intersects with aspects of modernity and the new world of the immigrant, often represented by modern objects such as trains, speaking tubes, airplanes, and soda fountains. Chapter Five explores Mary Antin’s project of creating a myth of the ethnic subject finding/making a home in the United States, while Chapters Six and Seven focus more explicitly on controversies about who was entitled to call him/herself “American” and what language would constitute American literature. In Chapters Seven and Eight, Sollors demonstrates (as he has discussed brilliantly elsewhere...


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