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  • Manifesto: A Century of Isms
  • Gail McDonald
Mary Ann Caws, ed. Manifesto: A Century of Isms. Lincoln and London: U of Nebraska P, 2001. xxxiv + 713 pp.

In her 1983 Centennial Presidential Address to the Modern Language Association, Mary Ann Caws asked, “And what has happened to that sense of wonder characteristic of modernism?” (PMLA 99(3): 312–21). In 1983, modernism seemed to have more to do with mandarins, rightist politics, and failed experimentation than with so elevating an emotion as wonder. But Caws went on to suggest the value of “counterstory” as a means of upsetting academic complacency and cheerfully predicted that scholars of modernism would be “challenged on all sides . . . by more modern modernists, so that the establishment plays out once more the drama of one generation’s instruments being discarded by the next generation” (318). Caws was not in this instance a fortune-teller, but rather a deeply informed scholar who had not lost sight of the peculiar, even crazed vivacity of modernism. On 5 November 1999, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story remarking on the evidence that those “more modern modernists” had arrived (Scott Heller, “New Life for Modernism,” CHE 46 (11): A21). [End Page 261] And now Caws, who knew they were coming, is here to greet them with Manifestos: A Century of Isms.

In fact, Caws has, in the fifty-odd books and editions of her distinguished career, repeatedly demonstrated her commitment to understanding the disturbing energies of the avant-garde. Thus she is ideally positioned to collect and to contextualize the over 200 selections for this anthology of manifestos. Predictably, the collection represents contributions from English, American, French, and Italian artists, from Dadaists, Imagists, Futurists, and the like, with a heavy selection from the teens and twenties. To have some of the most familiar manifestos available in one place is convenient and helpful to students and their teachers, particularly for graduate courses. What makes the volume especially valuable, however, is the variety of less predictable selections. Caws has ranged over disciplines (art, music, literature, architecture), decades (1836 is the earliest selection; 1999, the latest), and—most helpfully of all—countries. In addition to the nations already named, Caws presents work of artists native to or resident in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Spain, Catalonia, Martinique, Senegal, Japan, Russia, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, and Romania. Further, she offers work by women like Mina Loy and Sonia Delaunay in what is often thought to be a masculine form. The catholicity of the collection invites study of the circulation of ideas at particular points in time, comparison of national and ethnic differences, and thought about the place of art in both prosperous and impoverished countries. More attention might have been paid to the role of race in the rhetoric of manifestos. Otherwise, this is a generous and highly usable selection of materials.

Caws has helpfully organized the materials into 31 sections, largely but not exclusively based on “isms,” “schools,” and similar aims. Thus, for example, her selection of Futurist manifestos is titled “Futurisms” and includes not only the Italians but the Russians associated with Rayonism and Zaoum. She includes among her final selections, with a stated awareness of the textual and meta-textual possibilities of the collection, a group of “Reflections on Manifestos” and a section on “Writing and the Book” featuring work by Gertrude Stein and Edmond Jabès. The book’s other apparatus exhibits a similarly thorough attention to detail, providing a rough chronology, an alphabetical list of the sections, a bibliography, and a brief, lucid introduction to each section.

In an introduction of about ten pages, Caws describes “The Poetics of the Manifesto.” The essay is an excellent, compact introduction to the rhetorical principles of the manifesto, from “we-speak” to typography. Caws notes that she has chosen statements by artists, preferring “the manifesto or statement of the believer to the explanatory talk of the aftercoming critic.” She adheres to that principle in her own essay, clearly wishing to retain in her analysis the passion and excitement that marks the selections that follow. “The spirit of modernism,” she asserts, “is characterized in good part by its refusal of description” (xxviii...

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pp. 261-262
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