- The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction by Stephen KERN
Leave it to an historian to write the most formalist account of the modernist novel available in the critical marketplace today. Stephen Kern’s The Modernist Novel: A Critical Introduction does not avoid History-with-a-capital-H, but at the same time, its primary strength is the enumeration and illustration of formal techniques deployed in works from a fairly traditional modernist canon of fiction. Lest this sound like faint praise, I find this return to formalism a welcome counterbalance to recent accounts of modernism that seem ashamed of discussing modernist form, as if praising the fertile and impressive array of aesthetic experimentation of the early twentieth century were, necessarily, to buy into a political elitism as well. One can therefore admire Kern’s unabashed love of modernist technique, even if the range of examples from which he draws is somewhat narrow and predictable.
Perhaps this formalism will not surprise readers of Kern’s best-known historical work, and certainly the one that has received considerable attention in modernist literary studies, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Harvard UP, 1983). In that book, Kern organized his history in terms of the categories of “time” and “space,” along with sub-categories such as “distance,” “speed,” and “direction.” These spatiotemporal abstractions seemed not only well suited to understand cultural phenomena such as the rise of the telephone, the establishment of the prime meridian at Greenwich, and the diplomatic failures that led to the onset of World War I, but also to account for the transformations in literary and artistic experiments with time and space, including stream-of-consciousness narration, analytical cubism, and montage editing in film, to name but a few. While The Culture of Time and Space had a decisive influence upon the literary and cultural study of modernism from the late 1980s on, The Modernist Novel self-consciously takes up a project of specifically literary history. As the title indicates, Kern’s focus is on the novel, largely because it was the novel’s experiments in narrative form that achieved a “subversion and reworking” of ten historical “master narratives” (personal, courtship, family, urban, national, imperial, capitalist, liberal, religious, and artistic) (2). Kern’s approach is distinctive because it moves outward from textual artifacts themselves toward broader conceptions of history, linking the two through the concept of narrative—the self-contained structures of literary narrative, Kern argues, offer models for narrativizing and comprehending the more amorphous, extensive, and contradictory master narratives of history.
Oddly enough for a historian, however, Kern writes one of the most formalist accounts of literary modernism that has appeared since the “cultural turn” of the 1980s and ’90s. Given that Kern teaches at Ohio State University, where the English department is home to some of the most important voices in narrative theory (including James Phelan, Robyn Warhol, and Brian McHale), it is perhaps less surprising that Kern would adopt this sort of approach to modernist fiction (and this speculation is borne out by Kern’s mention of many of OSU’s English faculty in his acknowledgements). Kern in fact makes no bones about the methodology and scope of his study here: “I focus on formal innovations because modernism is primarily a set of new ways of seeing and interpreting the world, and narrative forms are the literary manifestations of those ways” (2). Moreover, Kern is after no canon-expanding, globalizing, or mass-culturing of modernism. “I believe,” he writes, “that it is time to reaffirm the valued status and galvanizing function of the canon’s special evidentiary role” (6). Such a forthright declaration may prove anathema to many culturally-minded readers (including, initially, [End Page 132] the present writer), but there is an admirable intellectual honesty in narrowing the scope here. Kern is not interested in definitional debates about modernism; rather, he assumes its existence as a particular set of formal traits confined to a limited archive of work. His aim is then to describe, classify, and elucidate what the formal traits of this...