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  • The Persistence of Modernism: Loss and Mourning in the Twentieth Century
  • Rod C. Taylor
Detloff, Madelyn . The Persistence of Modernism: Loss and Mourning in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2009. 226 pp. $95.00.

With a focus on both modernist and contemporary authors, The Persistence of Modernism explores the relevance of modernism in our present age, particularly as it pertains to trauma studies. In this ambitious monograph, Detloff argues that interwar authors such as Virginia Woolf, H.D., and Gertrude Stein provide a critical lens through which to better understand contemporary authors concerned with the continuation of local and global violence. Detloff works with Michael André Berstein's notion of "backshadowing," reading history in an apocalyptic fashion, and "sideshadowing," seeing any given moment as dense with multiple, mutually exclusive possibilities of what is to come. She argues that these modernist authors, women who were part of their culture but by virtue of their gender and sexuality could not fully belong to it, sought to provide through their works alternative political responses to continued widespread trauma and violence, specifically violence sanctioned by governments. To that end, the book is divided into two distinct parts; the first, "War, Time, and Trauma," concerns the three modernist writers mentioned above, while the second, "The Modernist Patch," focuses on reading works from Susan Sontag, Pat Barker, and Hanif Kureishi through the writers analyzed in the first half. The result is a work that seeks to demonstrate the relevance and utility of these authors' attitudes toward violence that regretfully were, and remain, marginalized in our culture.

In "Woolf's Resilience," Detloff effectively challenges the notion that Woolf's own trauma, illness, and personal pain proved a hindrance to her writing style and her pacifist message. Instead, she asserts that Woolf's resilience through her pain enabled her to successfully communicate personal and cultural pain, an impossible task according to Elaine Scarry, but one that can be imparted through the "tracing" of its effects. In her examination of Three Guineas and Between the Acts, Detloff first points to Woolf's skill in the use of apophasis, through which Woolf represents pain and loss as negative space, successfully communicating the incommunicable. Detloff contends that through "sideshadowing" these works offer readers a counter discourse to violence and militarism, attempting to awaken within her World War II audience the ability to reflect on potential realities hitherto unconsidered or even imagined—namely, pacifism.

In "Stein's Shame," Detloff charges headfirst into the controversial relationships among Gertrude Stein, her fiction, her personal life, and her politics. She argues that current critics of Stein operate under "vicarious compunction," a term she uses to describe the shame that results from what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls "the double movement shame makes: toward painful individuation, toward uncontrollable relationality" (53). Without excusing Stein's political associations or, at times, erratic political positions, Detloff complicates a number of commonly held assumptions regarding Stein's life, work, and politics by exploring Stein's relationship with Alice B. Toklas, her short story "Melanctha," and most pointedly her appreciation and subversive use of forensic science and the detective story genre.

"H.D.'s Wars" explores the political and ethical effects of narratives that, purposely or inadvertently, work to redeem trauma and pain, ultimately participating in "the ideology of death" (83). This section continues Detloff's inquiry into how best to write about devastation and loss but is not the strongest in the book—not because Detloff fails to make her point clear but rather because she seems to assume agreement among critics regarding negative assessments of modernist literature concerned with addressing the aftermath of the atrocities of the wars. Still, her argument regarding [End Page 279] H.D. pushes against the notion that H.D. was too naïve regarding the wars, and she joins Susan Stanford Friedman in defending a writer who has been too often treated as an "escapist" in terms of dealing with the war or "too fragile for the modern world" (Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D., 102-04). Focusing on H.D.'s interwar writings, most notably Trilogy, The Gift, and Pilate's Wife, Detloff reveals a transition in H.D...


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