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Modernism/modernity 11.2 (2004) 354-356

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Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920: Resistance in Interaction . Elleke Boehmer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. 239. $65.00 (cloth).

Elleke Boehmer's latest book shares a marked affinity with the chief strength of her earlier book, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (1995): the ability to bring out connections that can [End Page 354] hold a wide diversity of colonial and postcolonial experiences, as refracted by literary writing, within a single kaleidoscopic narrative. Each book covers a wide range of geographical and cultural contexts. The second differs from the first in bringing its range to focus on a specific argument, which is political rather than literary. It combines scrupulous scholarship with awareness of current debates about the relation of postcolonial writing to modernity and modernism in order to subsidize a cultural argument with theoretical overtones. John McLeod described Boehmer's first book as skillful in balancing its broad overview of themes with a sympathetic and scholarly care for the specificity of local contexts, while he found the scholarship uninflected by theoretical questions about how we read postcolonial literatures.1

The current book could be said to address that issue more or less directly. It reiterates a constellation of ideas centered on "interdiscursivity" (8), "cross-national interrelations" (9) and "nexuses of communication and exchange" (12). The argument focuses on overlaps between the heyday of the British Empire and the rise of proto-nationalist movements in different regions of the Empire, as exemplified by a specific set of individuals writing in South Africa and India, who derived sustenance from a mutual awareness of colonial oppression. Awareness of comparable political, social and cultural predicaments among writers widely separated by cultural context and geographical distance is used to illustrate early strategies of resistance to colonialism.

Chapters two to four develop this demonstration through a series of case studies, two concerning India, one set in South Africa. Each shows how certain intellectuals developed a political edge to their intellectual commitment to anti-colonialism through awareness of similar plights in other parts of the Empire (and beyond).

In the case of Bengal during the 1900s, the book focuses on the Irish-born Margaret Noble, also known as Sister Nivedita (1867-1912). Her relation to nationalism is used to illustrate the political aspect of spiritualism as developed through her tutelage to Swami Vivekananda and her friendship with Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950). In the case of South Africa, chapter four focuses on the exemplary career of Sol Plaatje (1876-1932), who found encouragement for his "proto-pan-nationalist" (147) ideas in native culture, and in London encounters between African and African American cultural nationalists. The first four chapters show how and why any historical narrative concerning discourses of and about Empire requires a variegated approach to the theme of resistance. Their argument is both familiar and plausible. Some of the writers examined here retain a current interest that is historical rather than strictly literary, but the basic argument acquires conviction when exemplified with such wealth of scholarly detail.

The author also develops a second argument: some turn-of-the-century colonial writing acquired a "multivoiced" dimension that has affinities with modernism. A substantial body of recent academic writing after Said (including Benita Parry, Laura Chrisman, Jenny Sharpe, Simon Gikandi, and others) argues for a similar view, and the final chapter both leans on this body and gives it support. It features an account of the relation between W. B. Yeats and Rabindranath Tagore, and the impact on Leonard Woolf of his colonial experience in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). One can see how this is meant to complement the primary claim developed through the first four chapters. That Yeats might have derived a mix of inspiration and confirmation from Tagore for his integrated approach to a revivalist national culture as the basis for an anti-colonial Irish nationalism is a plausible and familiar claim. That Yeats's uneasy nationalism gives a hint of the impact of Empire on modernism is equally plausible. Yet that...