- Mawkishness, or Literary Art:John Rodker’s Adolphe 1920 in Modernism1
John Rodker’s novella Adolphe 1920 has gradually come to the attention of critics of modernist literature since it was republished by Andrew Crozier in 1996. Rodker is known principally as a publisher of major modernists through his Ovid Press—including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis. But he was also a poet and fiction writer, and Adolphe 1920 offers an interesting example of a writer positioning new work within an existing avant-garde frame. Yet the novella has not so far been the subject of any extensive body of criticism exploring ways it could be read against the work of Rodker’s contemporaries and milieu. Adolphe 1920 certainly warrants careful attention: it offers developments on modernist modes of representation that promise to reflect new light on more familiar authors, and in its published form it was the site of exchanges over taste that were similar to those that have been generative of discussion (and more) in the cases of other modernist writers, most notably James Joyce. The following analysis articulates some of the developments offered by Adolphe 1920 and inquires how this new work was received by its contemporaries. A text emerges that is capable of sustaining critical attention and that is important to an understanding of literary modernism.
At the time of writing Adolphe 1920 in 1925–26, Rodker was already an established figure in Anglo–American modernist milieus. He had privately published a first volume of verse in 1914 (Poems), had made regular submissions of poetry, short pieces, and criticism to literary magazines including Poetry, The Egoist, The Little Review, Others, and others, and had published a second volume of verse in 1920 (Hymns).2 In 1917 Pound wrote [End Page 467] to Margaret Anderson, “Rodker has convinced me at last, that he ‘has it in him’”;3 in 1919, Rodker took over Pound’s position as London editor of The Little Review.4 In 1919 and 1920 in London, Rodker’s Ovid Press published work by Pound, Eliot, Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Edward Wadsworth, and Roald Kristian, along with Rodker’s Hymns, aiming “to bring before the public work that was considered advanced.”5 In 1920, Rodker printed Wilde’s To M. B. J. without the Ovid Press imprint. Rodker’s publications in 1919-20 show a sharp aesthetic and professional sense for what would later become known as British modernism.6 In 1920 the Ovid Press encountered major financial difficulties and effectively closed, but Rodker continued to work as a printer and publisher,7 and in 1922 he served as co-publisher, with the Egoist Press, of the second impression of Ulysses (Cloud, 42-44).8 He had a significant interest in Joyce: with Pound, he arranged for Ludmila Savitzky to translate Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into French,9 and he wrote on Exiles in The Little Review and later contributed to the volume on Work in Progress that appeared under Joyce’s supervision.10 This involvement suggests a writer with a strong enthusiasm for an emerging modernism and a publisher ready to take on considerable financial risks to make this new writing available. Indeed, Rodker was to be dogged by debt from his publishing ventures for much of his life.11 His selection of material to publish also suggests an eclectic set of interests across artistic forms, taking in poetry, prose, and visual art, and his own early work shows his interest in theater. Crozier details the debts of Rodker’s later writing to his early work with theater, music, and the “Choric School” of dance, arguing that “if we are to read Rodker fully we need to renegotiate the canons of modernist decorum which condition our taste, and recognize that Rodker was able to make of modernism something more than we expect.”12
Rodker’s background also shows the extent of his interest in French literature, especially late-nineteenth-century French poetry. After the Ovid Press had ceased to publish, Rodker’s publication, translation, and writing reflected his wider literary interests beyond anglophone avant-gardes. He opened his Casanova...