- Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon: the Modern Library Series, 1917-1955 by Lise Jaillant
Lise Jaillant’s Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon is an engagingly written and rigorously researched study of the Modern Library, focusing on the role of the quality reprint series in the circulation and popularization of modernist authors throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Jaillant offers convincing evidence, accrued through careful historical and archival research, that the interwar period in the United States was characterized by a blurring of the lines between modernism and the middlebrow, between prestigious classics and popular bestsellers, and between canonical authors and modern celebrities. In this way, Jaillant’s book constitutes a meaningful contribution to the field of middlebrow studies, particularly recent scholarship that has explored the middlebrow as an “amorphous … sphere” that could bring together the high and low in unexpected combinations that appealed to a wider range of cultural consumers.1
Jaillant’s book takes the form of six case studies bracketed by a brief introduction and conclusion, with each study teasing out the role of one more-or-less canonical author in the Modern Library series: H. G. Wells, Sherwood Anderson, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner. This approach allows her to be particularly precise in her discussion, aided throughout by graphs and maps that emphasize the studies’ fine attention to detail, of paratext, circulation, advertising, and reception. These case studies are brought together through what Jaillant calls “a forgotten moment in the history of modernism—the moment when ‘high’ modernist texts were sufficiently attractive to be reprinted in a cheap series, but had not yet been dissociated from ‘lesser’ works” (4). Tracing the shift from the early 1920s, when canonical modernists like Joyce and Woolf had become household names in the United States but were not yet widely accessible to common readers, to the post-World War II period, when suspicion of the masses and the emergence of professional literary criticism (especially New Criticism) led to rejection of the Modern Library’s democratizing drive, Modernism, Middlebrow and the Literary Canon concludes that there was a moment when Joyce and Woolf could be read not only as modern classics but as “exciting and pleasurable” bestsellers (102).
The case study of Woolf’s introduction to Mrs Dalloway is the most effective demonstration of how attention to context shifts our understanding of the relation between modernism and the middlebrow.2 Between 1928 and 1948, the Modern Library printed an edition of Mrs Dalloway accompanied by an introduction written by Woolf— [End Page 227] an introduction distinctly at odds with the perception of Woolf as a highbrow writer with well-documented disdain for the middlebrow.3 As Jaillant explains, the “Battle of the Brows” Woolf fought in England was a culturally specific debate shaped by the gender and class dynamics of the emerging literary profession in the United Kingdom (97). A similar debate certainly played out in the United States, but across different timelines;4 Jaillant argues that, in the 1920s, “American intellectuals did not share the same kind of anxieties over the ‘brows’” and “were content with the development of a vast middlebrow sphere, with less distinct ‘high’ and ‘low’” (97). The Modern Library’s focus on blurring distinctions between high and low modernist texts gave Woolf access to a wider and more diverse readership, which allowed her to explore her interest in amateur literary criticism. While Mrs Dalloway never stopped selling well for the Modern Library, the reception of modernism had shifted by the 1940s. The study of authors like Woolf became “institutionalized in English departments,” and modernism itself “came to be seen as a difficult movement for an elite” (102). It is only with the recent advent of the New Modernist Studies, Jaillant asserts, that the understanding of modernist literature as elite, aesthetically difficult, and reserved for professional readers has been challenged.
Joyce was similarly popularized for an American audience via his inclusion in the Modern Library series. When A Portrait of the Artist as a...