American Literature 75.4 (2003) 873-875
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Given the representations of emancipated or transgressive women in male modernist texts, ranging from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury to Ezra Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme," it is no wonder that even now, after two decades of feminist excavations and critical revisions, surveys of modernism still tend, in Elizabeth Francis's words, "to segregate feminism and modernism." In The Secret Treachery of Words, Francis takes issue with that segregation by arguing that feminism was a crucial part of modernism in its earliest days and that modernism first expanded and then curbed the radical potential of feminists who found themselves implicated in an emerging modernist history designating feminism as its repressed other. To support her case, Francis traces the intellectual trajectories of four modernists closely allied with early-twentieth-century feminism: modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, [End Page 873] Little Review editor Margaret Anderson, sexual revolutionist Floyd Dell, and Old Left novelist Josephine Herbst. The "intellectual portraiture" that emerges offers a fascinating glimpse into the confusing ferment and tensions of early-twentieth-century modernism, but Francis's book often gets trapped by the very contradictions that it purports to be analyzing.
Part of the problem lies with the conflicted attitudes of cultural radicals toward women's emancipation, as they vacillated between regarding New Women as the vanguard of modernity or as "the quintessence of modernity's problems." Feminists, in turn, defined themselves in the early years of the century as seeking "to proclaim a break from the past," a proclamation that Francis asserts "made feminism part of and productive of modernism." But feminists also had to contend with the fact that modernists often associated women with a "past they were attempting to escape," whether the sentimentality of Victorian writing or the power of women as consumers helping to define mass culture.
The four figures whose portraits Francis delineates were each drawn into those contradictions as their early modernist rebellions eventually succumbed to more conservative and troubling tendencies in modernism, whether "nationalism, racism, conservative heterosexuality, . . . [or] disaffected marginality." Hence Isadora Duncan, once prized by cultural radicals for her celebration of the female body, came to be seen as a monument to a sentimental past even as her own dance theory metamorphosed from a condemnation of mass culture to a racist celebration of white womanhood. Margaret Anderson, who early on emerged as a symbol of young female rebellion, bowed to the implicit objectification of her role by resorting to silence and feminine retreat—at her lawyer's advice—when she was put on trial for publishing Ulysses. Even more pronounced was Floyd Dell's gradual transformation from sexual radical hailing bohemian women's sexual independence to conservative defender of traditional female roles in the home. Of these four figures, Francis argues, only Josephine Herbst, in her later memoirs, was able to resist the abstraction of art from politics and to bring attention to her own marginalization and the necessity of finding a usable past for feminists.
As lively as they are, these portraits do not quite succeed in determining just how the tensions of modernism came to compromise the feminist import of these figures' contributions, in part because Francis relies too heavily on Daniel Joseph Singal's overly simplistic, oddly antiquated "Towards a Definition of American Modernism." Singal's approach to modernism as a cultural break with Victorianism in favor of the virtues of self-expression and wholeness leaves little room for the kinds of tensions and hesitations that David Harvey has traced with such dexterity in his chapter on modernity and modernism in The Condition of Postmodernity. Perhaps more to the point, Singal's kind of approach provides scant guidance for one of the central issues of modernist texts: how to read them. Francis herself is adept enough at drawing out many of the tensions defining the texts she...