- Modernist Experiments in Genre, Media, and Transatlantic Print Culture by Jennifer J. Sorensen
The materiality of Jennifer J. Sorensen's Modernist Experiments in Genre, Media, and Transatlantic Print Culture announces the book's status as a scholarly work with its small print, subdued cover, chapter endnotes, and bibliography, as well as the lack of an author photograph; these elements underscore its distance from popular works. The inclusion of many black-and-white images and a center color-plate section emphasizes the centrality of illustrations and physical objects to the argument. The dedication page with its stark language—"For Petey and Spicy"—playfully undercuts the genre of the academic book with its contrast between the minimalist dedication and the informality of the names, names that suggest children or pets. These kinds of paratexts and other elements related to textual materiality are the focus of Sorensen's argument.
Sorensen argues that modernist formal experimentation is in dialogue with the materiality of its publication contexts, from illustrations on the page to marketing strategies. Throughout her engaging study, influenced by the textual scholarship of Jerome McGann and George Bornstein, she takes seriously the interplay between the linguistic codes (the words) and the bibliographic codes (the material features of the text, which may range from frontispieces and illustrations to dust jackets) in transatlantic modernist texts such as Henry James's "The Real Thing," Djuna Barnes's A Book, Jean Toomer's Cane, Virginia Woolf's Flush: A Biography, and books printed by the Hogarth Press. In her focus on the juxtapositions between these [End Page 242] codes, Sorensen's argument shares concerns with work by Anne Elizabeth Carroll, Cary Nelson, and John K. Young, to name a few.
Out of the words in the title of Sorensen's work, "transatlantic" has the least traction. The argument's generative energies are not directed at transatlantic pathways, although works on either side of the Atlantic anchor its claims. The discussion in the first chapter of the publication contexts of James's "The Real Thing" in the British Black and White magazine and in North American periodicals, particularly the Chicago Inter-Ocean, in April 1892, is a notable and most welcome exception (and this chapter and the following one, which discusses The Little Review, are the only chapters in which periodicals are discussed in great depth).
As a whole, one of the strengths of Sorensen's work—and a strength of print studies more generally—is in, as she puts it, "allow[ing] us to see neglected texts emerging through their experiments with print formats and enabl[ing] a rereading of more familiar texts through their engagement with print cultures" (239). Her readings of "The Real Thing," A Book, and Woolf's Flush and Kew Gardens, in particular, reveal the possibilities that unfold when texts are situated within their multiple print culture contexts. The pleasures of this book lie in the close readings of both the words on the page and the page itself (along with the larger medium), an approach she aptly labels "material formalism." In chapter 1, for example, Sorensen persuasively discusses James's understanding of the "competition" between written and visual texts, between his short story and the accompanying illustrations, which led him to "[craft] a literary technique that flaunts its un-illustratability" (31). In doing so, Sorensen highlights the writer's incorporation of his awareness of the marketplace in his work (41).
Using this approach, Sorensen's study illuminates the extent to which these modernist writers relied upon "strategies in anticipation" of their material publication contexts in shaping their own texts in order to guide the way readers looked at (and consequently read) their work (26). However, at times, the argument's claims about the specific workings of the interactions between the linguistic and bibliographic codes are opaque. For example, in chapter 5, Sorensen discusses Hogarth Press's printing of Katherine Mansfield's Prelude. She claims that "[t]he hypermediated material form of the Hogarth Prelude resonates with the story's saturation with object encounters and with material textuality" (214). Despite valuably calling...