- Modernism: Keywords by Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat
Raymond Williams’s 1976 Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society is the inspiration for Modernism: Keywords, but the method and focus are quite fresh. Building from Williams’s contention that the culture (a difficult word) of an era may best be understood through its words rather than the explicit articulation of its dominant beliefs, the three authors here narrow the focus to modernism and engage far more capaciously through a humanized form of digital reading perhaps developed from Franco Moretti’s distant reading. Their resources build from primary texts and through the ready resources in the Modernist Journals Project, JSTOR, the Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive, and so forth. The great merit of this approach is its adept management of primary and secondary materials, moving between the terms used in the modernist period, conceived here loosely as from 1880 to 1950, and the keywords used in scholarship. The result is a deliberately use-oriented collection of keywords for the study of modernism. The most immediate audience will be undergraduate students, but graduate-level and researcher use is also certain.
As the authors contend, the keyword approach makes it difficult to sustain a division between popular and “serious” literatures while moving laterally across uses of terms such as advertising, which opens the volume, and shock, including shell shock. This networking of points of contiguity across divisions is the major feature of the book. The entry “Highbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow” makes this lateral movement particularly persuasive, moving across the equivalents of Bloomsbury to the Bronx and directly from The Nation and Punch to Harper’s and Life while negotiating between Leonard Woolf and Q.D. Leavis. The same entry then points readers to the connected entries “Propaganda” and “Bestseller,” among others. The most fruitful element of this approach is the networking of keywords, such as the connection outward of the entry “Negro, New Negro” to the entries “Primitive,” “Race,” and “Words, Language” in the volume but, notably, not to “International, Internationalism,” for those thinking of Eric B. White’s excellent Transatlantic Avant-Gardes from the previous year. As well as linking to other entries in the volume in a quasi-hypertext, each entry also gestures outward to primary materials and secondary resources. This connectedness and the book’s prompts for the reader to explore unexpected bridges establish its revisionary approach to modernism.
Furthermore, the curated nature of the overall selection of entries and nodal interconnections reflects the attention of the authors as much as it does the primary data, and in this lies its value. Too often our scholarly time benefits from the ease and scope of digital access and search tools [End Page 488] while also losing the virtues of a keen reader’s long experience and craft in shaping interpretive work, a merit deeply steeped in Williams’s original Keywords. Here, the three authors’ sense of connections, based on genuine evidence in their data set, invites readers to move between the entries “Personality, Impersonality” and “Atom, Atomic,” an exercise this reader had not previously considered but by which he was convinced while moving through the volume. This scope also opens modernism onto too often overlooked figures, such as Anaïs Nin’s remarks about the personal nature of her diary writing set in contrast to T.S. Eliot’s presumed influence on the “impersonal” approach of her collaborators, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. Yet that same scope means that the “personalist” movement the three sparked remains unmarked.
An unavoidable note extending out from this particular volume of the projected five-volume Keywords series is Stephen Ross’s forthcoming Linked Modernisms, deriving from the metadata generated by the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. Following in the path Melba Cuddy-Keane, Adam Hammond, and Alexandra Peat cut, this entirely digital project will allow rich user-generated and customized pathways among similar data sets but not including the primary texts and large secondary critical resources from which Modernism: Keywords is drawn. This example is not opportunistic—it is precisely the value of this...