- Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes by James Gifford
On page 125 of Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes, James Gifford offers the clearest summation of his project: “The point of all this is to demonstrate the profoundly international, multi-polar nature of the overlooked and misunderstood anarcho-surrealist networks in Late Modernism as well as their rich mutual influences.” Despite the ambitious claim, Personal Modernisms more realistically tracks only a very small subset of mostly English and American authors who formed a coterie, if not a school, of mid-twentieth-century experimentation. The authors he primarily addresses include Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, Robert Duncan, and, very briefly, Elizabeth Smart. Many other supporting figures (such as George Orwell, G.S. Fraser, David Gascoyne, and George Woodcock) appear throughout the book, but it is primarily concerned with mapping out the shared publishing history of these figures inasmuch as they formed a post-surrealist “personalist” network. The proof of their standing as an avant-garde node appears in the details of the commonality of their various statements on anarchism and literature and their overlapping publishing history. The better part of the project is concerned with contesting the scholarship on this collection of authors, which has tended to be consistently dismissive of both their links and their collective contributions. Gifford works to demonstrate the myriad ways in which literary historians have overlooked or misunderstood the unifying anarchist political vision that underscores the work in question. A short chapter near the end of the book is devoted to historicizing their ideas within anarchist thought (although that section, too, devotes its primary energy to misled critics), followed by an even shorter chapter, an afterthought really, on how increased attention to post-surrealist anarchism might affect the interpretation of four specific books by these authors.
In fact, though, neither the literature nor the politics is the true focus of this project. It might best be understood as a mixture of timeline, genealogy, [End Page 331] biography, and literary history. Chapter two, a disproportionate eighty-eight-page effort (over a third of the book), presents a deeply useful mapping of small-press literary magazines affiliated with this post-surrealist anarchist personalism. If the aim of the book is to repopulate a field that literary historians have largely overlooked, and distill it down to its most charismatic, characteristic individuals, that goal is most convincingly achieved in the rich web of details contained in this chapter. But while the connections he makes are convincing with regard to his argument against the inherited literary history (an oddly singular literary history, as it is presented in this book), the subtler question of how this commonality manifests within and between literary works is relegated to repeated assertions that it just does.
Given the wealth and popularity of the material, it is strange that he should adopt such a decidedly defensive tone in mapping out these connections, rather than delving deeper into the interpretive implications, or even the theoretical implications of his evidence. I, for one, would have appreciated an elaboration on how the idea of avant-gardism (a concept deployed in the title) connects to a group openly disdainful of revolutionary discourse, opposed to the production of manifestos, and allergic to collectivist groupthink, as befits the philosophy of anarchism. Questions such as how an avant-garde anarchism changes writing are never really addressed. To this end, it is worth asking why the poetics statements of the authors are more significant than their literary works. Do they achieve their goals so perfectly as to create no space between their intentions, ambitions, and productions? Of course, as Rilke said of Cézanne: “Whoever meddles, arranges, injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, intellectual agility in any way, is already disturbing and clouding their activity.”1
Gifford spends an inordinate amount of time quibbling and quarrelling rather than rereading and recasting (the title of his final chapter). The suggestive strength of the far too short, yet potent reinterpretations of Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Durrell...