[Access article in PDF]
Am I a Snob? Modernism and the Novel. Sean Latham. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 240. $19.95 (paper).
"Am I a Snob?" was the title of a paper that Virginia Woolf read to her Bloomsbury friends in the Memoir Club in the mid-1930s. She answered the question, with some irony, in the affirmative. Many of her less friendly contemporaries and many subsequent critics agreed with her, finding in snobbery her defining feature. Sean Latham notes that the feminist critics who in the 1970s began to bring Woolf back to major status in the modernist canon often countered this allegation by pointing out that she was an acute social critic. But the claims of snobbery and of social criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as Latham demonstrates, they can look rather similar. Both entail an acute awareness of class and its aesthetic display. Both require an understanding of the power and penetration of markets. And both apprehend that once value stops being defined as inherent in a stable order of hereditary rank and privilege, it must be discerned from its outward manifestations. Outward manifestations can be counterfeited.
Latham's fascinating study shows us that once social or aesthetic value becomes something to be recognized by its appearance, snobbery becomes an almost intolerable problem. The snob is a historical phenomenon—indeed, the word snob first occurred in print in 1848. It initially meant someone who imitated the mannerisms, tastes and habits of the upper classes: imitated them poorly, by definition. Only around the turn of the nineteenth century did it acquire its current meaning of someone concerned with the display, rather than simply the practice, of refinement.
At this point, it became so embroiled with the aesthetics of an emergent "high" modernism that Latham argues it constitutes "an unresolved conundrum at the heart of the modern literary project" (214). In an era when culture and taste were replacing older class distinctions as the primary markers of superiority, how could a writer committed to making it new not be a snob, not be concerned with being at the cutting edge of literary fashion? The problem is compounded by the expansion both of the reading public and of technologies of publication and advertisement that effectively made a work of literature into a consumer product. Latham is interested in [End Page 190] how the charge of snobbery smudges the border between "high" modernism and "middlebrow" and popular "mass-mediated" culture during the modern period.
It's a terrific focus, set up by a chapter on Thackeray, whose "Mr. Snob" in Punch evolves from a false gentleman to a sophisticated man of letters. Wilde then becomes the exemplary propounder of the problem, on the one hand embracing what Latham calls the logic of the pose, in which fashion is the only determinant of aesthetic value, and on the other hand maintaining the opposite position, that the aesthetic object has intrinsic value entirely unaffected by the demands of the marketplace. Using Dorian Gray, Latham shows how the logic of the pose can become an aesthetic nihilism, a "process through which fashion evacuates an object and leaves behind only the empty sign of sophistication" (215). The argument for the autonomy of the literary artifact emerges as apparently the only possible means to keep a consumer economy from having the final say about the value of a literary work or a writer.
Two chapters on Woolf describe the middle and late phases of her career in terms of this inherited dilemma. In an exciting reading of her essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Latham suggests that Arnold Bennett's real threat, not only to the emergent modernists but also to experienced subjectivity, was his commitment to the logic of the pose, embodied in his novels as "an impoverished, market-driven reality in which signs threaten to counterfeit the substance of identity Woolf hopes to preserve" (73). Latham goes on to develop this observation in the more conventional terms of surface and...