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  • Literary Modernism, Reconsidered
  • Sanford Pinsker (bio)
John Whittier Ferguson, Mortality and Form in Late Modernist Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2014. 284 pages $90 pb;
Lise Jaillant, Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon: The Modern Library Series, 1917–1955. Routledge, 2014. 224 pages $150 pb.

Literary modernism saw itself as the triumph of the new over everything that was old. “Make it new,” Ezra Pound confidently declared, dividing literary modernism from everything that had come before. Consider 1922, a year that began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the publication of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Given the enormous power and abiding influence of these works, it is hard to imagine anyone who seriously thought that literary modernism could be challenged.

But challenged—and overturned—it was, by adding a single word to the old literary formula. Thus it was that the prefix post found itself positioned before the (formally) stately word, modernism. What modernism’s literary critics could not preserve in the icy aesthetics of high art, the post-modernists could explore with impunity. Soon theory entered serious literary discussion, and all manner of identity politics (and the literary forms beholden to them) were released. Many formerly solid, traditional departments of English were caught up in the noise of political correctness. What students were assigned to read and how these “texts” were taught became an ongoing battle. The central question, in most instances, was, “what political interests are being served by this-or-that novel, and how-and-why certain voices have been silenced by the literary canon and its longstanding embrace of all things old, and white, and dead.”

Fortunately the books under discussion either see the early years of literary modernism’s successes (principally the 1920s) through the prism of late literary modernism (principally, the 1940s and 50s), or calibrate the shifts in style as literary modernism reacts to an ever-changing Zeitgeist. In the case of John Whittier Ferguson there is a substantial difference between the poetry and prose Virginia Woolf wrote during or before the First World War and her reconsiderations as the efforts to end all wars slipped into the carnage of World War ii. Here is Ferguson making his case for Woolf’s subtle changes in voice and style: “[After recalling a pleasant moment from The Years], Woolf goes on to explore the differences between the world that once was, and the chaotic, altogether disorienting world of now: ‘the summer before the fall of 1914, when time starts moving again and the twentieth century begins in earnest.’” [End Page 350]

The moment of the Armistice—which occurs almost without notice in the shortest section of the book—also echoes other ironic descriptions of this war’s end. According to Ferguson, we can see what Woolf’s ironies meant by carefully attending to certain small moments often ignored. For example, “Crosby … the family servant, totters through London and hears, unmoved, the announcement: The guns went on booming and the sirens wailed. The war was over—so somebody told her as she took her place at the counter of the grocer’s shop.” Ferguson closely reads this section of The Years in ways that bring a whole new intensity to academic discourse: “Unending guns and sirens appropriately bracket this interlude, this sentence referring to reports of peace, positioned, like the years themselves, in that space the French name l’entre deux guerres.” This discussion surely depends on intense close-reading but not the sort students of the 1950s found in the careful pedagogy of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (Understanding Poetry, Understanding Fiction). Their sharp focus was on the work itself, seen outside its historical and biographical facts. Arguments grounded in socioeconomic observation or in sociocultural hunches were ruled out of order.

What Ferguson serves up in subsequent chapters devoted to T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Wyndam Lewis is so much old wine poured into new bottles. If critical success means proving what you set out to prove, then Ferguson’s book is a triumph; his ponderous academic tone suggests that he is not a man to be trifled with, and his heavy-handed, academic style marshals...


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pp. 350-353
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