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Reviewed by:
  • Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Midcentury Americaby Will Norman
  • Ian Afflerbach
N orman, W ill. Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Midcentury America. Hopkins Studies in Modernism, Douglas Mao, Series Editor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2016. Pp. xii+ 263.

Modernist studies and American Studies, remarks Will Norman, "rarely speak to each other" (15). Transatlantic Aliensoffers at once an origin story for this silence, an inventory for what these fields have to talk about, and a dialectical reading practice capable of mediating between the antithetical interpretive categories that constantly risk dividing the institutional and aesthetic history of modernism from the daily, material reality of postwar American culture. By focusing upon a group of European exiles who arrived in the United States and took on "complex engagement[s] with the emergence of a fully fledged mass culture" (2), Norman unsettles the "persistent misconception by which the United States at midcentury functions as modernism's banal other" (2). These transnational émigrés not only lived through, but indeed embodied, the "disorienting and uncanny juxtapositions" (2) constitutive of the 1940s and 1950s, when "reified categories of nation and cultural hierarchy" (2) were still being constructed. This moment, Norman rightly states, "is one of the most complex and least understood in modern US cultural history" (5) whose "radical instability" meant "it was far from clear what constituted a legitimate aesthetic regime and what didn't, whether an American crime novel could be considered high literature or a New Yorkercartoon be considered high art" (5).

Norman's book dwells in the "repeated process of entanglement, improvisation, and compromise" (211) through which his transatlantic aliens navigated such tensions. His reading practice draws upon Pierre Bourdieu's theory of the cultural field, which emphasizes how artists and intellectuals must negotiate competing positions in a market for distinction. And yet, to this reader's relief, Norman does not belabour abstract sociological categories, but rather adopts a biographic narrative method that continuously emphasizes how negotiating the cultural field involves "restricted but necessary choices made by individuals in their lives and work" (11). His book provides a refreshingly grounded look at what it means for intellectuals to grapple with mass culture "in those moments when theory is wrenched from the abstract and returned to the historical grounds of everyday alienated life" (48), a process he simply and aptly calls "coping" (48).

Norman's first chapter introduces "methodological models" for his book in the unlikely pairing of C.L.R. James and Theodor Adorno (16). James's revolutionary optimism about popular media has made him a heroic figure in American and post-colonial studies, while Adorno's abyssal cynicism about the culture industry has left him "sadly reified" as an elitist defender of European modernism (17). Yet Norman demonstrates how these antithetical positions emerged as reciprocal responses to a shared émigré experience of American mass culture. Norman first traces how [End Page 340]James's early writing was informed by a blend of nineteenth-century cultural criticism and sentimental Hollywood movies. Popular art forms such as film and radio, James came to believe, could channel the "violent desires" of the working class "into revolutionary praxis" (28), and eventually create a unified national culture. After introducing Adorno's far more cynical account of the culture industry, Norman turns to Minima Moralia. Reading this idiosyncratic, pseudo-self-help book in the tradition of the modernist novel, Norman emphasizes how Adorno's writing renders intellectual alienation in post-war American culture through "the fragility and pathos of its own subjectivity, the resolutely ethical underpinning of its insistence on remaining unhomed in America, and the freight of its estranging style" (48). For all their manifest differences, Norman concludes, James and Adorno "were interested more in criticizing the process by which culture was being stratified in the American 1940s than in the policing of the divisions themselves" (32). In this way, Norman maps the dialectical movement of his own book, which sustains an engagement with mass culture poised between undue optimism and bleak alienation, circumscribing the aesthetic and academic categories that typically install midcentury modernism and postwar American culture as antithetical domains.

Chapter Two continues this project by repairing...


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pp. 340-343
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