- Personal Modernisms: Anarchist Networks and the Later Avant-Gardes by James Gifford
With the prolific scholarly interest in American and British modern literature, it can be surprising to come across a pocket of overlooked and often overshadowed writers. Movements and schools of literary thought are easily classifiable and thus encourage specific compartmentalization within modernist literature. In doing so, however, writers who do not fit snugly into these predetermined categories risk going undetected and under-recognized as to their larger impact on modernist literature and thought. One such group is the Personalists, a descriptive term that James Gifford is clearly trying to popularize in his study of the anarchist networks that spanned the globe in the 1930s and 40s. Paris’s Villa Seurat attracted a wide variety of novelists and poets who embraced and utilized anarchist theories to project their own interpretations of the self. Gifford argues that there is a gap in the trajectory of the modernist path, and that the influence of certain overgeneralized and miscategorized artists (specifically, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Herbert Read, and Dylan Thomas) extended far beyond both the time and place of the Villa Seurat, spreading an anarchist network—emphasizing one’s own identity—throughout the world.
Divided into four lengthy chapters, Personal Modernisms moves through three stages. Gifford first establishes how the scholarly arc has oversimplified the role of these personalists during the last seventy years. Second, he demonstrates how the Villa Seurat and English Post-Surrealists were not born out of the Auden group, but instead drew ideas from anarchism. The Personalists published their brand of literature well into the 1940s, thereby influencing the Beat writers more than has been previously granted. Finally, the book examines the courses of personalism enmeshed within these writers’ works, as Gifford correctly notes, “we have a theoretical tradition that impairs our capacity to understand what the personalist authors have explicitly stated” (161). In the last chapter, Gifford walks through the practical implications of his argument in a “rereading and recasting” of four texts: Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, Lawrence Durrell’s The Black Book, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and Robert Duncan’s “An Ark for Lawrence Durrell.” [End Page 86]
Foundational to Gifford’s recasting of the Personalist writers is exploring how these writers have been portrayed in the critical literature. In the first chapter, “Late Modernism Inside the Whale,” Gifford “contextualizes the state of criticism by remapping the developmental path our critical approaches to Late Modernism have followed” (xvii). This task is achieved by meticulously outlining a large body of critical interpretation by individuals such as Stephen Spender, J. F. Hendry and Alan Wilde. The correspondence between Henry Miller and Herbert Read is an integral part of emphasizing how, for instance George Orwell—and others—have de-emphasized and underestimated the connecting element of anarchism throughout the writings of Miller and the Personalists. The sense of identity is a crucial feature of the 1930’s anarchists (54), and these writers bridge what Gifford claims to be a gap between the Auden group and the Beat writers, a breach that can only be filled by re-evaluating the role of the Personalists.
The second and longest chapter, “Narrative Itinerary,” is an in-depth examination of the interconnections originating in the Villa Seurat anarchism, and then spreading around the world during the 1940s. A strong source for Gifford’s argument lays within the literary journals of the period, beginning with Miller and Durrell’s The Booster, but more importantly Gifford traces several other short-lived publications, including: Delta, Seven, Phoenix, Kingdom Come, Personal Landscape, Transformation and Circle. These journals, Gifford emphasizes, demonstrate that the lingering impact of the surrealist/anarchist experiments of the 1920s and 30s were still being conceptualized by writers into the 1940s. Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell’s influence is apparent through the web of writers publishing in these successive journals. Dylan Thomas, David Gascoyne, Henry Treece, G. S. Fraser, Nicholas Moore and Alex Comfort, are just a few of the notable...