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 depth, a decision that leads to some surprising insights into Jacob's Room but an overly-schematic reading of To the Lighthouse . In one important respect the Lighthouse reading breaks new ground, however. By looking closely at the generally underread character Charles Tansley, Latham takes seriously how snobbery can involve not only social awareness but social criticism.
This insight into the paradoxical value of the snob as revealer of class signs and pretensions guides the next chapter, which agrees with some of the most virulent opponents of Woolf that Orlando reflects "the snob's fascination with the life of the aristocracy" but points out that through privilege Orlando is able to escape "the pervasive snobbery of the literary marketplace," (76) a force especially threatening to the modern writer. A concluding reading of Three Guineas suggestively places the snob alongside the critical, activist Outsider. I find this reading most troubling, not because it associates snobbery with the withdrawal from mainstream ideological labor that Woolf advocates for "daughters of educated men" (in fact, Latham is quite brilliant in showing how the two movements of recoil are inseparable) but because when Latham mentions "the marketplace" he nowhere mentions ideology. Three Guineas is clear that the problem with markets is not simply that they are vulgar or cater to masses, but that they purvey the emotions and opinions of the most privileged, who regularly advocate war, the sacrifice of others, and the curtailment of rights. On the one hand, it sounds astoundingly snobbish to say it is prostitution to sell your brain, especially to write anything but what you want. On the other hand, it might pass as a sound political judgment to say that writers are debased when they allow themselves to become mouthpieces for the doctrines of the powerful. A web site called mediawhores.com is a case in point.
In general the first four chapters are concerned with the attitudes writers take toward the aesthetic value of their work and with their representations of snobs and snobbery within their fiction and essays. The fifth chapter, on Joyce, poses in addition the question of whether readers were, or are snobs. Because the strategies for marketing Ulysses created a coterie of collectors who achieved distinction by acquiring an object that would accrue both economic and cultural capital, Latham argues that the novel "has possessed its unique glow of genius from the very moment of its mythical publication" (147). Certainly such extrinsic factors as patronage, censorship, and what we would now call niche marketing, continue to shape both audience and attitude. The additional concern with publics reminds us that readers, especially academic interpreters, derive cultural, social and even economic capital from their association with high-culture objects. Latham maintains that Ulysses "itself" is somehow "egalitarian" whereas readers have imported attitudes that incline them to be Stephens rather than Blooms in their grasp of [End Page 191] the novel, a confusing claim arising again from a too-schematic reading and from trying to keep too many levels of evaluation together on the same discursive plane. Hovering at the periphery of this discussion, however, are a number of questions about literary value and canonization that come very close to the enterprise of modernist criticism, including Latham's modernist criticism. Do we still make tacit claims for the self-contained value of a literary work—say, Ulysses "itself"—simply by choosing that object to discuss, or by trying to discuss it apart from the conditions of commodification and canonization that make it a bearer of cultural capital? If so, what are the intrinsic qualities that give it value? Or alternately, how in the practice of literary studies can one avoid falling back on the ultimate value of the (canonical) literary work "in itself"?
Latham's book raises such questions in the process of trying to move modernist studies away from the alleged great divide between high modernism and "middlebrow" and mass culture. His best answers are more practical than theoretical. For example, he reads canonical authors without coming unduly to their defense, accepting that Woolf and Joyce were indeed snobs in many respects but then exploring the complications that contextualize and even, on occasion, value snobbery. His best move, however, is taking up the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers as the last step in his investigation of modernism, markets and value. Sayers of course used precisely the appeal of class and refinement to attract a huge audience to her mass-culture books, both by creating a detective who seemed to embody the most recognizable traits of the aristocracy and by lacing her stories with allusions to high-class objects and high culture monuments. As Latham points out, however, Sayers's treatment is satirical rather than simply what Thackeray had called "lordolatry" (14). Wimsey himself is initially conceived as a collection of stereotyped mannerisms clustered around an even larger nose than is usually attributed to the British aristocracy, and his method of solving mysteries consists in discerning markers of class. As the series progresses, Wimsey develops as a character, and so does his tendency to demystify class, based on his almost uncanny understanding of the details identifying a person's station in life.
The narrative of Sayers's Wimsey oeuvre shows how Sayers writes herself as formula-bound novelist into the formulaic novels, and then consciously violates the formulas, in particular by giving more and more interiority to Wimsey and to her second protagonist, the mystery writer Harriet Vane. Latham's analysis culminates with an extremely interesting reading of Sayers's greatest novel, Gaudy Night , in terms of its dealings with class—a topic that Sayers's critics often overlook altogether. In many respects this reading is brilliant, but it also goes astray in several ways. First, Latham wants to give Sayers the kind of credit he wisely withholds from Wilde, Woolf and Joyce: he wants her to display a twenty-first-century attitude toward the upper classes. As a consequence, he tends to see satire where sometimes there is simply admiration. Sayers is adept at both upholding and parodying the aristocracy, and part of her genius is her ability to have it both ways. Moreover, Latham doesn't seem to recognize the conventions of romance, seeing Wimsey's reputation "punctured" and Wimsey "unmasked" when the detective admits weaknesses and falls asleep in the presence of Harriet Vane, who then finds him unexpectedly gorgeous. Finally, he reads Sayers as skeptical about the idea that truth is an absolute value that must be upheld despite the human cost, an idea that undergirds the whole plot and is troubled, but certainly not demolished, by the revealed class prejudice of the female academics. Despite these cavils about Gaudy Night, however, I find Latham's emphasis on the satiric elements of Sayers's writing a therapeutic counter to the cozy lordolatry of most of Sayers's critics.
Am I a Snob? is an intensely readable book. Latham has an
ear for cadences and a mind for epigrams. His sentences pincer around
conclusions and then wittily restate them. His chapters are stories of an
individual writer's developing engagement with the problem of snobbery,
and have some of the narrative energy of fiction or biography. It is
also an important book, both because it recognizes how snobbery raises
"far-reaching questions about the mass-mediated literary marketplace,
the commodification of taste, and the profitability of cultural capital,"
(214) and because it raises other questions about literary value in the