- On the Prize Essay
The winner of this year’s prize is Heather Arvidson’s “Numb Modernism: Sentiment and the Intellectual Left in Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed.” The judge is Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Edward H. Butler Professor of Literature at Buffalo SUNY. She has published extensively on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poetry, including Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority (1994) and Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schüler; Gender and Literary Community in New York and Berlin (2005). She coedited Selected Letters of Marianne Moore and, most recently, has edited a new volume of Emily Dickinson’s complete poems, Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them (2016). Miller founded and currently directs the Marianne Moore Digital Archive (www.moorearchive.org), which is publishing in facing-page manuscript and annotated, transcribed format all 122 of Moore’s working notebooks.
Professor Miller writes:
The excellent nominated essays for this year’s prize covered an interesting and telling critical range—from focus on new ways of reading canonical twentieth-century novelists to analysis of the influence of one press’s editorial principles and publications on the cultural/intellectual turn from modernism to postmodernism. All provided trenchant political and historical contextualization for their topics and most considered aspects of affect and impersonality. Each significantly illuminated an author’s work, a writing practice, or a cultural moment, and all were a pleasure to read. Andrew J. Kappel himself would have been delighted at the quality of these selections.
“Numb Modernism: Sentiment and the Intellectual Left in Tess Slesinger’s The Unpossessed” deftly weaves a scrutiny of 1930s leftist periodical and literary writing together with feminist and materialist critique of modernist anti-sentimentalism into a thorough reconsideration of Tess Slesinger’s once extremely popular novel The Unpossessed. At the same time, the essay provides a marvelous critique of the orthodoxies of objectivity and impersonalism in both leftist and modernist discourse. As the essay argues, modernism and radicalism—although in many ways contrasting movements and critical modes—generally reject sentiment and embodied, individual, personhood in favor of impersonal, intellectual [End Page 237] autonomy, gendering the former (pejoratively) as feminine and the latter as masculine. The result of this dogmatic anti-sentimentalism, in Slesinger’s novel, is the failure of affective collectivism and effective political action. Often misread as principally a roman à clef, The Unpossessed is revealed in this reading to be a biting and witty satire of the way articulate principled convictions can lead to the derailing of other significant human and social needs, and even prevent broader meaningful communication.
One of the most exciting aspects of this essay is its astute representation of the language and structure of Slesinger’s novel as playing equal roles with characterization and narrative in making her implied argument. The Unpossessed, the essay argues, mocks the division of the personal from the political through parody and repetition of discursive markers of ideology prevalent in leftist periodicals, which designate objectivity, science, and an impersonal collectivism as the guarantors of value. The novel’s characters are “unpossessed” (a play on Dostoevsky’s novel, Demons—translated into English in the early twentieth century as The Possessed) because of their trust in the evasions of selfhood, of personal relationship, and of private property in the name of freedom. Slesinger’s satire implicitly proposes, in contrast, that individual freedom and political commitment are predicated on a personhood of individual agency, and that only such affective individuality can in turn lead to an affective community—political or social.
“Numb Modernism”’s conjoining of affect theory, Marxist theory, feminist readings of modernism and the radical left, and intertextual location of the novel in the 1930s produces an exemplary reading of Slesinger’s satirical novel and a persuasive analysis of previously under-acknowledged intersections between modernism and the 1930s left.
The Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, named for the late critic and esteemed deputy editor of Twentieth-Century Literature, is awarded annually to the author of a work submitted to the journal during the preceding year that is judged to make the most impressive contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the literature of the...