- Mock Modernism: An Anthology of Parodies, Travesties, Frauds, 1910–1935 ed. by Leonard Diepeveen
Modernism was a cultural anxiety, and it was contagious. As this new anthology shows, those who stood apart from it in skepticism or scorn were no less virulently affected for that. Leonard Diepeveen has gathered a gallery of mockers’ doggerel, letters to the editors, lampoons, and cartoons. The range of affect here is, inevitably, quite narrow—running the gamut, one might say, from arch to sour—and thus the book makes for better occasional dipping into than a straight read: there are only so many Waste Land spoofs one can take in an evening. And because the authors of these spoofs would doubtless likewise sharply limit their consumption of avant-garde experiments in writing and painting, the mockers often best reflect—only too well—the tediousness they aim to deplore.
“One doesn’t have to argue for the ludicrousness [of high modernism] so much as merely point to it,” Diepeveen points out (rather than argues). He goes on to note that the mockers as a group can be seen as “inherently adopting a middle-of-the-road position, arguing for an aesthetic that does not take aesthetic principles too far, an aesthetic that presents itself as common sense.” Does mockery constitute an argument as such, or doesn’t it? And if it does, to what extent does parody as an accepted imposition of form necessarily limit or constrain that argument? Diepeveen briefly draws on the thinking of Giorgio Agamben and Linda Hutcheon in his introduction, but these questions linger, and it seems as though the claim that the anthology’s parodies “always foreground a polemical interpretation” must be at odds with the adoption of “a middle-of-the-road position” and “common sense.”
The presiding spirits of the collection are J.C. Squire (whom Virginia Woolf memorably judged “more repulsive than words can express, and malignant into the bargain”)3 and Don Marquis. Also included are, however, writers that we would recognize as “modernists” themselves: Richard Aldington, Allen Upward, Dorothy Parker, F.R. Scott, Ford Madox Ford, and T.S. Eliot himself. Most of the work might be characterized as journalism, taken from literary journals, newspapers, and authors’ collections and miscellanies: Diepeveen’s research and range of materials are impressive. As for targets, Eliot, Ezra Pound, and cubism all receive plenty of derision, but by far the favourite is Gertrude Stein. (Of course it is easy all too easy for anyone anyone at all to imitate Stein, but would you want to what good comes of it not a good imitation never a good [End Page 352] imitation never any good for anyone. No one imitates Stein as Stein imitates Stein.) Certain gems gleam brightly: I am a better person for having read such sentences as this parody of Willa Cather: “He seemed very much alive from the neck down.” Or there’s Rose MacAulay’s note-perfect Ernest Hemingway: “I hadn’t felt so fine since I saw a horse gored by a very good bull at Pamplona in 1927.” Max Beerbohm’s splendid send-up of late Henry James, “The Mote in the Middle Distance,” can be savoured all the way through.
Ernest Boyd’s anatomy of “the Aesthete,” a type significantly qualified as “young,” ably demonstrates how of a piece so much of this performed distaste for modernism is with the previous century’s chuckles about “what a very singularly deep young man / this deep young man must be”:
[I]nformation is the one thing the Aesthete dreads. To be in the possession of solid knowledge and well-digested facts, to have definite standards, background and experience, is to place oneself outside the pale of true aestheticism. While foreign literature is his constant preoccupation, the Aesthete has no desire to make it known. What he wants to do is lead a cult, to communicate a mystic faith in his idols, rather than make them available for general appreciation.
What little distance, too, between this and public hand-wringing...