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Reviewed by:
  • Literary Modernism and Beyond: The Extended Vision and the Realms of the Text
  • Ira Nadel (bio)
Literary Modernism and Beyond: The Extended Vision and the Realms of the Text, by Richard Lehan. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009. 368 pp. $39.95.

Literary Modernism and Beyond is a broad title and an even broader text. In six sections, seventeen chapters, one coda, and three appendices, Richard Lehan surveys the history of modernism from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. In a series of cameo appearances, everyone from Walter Benjamin to Virginia Woolf, Henri Bergson to James Joyce, and Jacques Derrida to Don DeLillo takes a turn. Walkons include H. D. (one paragraph), Mina Loy (one paragraph), and Allen Ginsberg (two paragraphs).1 The result is a synoptic text enforcing synthesis where there is contradiction, unity where there is conflict. There is something to quarrel with on every page in a work reminiscent of Irving Howe's The Idea of the Modern in Literature and the Arts, Peter Conrad's Modern Times, Modern Places, or Peter Gay's Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.2 Summarizing the intent, if not the method, of Lehan is Harold Bloom's Western Canon.3 Indeed, "The Modernist Canon" might be a more accurate title for what Lehan attempts.

Part of this book's difficulty is in its purpose: it cannot decide if it is dealing with the modern period or modernism, the former a literary-historical construct, the latter a conceptual, if not theoretical, idea. Lehan does not grapple with theory and the attendant redefinitions of the modern, although he spends a great deal of time identifying theorists throughout his text. But whether it is Theodor Adorno or Edmund Husserl, theorists are no more than bit players needed to [End Page 567] advance the plot rather than central figures essential for shaping the drama. In this historical survey, description trumps analysis; exposition overpowers interpretation. The result is a comprehensive set of names, although its purpose is less to prove a critical point than to ensure they are in the cast. Think Wylie Sypher, not Peter Nicholls, or the multi-character films of Robert Altman (Gosford Park), not the concentrated work of Louis Malle (My Dinner with Andre).

Part of Lehan's problem is his insistence on unanimity for the modernist enterprise. He resists the view that modernism often competed with itself and contained its own inner contradictions. He weakly defends the harmony of the moderns when he writes, in objecting to Chris Baldick's The Modern Movement, 1910-1940 and its argument that the modernists were not a coherent group,4 that there was a coherent literary agenda: "the modernists shared a number of intellectual and literary concerns: they built upon the assumptions of late Romanticism" placing "human consciousness, at the center of life's workings" (296). Joyce and Woolf, of course, expressed this idea more cogently, but for Lehan, it reaffirms his agenda of harmony, avoiding what Marshall Berman, in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity, calls the "modernist vocabulary of opposition."5 Indeed, to experience the modern, Berman argues, is "to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom" and "to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration . . . ambiguity and contradiction" (345). Lehan does not acknowledge this.

Lehan surveys Continental, as well as British and American, modernism, again imposing connections and similarities. He elides differences and makes what can only be termed artificial connections. To combine Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Mann with Woolf, D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot, coupled with an uncritical reliance on terminology that is now under scrutiny (neo-realism, spatial form, literary naturalism), is as questionable as it is presumptuous. It reminds one again of Sypher and his Rococo to Cubism in Art and Literature.6 The idea of transgressive modernism never crosses Lehan's mind.7

Networks of influence describe Lehan's sense of modernism's development in his pursuit of harmony in this essentialist study. Thus, we are told—without nuance or qualification—that Gertrude Stein shaped the work of Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, and Thornton Wilder and, more specifically, that "Stein's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6036
Print ISSN
0021-4183
Pages
pp. 567-571
Launched on MUSE
2012-12-06
Open Access
No
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