- Career Modernists (in the Age of Walter Benn Michaels)
Six weeks before my dissertation defense, a committee advisor told me that my project had a "serious problem" that needed to be addressed immediately. It was one of "representation": my chapter on "The Alien and Henry James" lacked a critical perspective that would make it "dialectically plausible." I had focused only on James's framing of immigration in The American Scene (1907) and had thereby missed "the other" that had made him feel like an exilic alien. A more "sophisticated" analysis required that I leaven James's view with another perspective. "Bring in an immigrant. Jewish or Italian. Jewish is probably better." "Who?" I asked, a little alarmed to be told this so close to my defense. "Doesn't matter who." These words did not comfort me. "I tell you what. Make it a woman. You have a lot of men already." "Can't I just stick with James?" "Do you want to talk about Henry James your whole life or do you want a job?" Strangely, the words made perfect sense. "Don't use Yezierska, though. She's already overused." It seemed late to me to bring someone else in, but as a graduate student, I was prepared to do whatever I was told. I requested guidance. "It's easy. Go to the library and find where Yezierska's books are. Leaf along that row until you find another immigrant writer, the more obscure the better. Read her, then use your methodology to put her in conversation with James. Have her watch James watching her, except he doesn't notice her. It'll be very Hegelian." My facial expression perhaps belied what I hoped was my expression of eager willingness. "Relax," my [End Page 368] committee member said. "The New Historicism has justified this as an acceptable methodology." Neither of us laughed.
I start with this anecdote not just because Bartholomew Brinkman's engaging Poetic Modernism in the Culture of Mass Print (2016) opens with a trip to the thrift shop where his thesis greets him in a found object, but because in different ways these books are concerned with modernism's representation, by which they mean its branding as being elite, autonomous, and above history, and how this branding could not insulate its practitioners from the mass culture against which their works hoped to transcend, or at least ignore. Collectively, these studies chart the modernists' inevitable, helpless drift into the "cultural logic" of "mass culture," a tide against which their works were not even momentary stays. As Walter Benn Michaels once said of Theodore Dreiser, "it is easy (and essential) to stop worrying about whether Dreiser liked or disliked capitalism" (20). To have an attitude toward capitalism is superfluous, both a charming act of critical decadence and a folly. "Texts" exist "within a system of representation" that "is more powerful than any attitude one might imagine oneself to have toward it" (19).
If capitalism is something "you don't like . . . or dislike" because "you exist in it," then what one says of Dreiser's naturalism may not be that different from what one says of T. S. Eliot's modernism (18). Certainly, the high modernists of these studies, whatever their pronouncements regarding of the autonomy of their poetic productions, cannot resist capitalism. It's always bringing them down. Capitalism is figured as mass print, or mass culture, and the modernists, somewhat perversely, endeavor to place their works beyond its "logic," according to these studies. Modernists knew what they were doing; they were working in and were always engaged with mass culture.
The success of their poetic ruse was not clinched until 1940, a time when most of the civilized world was looking elsewhere, when two acolytes named Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren ratified their...